What is the Best Record Worth

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The 2012 Washington Nationals ended up with the
best record in baseball and were bounced in heart breaking fashion in Game 5 of
the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals. Over 162 games the Washington
Nationals were the best team in baseball, but in a measly five game series
the 98 win Washington Nationals were unable to best the 88 win St. Louis
Cardinals. The Cardinals were the winners of a new feature of baseball’s Wild
Card system. The Cardinals had to play a play-in game against the Atlanta Braves
in which they feasibly would weaken themselves by burning their best pitcher.
While the Braves followed logic with Kris Medlen on the mound, the Cardinals
skipped Adam Wainwright and pegged Kyle Lohse to start.   

The
Cardinals gamble paid off and they ended up facing the Nationals with their
rotation set up to descend from Wainwright, while the Nationals had shutdown
Stephen Strasburg and were going with Gio Gonzalez as their playoff number one.
If we isolate the deciding Game 5, the oddities of the playoffs are very
evident. The Nationals jumped out to an early 6-0 lead and then slowly the
Cardinals continuously chipped away at this lead until the Nationals entered
the ninth inning up by only two runs. The odds were still in the Nationals favor
as the Nationals had the lead and their best relief pitcher, Drew Storen, on
the mound. However with two outs and two strikes on Yadier Molina it all came
undone and the Nationals lost the game and the series. It stands to logic that
the best team in baseball should have a higher probability to win the World
Series, but that isn’t the case. Let’s look back at all the teams that finished
with or tied for the best record in baseball in the Wild Card era and see how
they all finished:

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Year Team Record Result

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1995 Cleveland Indians 100-44 Lost WS

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1996 Cleveland Indians 99-62 Lost DS

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1997 Atlanta Braves 101-61 Lost CS

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1998 New York Yankees 114-48 Won WS

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1999 Atlanta Braves 103-59 Lost WS

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2000 San Francisco Giants 97-65 Lost DS

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2001 Seattle Mariners 116-46 Lost CS

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2002 New York Yankees 103-58 Lost DS

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2003 New York Yankees/Atlanta Braves 101-61 Lost WS/Lost DS

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2004 St. Louis Cardinals 105-57 Lost WS

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2005 St. Louis Cardinals 100-62 Lost CS

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2006 New York Yankees/New York Mets 97-65 Lost DS/Lost CS

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2007 Boston Red Sox/Cleveland Indians 96-66 Won WS/Lost CS

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2008 Los Angeles Angels 100-62 Lost DS

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2009 New York Yankees 103-59 Won WS

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2010 Philadelphia Phillies 97-65 Lost CS

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2011 Philadelphia Phillies 102-60 Lost DS

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2012 Washington Nationals 98-64 Lost DS

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The 1998 Yankees, the 2007 Red Sox, and 2009
Yankees are the only teams to finish with the best regular season record and
win the World Series. How come? Is it because the team with the best record is
tired in October from winning too much? Is it because they have players that
lack grit and fortitude and can’t handle the pressure of games that matter? Did
the 2002 Yankees lose in the ALDS because the 2012 Washington Nationals
shutdown Stephen Strasburg? Or is it because in a 162 game season random
variances are weeded out more than in a five or seven game series? This is one
of those Occam’s razor type issues where the most obvious answer is the right
one, and that over 162 games the best team is more likely to end up with the
best record than in a five or seven game series. 

Take a look at the chart and count
how many times each outcome occurred. The 2012 Nationals are not alone in
losing in a DS. It is the most common occurrence, having happened seven times.
The next most common is losing in the CS, which happened six times. Eight of
the 21 teams made it to the World Series, but only three were able to win. It
stands to reason that if one team is the best over 162 games and they are
playing a lesser team then the better team should win. Reason and baseball don’t
often have much to do with each other though. Think of it this way; once the
playoffs begin the probability and odds move closer together.

Regardless of having the best
record, other talented teams inhabit the playoffs and must be taken into
account. When a game begins there are only two possible outcomes. One team is going
to win while the other loses. As only two possible outcomes exist, the
probability of a team winning is 50/50. However logic dictates that one team is
going to have a better chance of winning than the other. Using overall records
as an indicator the Nationals had a 60% chance to beat any team they played,
because that is what they did in the regular season. However that 60% included
games against the Astros and Cubs who the Nats had much higher odds of beating.
Using the difference in winning percent as our odds making device, the
Nationals had a 76% and 72% chance of victory.   

The Cardinals were the second Wild
Card team and had the lowest winning percentage of any team in the NL, and
while the odds were in the Nationals favor it wasn’t close the 60% chance they
had of beating any team or the 76% or 72% they had against the Astros and Cubs.
In 2012 the St. Louis Cardinals won 54% of their games meaning that the
Nationals had only a 56% chance of beating the Cardinals. The Nationals’ odds
of winning any individual game against the Cardinals were only 6% better than a
coin flip. In the playoffs the odds start to move closer to the probability.
The closer the odds get to 50% the more influence random variation and the
forces of luck are going to have. Finishing with the best record in
baseball isn’t some type of curse. Teams lose in the playoffs not because they
wanted it less or had fewer gritty, determined players, but because the forces
of chance have greater influence over the more evenly matched teams that are in
the playoffs.  

Let’s also face one last fact about
2012. A Washington Nationals team that had scored 4.51 runs a game and allowed
3.67 over the course of the regular season was outscored for the series and
scored only 3.2 runs a game, while allowing 6.4. Simply put the 2012 Washington
Nationals that won 98 games and finished with the best record in baseball never
even made an appearance in that series, and it isn’t so much because they
played worse, it was because in five games the random variations of
poor play lacked the time to regress to the mean. The 2013 Washington Nationals
have a strong chance to join the 1996 Cleveland Indians, 2003 New York Yankees,
2006 St. Louis Cardinals, and 2011 Philadelphia Phillies as a team to have the
best overall record in back to back seasons, but keep in mind that not one of
those teams won the World Series. In baseball being the best is worth the same
as being the fourth or now fifth best. When odds and probability meet the
forces of chance can be cruel and talent doesn’t always win out.

One comment

  1. The two thoughts that immediately come to my mind are; 1. Regular Season record is obviously a flawed metric for determining who is the "better" team and thus the favorite to win a playoff series, strength of schedule is an abvious anomoly, but also roster construction can play a large role, being build to win every night during the regular season (balance line-up and better than replacement #4/5 starting pitchers) will allow a good team to rack up a larger win percentage vs bad teams than a team with a more top heavy rotation and/or a lineup with fewer but higher impact position players. 2. In the playoffs what is the win probability of the better seeded team? Looking beyond just the team with the best record I wonder if the "better" team in general does better or worse in the playoff’s format.The final question than is if MLB should adjust the format further to favor the "better" team, and if so how would you do that? My theory would be that IF you wanted to favor the higher seed teams you could make all series 7 games and eliminate off days for travel, thus forcing both teams to use 5 SP just as in the regular season…

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