Does the “Best” Team Win the World Series?

(Photo: Eric)

It’s been a few days. And although I ain’t over it yet, I think I can write about the Detroit Tigers losing the World Series.

When the playoff in baseball began, 10 teams – and their fans – were very happy.  But the playoffs being what they are, we knew that only one team – and its fans – would actually be happy when the whole thing was over.

After the best-of-five series, the Tigers – and this fan – were quite happy.  When the Tigers swept the Yankees, I was very happy.  And then when the Giants swept the Tigers… okay, I wasn’t happy anymore.

So what did the Tigers and all the other “losers” (and yes, that includes the Yankees) learn from the playoffs?

For an answer, let me quote the following from The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (a wonderful book by Leonard Mlodinow):

…if one team is good enough to warrant beating another in 55% of its games, the weaker team will nevertheless win a 7-game series about 4 times out of 10.  And if the superior team could beat its opponent, on average, 2 out of 3 times they meet, the inferior team will still win a 7-game series about once every 5 match-ups.  There is really no way for a sports league to change this.  In the lopsided 2/3-probability case, for example, you’d have to play a series consisting of at minimum the best of 23 games to determine the winner with what is called statistical significance, meaning the weaker team would be crowned champion 5 percent or less of the time.  And in the case of one team’s having only a 55-45 edge, the shortest significant “world series” would be the best of 269 games, a tedious endeavor indeed! So sports playoff series can be fun and exciting, but being crowned “world champion” is not a reliable indication that a team is actually the best one. (p. 70-71)

As Mlodinow notes, a seven-game series is not a sufficient sample to identify the “best” team.  So that means we are not sure at this point that the Giants are better.  And I am not just saying that because the Tigers lost (okay, I probably am just saying that because the Tigers lost).

The idea that the World Series doesn’t necessarily identify the “best” team relates to something I said in this forum a few weeks ago:  team spending and wins in baseball are not strongly related.  In fact, in some years (like 2012) there isn’t even a statistically significant relationship between payroll and regular season wins.

But let’s imagine for a moment that there is a link between spending and winning. In fact, let’s imagine that if you spend enough money you can guarantee that you will have the “best” team in baseball.  Would that be enough to guarantee your team a World Series title?

To answer this question, we need to specify what it means to be the “best” baseball team.   And here are three ways we can define “best”:

  1. Winning percentage: This may seem like the most obvious definition of “best.”Across a 162 game season the team that wins the most could be thought of as the very “best” team.  
    Then again, we could consider…
  2. Pythagorean defines this as the expected win-loss record based on the number of runs scored and allowed by the team. 
  3. Simple Rating System: defines this as the number of runs per game they are better (or worse) than the average team (average ML team for years with inter-league play and just their league for other years).  The specific formula – which takes into account strength of schedule – is as follows: SRS = Run Differential (R_diff) + Strength of Schedule (SOS)

With some definitions of “best” in hand, let’s look at how often the “best” team has won the World Series. We begin our study in 1969, or the first year more than two teams appeared in baseball’s postseason.  Specifically:

  • from 1969 to 1993, four teams made the post-season. 
  • from 1995 to 2011 (there was no post-season in 1994), eight teams participated in the playoffs. 
  • this past season, ten teams were in the playoffs.

Given these definitions, how often has the “best” team won the title?

From 1969 to 1993 – or across 25 seasons — here is what we see:

  • Top team in winning percentage won the World Series 7 times.
  • Top team in Pythagorean Win-Loss won the World Series 8 times
  • Top team in Simple Rating System won the World Series 11 times

So no matter how you define “best,” the “best” team in baseball failed to win the World Series half the time when four teams made the playoffs.

