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 Win-LossBaseball-Reference.com defines this as the expected win-loss record based on the number of runs scored and allowed by the team. 
  3. Simple Rating System: Baseball-Reference.com 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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. Allen says:

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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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

    Source: http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/

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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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