When we look at the playoffs with at least eight teams, the “best” teams do even worse.  From 1995 to the present (across 18 seasons) we see the following:

  • Top team in winning percentage won the World Series 3 times.
  • Top team in Pythagorean Win-Loss won the World Series 3 times
  • Top team in Simple Rating System won the World Series 5 times

Again, being the “best” doesn’t seem to guarantee a title.  More than two-thirds of the time, the “best” team fails to end the post-season as a very happy team.

So even if a team could increase its payroll and buy the “best” team, the playoffs in baseball are simply not designed for the “best” team to consistently triumph.

And that means teams should be very cautious about responding to what they see in the playoffs.  The Yankees inability to win against the Tigers in the American League Championship doesn’t necessarily mean the Yankees need to make major changes for next season. Every baseball team – not matter how it is constructed – is going to have a bad week once in a while. And if that bad week happens to occur in October, your team will look bad in the playoffs and your fans will be unhappy.

I should add, this was very much the argument Steve Walters (economist at Loyala University and consultant to the Baltimore Orioles) recently made at the Wages of Wins Journal.  The playoffs are simply hard to predict. As Steve noted in the videocast, even winning more than 100 games is no guarantee of a World Series title.  Across the past 25 years, 20 different teams have finished the regular season with more than 100 victories.  And of these, only two managed to win a title.

So the playoffs should be thought of as entertainment.  But if you are not entertained because your team lost (the outcome for 90% of playoff teams), don’t think this “proves” your team isn’t the “best”.  And if your team does win… well, you can think that your team is the “best”; even if the rest of us know this isn’t true. And I am not saying that just because my team lost (okay, that’s probably not true).

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  1. Rob says:

    Interesting to actually put numbers to how often the best team wins the World Series. I think many people assume it is often with the thought that over the course of a series, the better team will inevitably win more games. Of course, this doesn’t take into account postseason pitching rotations, the strategic difference between managing under NL rules versus having a DH, and the overall streaky nature of baseball.

    I would be interested to see a similar study done with the NBA Finals.

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  2. Dave Brown says:

    Great article. Does this imply any manifestation or romantic nostalgia of “dominance” for any sports franchise “dynasty” is more of a fantasy myth cooked up by media and marketing teams ?

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  3. Doug says:

    A 7 game series is 4% of a typical 162 game season. This is what often makes the “best” team very beatable. It’s very rare (I assume, no stats) to have the “best” team peaking at the end of the year, especially when the lesser team is usually playing better at the end of the year as they struggled to get into the post season while the better team was able to coast.

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  4. Doug says:

    But then you have the 1998 Yankees (114 wins) who win it all and the 2001 Mariners (116 wins) who lose in the ALDS. It’s just such a small sample size that the difference between the two teams is often only 10-20 wins over 162 games which is only 6-12%. So over 7 games all you need to do is win 1 more game than the other guy.

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  5. A smirking Giants fan says:

    The Giants didn’t just win a 7-game series. They swept. I’m no certified freakonomist, but that has to signal a greater degree of superiority.

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    • Seminymous Coward says:

      For an even chance of sweeping a 7 game series, a team has to be so much better than their opponent as to win over 84% of the time. (The calculation is the 4th root of 0.5.)

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    • Moderatelycrazy says:

      If the chances are 50-50 of each team winning a single game, each team has a 1 in 16 chance of sweeping. So while a sweep says more than just winning, it doesn’t say THAT much.

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      • Shasta says:

        It shows that the Giants played better than the Tigers over those four games. According to the Pecota stats The Best Team (Tampa Bay ) did not make the Playoffs. The Tigers were ranked Number 7 and the Giants ranked number 13.

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    • Shasta says:

      The Tigers swept a series from the Yankees–a superior team. The Yankees won more games than the Tigers, had a better pyth and in the regular season really manhandled the Tigers.

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      • Kuhan says:

        Also, the Yankees finished with the most wins in the AL while in a traditionally strong division, whereas the Tigers barely won the weakest division in Major League baseball.

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  6. Dave Diamond says:

    Of course the “best” team doesn’t always win the World Series or any other game. That’s why we watch, to see how the players react to specific situations, to see surprising things happen, and sometimes even to see the “better” team get their comeuppance.

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    • Mike B says:

      The better team is almost be definition one that doesn’t choke in the championship series.

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      • Blambster says:

        Precisely. My coach always said, “you don’t have to be the fastest, just the fastest today.”

        I read the article and thought, “no duh.” The reason we (giants’ fans) loved winning the World Series, is because we knew we weren’t the best team. Every playoff series was amazing because of the real risk of losing.

        I kinda wonder if the author was just bored when he wrote it.

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  7. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Or it may be that teams competing in a world series is “Intransitive”. Example: Team A always beats team B. Team B always beats team C. But team C always beats team A.

    Intransitiveness is a property comparing two groups that clearly shows how different team sports is from, for example horse racing.

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  8. Rick says:

    Here’s the kicker to this type of analysis:

    MLB has set up a system where the best team, by definition, is the one that wins the World Series. No team has the goal of having the best regular season, just to be the one that wins in the World Series. So, does it really make sense to judge them by regular season performance when that was not the goal? Wouldn’t the smarter good teams do just enough to make the playoffs (by resting pitchers more often, giving their best hitters regular breaks, etc), thus saving them for the playoffs and World Series? They would not do this if the goal were to be the best over the course of the regular season. So, we can’t really judge their regular season performance justly because it is affected by the system that is in place.

    Incidentally, the same argument can be made for the Electoral College vs. Popular vote in US Presidential politics. The goal of the presidency is to win 270 electoral votes, so it’s not really a fair comparison to extrapolate a national popular vote from that system when that isn’t the goal of the candidate.

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    • Quentin says:

      It may be that the best regular season team has a surprisingly small probability of winning the World Series, but it still has a higher probability of winning the World Series than all of the other teams. (I would be interested in seeing that analysis, by the way.) So, there’s not really a way to “optimize for the postseason” that doesn’t involve building a good team for the regular season.

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      • Joshua says:

        There are many ways to optimize for the postseason that doesn’t involve building a good team for the regular season.

        For example, in the post season teams generally pare down to a three or four man starting rotation. If we assume for simplicity that talent is relative to money spent, then it makes most sense for the postseason to have spent your pitching money on three awesome pitchers instead of five merely good pitchers. In the regular season you are basically throwing 40% of your games, but a postseason would go very well.

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    • Vince says:

      Or in the case of the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton supporters crying foul that they had overtaken now-President Obama in the popular vote after the final primary in Puerto Rico, a primary that Obama hadn’t contested because he had already secured the nomination. In every primary and caucus, the Obama campaign had focused on winning delegates rather than on winning votes, so it’s just sour grapes to complain at the end of the process that you won a greater share of the popular vote.

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    • Arjun says:

      Rick, I think it is fair to judge them on the regular season performance. Every team plays its absolute hardest in every game and they do indeed try to get the best record they can with the team that they have. “Smarter good teams” do not do just enough to make the playoffs so I think the evidence which leads to your conclusion isn’t based on accurate information.

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  9. Travis says:

    This seems to live in the land somewhere between petty and frivolous.

    What’s the point in making up arbitrary definitions of “best-ness” other than to comfort yourself by being able to justify that even though your team lost, they were still the best?

    I didn’t know we cared about which team was “best” in sports. I thought we cared about which team won.

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  10. Roj says:

    Isn’t this comparing apples and oranges. Or, taking the results of a marathon race (a 162 game season), and from those racers predicting which one would win a sprint ( a 7-game series)?

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  11. Ross says:

    Said the guy whose team lost!

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  12. andy says:

    “So the playoffs should be thought of as entertainment.”

    If the converse were true, and the playoffs were concretely predictive of the best team, would it not be considered entertainment?

    All of professional sports should be thought of as entertainment.

    What else could it be thought of?

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    • Jason says:

      If I wanted a sport where the “best team” was determined by statistical analysis and computer calculations, instead of on the field of play, I would watch college football.

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  13. A's Fan says:

    Why does the team the Tigers played in an exciting 5 game ALDS series get namelessly billed as “after the best-of-5 series” while their other postseason opponents are specifically named?

    No respect!

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  14. mfw13 says:

    I think that part of the reason that most pundits got the World Series wrong is that they were intellectually lazy. They assumed that because the Tigers had the best pitcher in the game (Verlander) and a Triple Crown winner (Cabrera) that this automatically made them the better team, conveniently ignoring the fact that not only did the Giants win more games during the regular season (94 to 88), but that they did so in a much tougher division.

    Additionally, they also ignored quite a bit of other data indicated that the Giants probably should have been favored, rather than the Tigers. I’ll quote a post I made on another website the day before Game One:

    “1) The fact that the Giants have game 6 and 7 at home is a huge advantage. In the last thirty years, only two teams have won the World Series by winning a game six on the road (1992 Blue Jays & 2003 Marlins), and home teams have won nine consecutive World Series Game 7’s. And I don’t think the Tigers are that much better than the Giants that they can win it in five.

    2) The Giants defense and bullpen are both much better than the Tigers. The Tigers lineup is without a doubt better than the Giants, but the fact that they won’t be able to use a DH in San Francisco will minimize the impact, as will the short series length, which always favors pitching over hitting (note how little impact the superior lineups of the Phillies and Rangers had against the Giants in 2010).

    3) The long layoff has proven to make teams rusty….of the five teams to sweep an LCS 4-0, four of them lost the World Series, including the 2006 Tigers. Only the 1995 Braves swept the LCS 4-0 and went on to win the World Series.

    4) People are overrating the impact of Verlander….don’t forget that in 2010, the Giants beat Roy Halladay in Game 1 of the NCLS (who had pitched a perfect game in his previous start), and Cliff Lee in Game 1 of the World Series (coming off a shutout & two 1-run games), both of whom were as hot as Verlander is now. ”

    All the really important data indicated that the Giants had a much better shot at winning the Series than most pundits gave them credit for. Tigers fans and the rest of the nation might have been shocked by the Giants knocking Verlander out in Game One, but I can tell you that most Giants fans weren’t. And once the Giants won Game One and for the most part guaranteed that there would be a Game Six back in San Francisco (given that it would be unlikely for the Giants to then lose four straight given how well they were playing), the likelihood of the Giants winning the Series went up dramatically.

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  15. George says:

    “So, what your tellin’ me is, I have a chance.” (Jim Carey in “Dumb and Dumber”)

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  16. Ross says:

    The best team always wins, because this is how we have decided to determine who is the best. So, every year, in every sport, the best team wins the championship.

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  17. Jeff says:

    The playoffs do not determine the “best” team. They determine the “championship” team. Big difference. As the article points out, we do not have the resources (time) to actually determine the best team with any statistical significance. All we can do is argue about which team is the best (see college football). But we can’t argue about which team is the champion. We figure that out on the field, with all its randomness.

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  18. Bill Cheng says:

    This has been hinted at in previous posts, but to summarize:
    Offense wins games;
    Pitching/defense wins championships
    The reason for this is simple:
    Baseball is essentially divided into 4 parts: Offense, pitching*, opponent’s offense, opponent’s pitching. In each pitching part, the results is usually determined by one person (the starter), so having a good starter means winning half the game. Scoring, on the other hand, rests on the collaboration of 9 people (7, based on AB frequency). Even Barry Bonds can only create one run if nobody is on base (most of the time, he’d get walked without protection).
    That is not to say offense isn’t important. Offense wins games (the ‘hot streaks’ even out over the course of the long season). In order to play in the playoffs, enough games must be won (around 90). This is why the elite offense teams have no trouble winning 100 games or so (Yankees and 2003 Giants), but find it hard to translate that success into the post-season.
    One last thing: matchups matter!
    Roy Halladay had never pitched well against the Giants. It has gotten better, though still not the same as his Cy Young self. Keep in mind that in 2010, they sent Hallady his first loss of the season. In fact, if he has to pitch against the G-men every start, I would bet he would soon be sent to the minors!

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  19. Brendan says:

    This is the reason I love the Cardinals. Lower third in payroll – 2nd in WS titles. I don’t like where the MLB is going with teams buying players and players selling out. (Even if the hard-working, more motivated teams like the Giants and Cardinals are still able to win). There needs to be some major changes made in the form of a salary cap. Baseball is too much about money anymore, and as an avid fan, I don’t want to see the game polluted like that. Steroids have already had a bad enough effect.

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  20. Allen says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  21. Shasta says:

    A superior team will probably make the playoffs more often than a mediocre team who happened to have a good run one year. The more often a team makes it to the playoffs the more likely that team will eventually win the World Series. If I enter my name into a drawing five times I’m more likely to win the door prize than if I enter my name into the drawing once. Say I enter a drawing once a year five years I’m more likely to win than if I enter my name in a drawing only once during the five years. It is a matter of who is playing the best at the right time. In 2005 as I recall the Cards won more than 100 games and didn’t make it to the World Series but the next year when they won 83 games they won it all. The Cards are in the playoffs almost every year and most of the time they don’t even make the World Series. The teams that win the World Series a generally the teams that get into the playoffs.

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  22. Jordan says:

    Interesting points. Still, we should concede that baseball does a better job than other sports, since baseball is played in series. While a good team may “have a bad week,” that’s always less likely than a team having a bad day. When it comes to allowing the better team to rise to the top, a series always beats a one-game playoff.

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  23. Mike says:

    One of the key tenets of “Moneyball” was that Billy Beane’s goal was not to win the World Series, but to make the playoffs. Beane believed that there was a huge amount of luck in winning playoff series. Pete Palmer indicated that the average difference in skill accounted for 1 run per game and luck for 4 runs per game. In a long season the luck evens out and the best (i.e., most skilled) teams win more games.

    It would be more indicative of who were the best teams by seeing which teams maximized regular season wins and made the playoffs relative to team payroll.

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  24. Rob says:

    Awesome article, but there’s a minor error. Four teams won 100 games AND won a championship:

    1984 Detroit Tigers – 104 wins (REALLY?!!! You couldn’t have missed this one, right?!)
    1986 New York Mets – 108 wins
    1998 New York Yankees – 114 wins
    2009 New York Yankees – 103 wins


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    • Shasta says:

      Sometimes the team with the best record wins the World Series. Sometimes the team with the best record is the best team. I am not an expert on who the “best” team is. I look at various power polls and Baseball prospective. Baseball prospective is mathematical and logical while power polls on Fox and ESPN are more subjective. There is something to say about subjectivity. Talented teams often don’t do well because they don’t jive well. In this last WS, which is ancient history the Giants were older and probably more mature and more experienced than the Tigers. I was a Giants fan until this last World Series. The Giants have had some heart breaking losses in the WS and playoffs while the Tigers were sitting in the cellar and losing 100 games a season. I don’t know if there really is such a thing as a best team. I would think a really good team would make the playoffs frequently and would be more likely to win the WS instead of a team that might luck out and get to the playoffs once a decade.

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  25. Ian Foulks says:

    Like with any sport, whomever is hot at the time is most likely going to win. Sports teams are frequently streaky, and the best teams put the most winning streaks together. However as was mentioned, if the best team throughout the season faces an opponent that is in the midst of a strong period then upsets occur. It doesn’t mean they’re the better team, just better at the time.

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    • Shasta says:

      I’m sure the Yankees were the superior team. We aren’t talking about 1936 we are talking about the 21st century. It’s different. In 1936 the team had win the pennant. That is the team had to have the best record in the league. The 2012 Tigers won the pennant but they were far from having the best record in the league, all the wild card winners had better records than the Tigers except Atlanta. The Tigers are an example of a team that played well in the playoffs until the WS. Back to 1936. The team with the best record in the AL played the team with the best record in the NL. There was no chance that some wild card team was going to upset the team with the best record. No chance that the Tigers who won 88 games were going to upset the Yankees who won well over 90 games. With the leagues all chopped up and wild card teams there are going to inferior teams that get hot and beat a really good team.

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      • Shasta says:

        Oops I meant all the playoff teams had better records than the Tigers except for St. Louis

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  26. Colin Wright says:

    Your arguments are convincing — but how do you explain the Yankees’ years of dominance? In particular, they won the World Series four times in a row from 1936 to 1939, and five times in a row from 1949 to 1953.

    I’m not a Yankees fan, but that implies that either (a) the Yankees were really lucky, (b) they were a LOT better than their opponents, or (c) you exaggerate the role of chance in baseball.

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  27. Colin Wright says:

    Thinking about this further, I suspect you do exaggerate the role of chance.

    The only baseball team I am really familiar with is the 1972-74 Oakland Athletics. Charlie Finley moved the A’s to Oakland and put together an excellent team. He assembled an outstanding pitching staff, some clutch hitters, and made sure there was a decent player at every position.

    It was a great team. And sure enough — it won three world series in a row, and only broke down when free agency cost the A’s several of their key players.

    If chance really was as important as you imply, Finley should have been frustrated. He should have won only ne world series, or two. Either that, or he should have been picking up the odd title before 1972-74 and again thereafter. But he didn’t. He only won — and always won — when he had that complete team.

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  28. Brendan says:

    It’s all about who’s hot at the end of the year. Baseball is such an unpredictable game. A lesser team can win any given series. That’s the beauty of it. There can be a regular season “best” team judged by records, but the postseason is all about getting on a good streak at the right time. That’s what makes the playoffs so exciting!

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  29. Matt says:

    Interesting, but really not surprising. I would be interested in seeing the statistics for teams who go into the playoffs the hottest (ie. the best teams in the last 10,20 games of the regular seasons).

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  30. Shasta says:

    In a WS I really don’t care if the Tigers are the better team or the inferior team. I would rather the Tigers win the WS than be the better team that lost. The 2012 WS is ancient history and in less than six months a new champion will be crowned and I have no idea who it will be as I’m not psychic. I can look at power polls and baseball prospective and try to guess but how it turns out I have no idea.

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  31. Brian says:

    Predictability is also a function of the method of scoring.
    Hockey teams might win by a score of 1-0 … this does not mean they are 100% better than the other team.
    Basketball teams might win by a score of 98-97 … still a one point margin but more representative of them being about equal in talent.

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  32. Frank says:

    I believe that improvement throughout the year may also contribute to the other 18 times (cited above) where the “best” team did not win.

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  33. Voice of Reason says:

    One thing that greatly skews baseball compared to other sports is the rotational system. Every 5th game, you have a different starting pitching, and in essence, 35-40% of your production is different. Granted, with the extra days off, you can use 3-4 pitchers in the playoffs, but you’re still only seeing a certain pitcher 2-3 times in a series, not the full seven.

    It’s also interesting to note that this phenomenon of play-offs being a crapshoot mostly only exists on the pro level, due to the teams being so even. If you look at rec leagues, high school, and college sports, upsets in play-offs are somewhat rare, and the best team will usually beat down on most other teams.

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  34. Mike Salmanson says:

    I know one of the silent owners of a MLB team. When his team won the World Series, I congratulated him on having the “Best Team in Baseball.” He quickly and modestly corrected me, “No, we just had the best team in October.” He paused, smiled and then added, “Well, in all honesty, not the best team in October. Just the one that caught the most lucky breaks.”

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