With last night’s 8-2 victory against the Seattle Mariners the A’s have clinched home field advantage for the ALDS. Ever since the A’s claimed the division, fans have been eager for the team to lock down home field advantage for the first round. Some people believe it is the key to advancing, although it didn’t make a difference last year (or in 2000, 2002, 2003, or the ALCS in 2006). How much home field advantage factors into the results of games is always up for debate, but this entry isn’t about that. Instead, this entry is about what I believe is the single most important factor for the A’s in the playoffs: random chance.
During the past decade I’ve come across a countless number of people, both online and in the “real world,” who dismiss the merits of Billy Beane and the Moneyball philosophy by pointing out the A’s have lost in the first round of the playoffs in five out of the six trips they’ve made to the postseason since Billy became general manager. They say Moneyball is fine at winning regular season games, but comes up short in the playoffs, despite not having any sound logic or concrete evidence to support their claims. Anybody that isn’t drooling all over themselves should know that the playoffs are just a crapshoot. I’ve known this long before Brad Pitt ever told us.
It shouldn’t be hard to believe any team can win a succession of short series against any of the nine other playoff teams. The separation in talent between these teams is usually not large, if at all noticeable. All of those teams finished with records that are reasonably close. They all have the skills necessary to win. But if championships were only decided by talent level and number of wins, we wouldn’t have the 2003 Marlins, the 2006 Cardinals, or the 2010 Giants winning titles, as those teams weren’t as good as their opponents on paper and were picked by nobody to win it all.
A basic assumption in probability theory is that each event is independent of all other events. In baseball, we can look at the regular season and the playoffs as independent of each other. So even if a team beats up on another during the regular season, it has no effect on a match-up in the playoffs outside of an assumed psychological advantage. A superior record also only shows who performed better during the regular season.
If we equate talent level with number of wins during the regular season, we’ll find that in the playoffs from 1903 to 2009 the team with the better record won just 54% of the time, according to Baseball Prospectus. A slight edge to be sure, but not nearly enough to suggest that anybody can accurately predict the postseason or that the regular season has any bearing on the playoffs. In fact, in their past six trips to the playoffs, the A’s have had a better record than their first round opponent five times, often times by a decent margin of five or more games.
Yet despite their regular season success the A’s have lost five consecutive Game Fives. Nobody could have predicted that. If you flip a coin five times the probability of getting the same result each time is just 15.6%, an unlikely outcome. I’m certain Billy pissed off somebody important in the metaphysical realm a long time ago and the A’s are still paying for it.
If you’ve ever played fantasy sports of any kind, you definitely know the playoffs are a crapshoot. It’s a rare day when the actual “best” team, in terms of record or points scored, wins it all. The same goes for real life. In the 18 seasons since the advent of the wild card, the team with the best regular season record has won the championship just three times. A championship doesn’t necessarily define who the best team was that season, but who played the best when it mattered the most.
When looking at statistics and other numbers in baseball, we’re always reminded that we need a large enough sample size to make a solid assessment. With a player’s performance, a five or seven game sample size is extremely small and doesn’t prove much, whereas a full season gives us a good idea of what kind of player we’re analyzing. Wouldn’t that same logic apply to entire teams? You wouldn’t completely write off the A’s based on their 1-6 performance from May 6 to May 15, and you wouldn’t get ready to hand them the Commissioner’s Trophy because they went 9-0 from April 3 to April 12. There’s simply not enough evidence to make those assessments. Yet, plenty of us are still duped into believing a five or seven game series truly determines who is the better team. It doesn’t. It simply tells us which team performed better during a particular time period.
So, how often does the “best” team win it all, anyway? A little less than a quarter of the time if we define the “best” as the team with the highest winning percentage during the regular season. According to this very informative Freakonomics article, the team with the best winning percentage has won 10 championships since 1969, the first year baseball expanded the playoffs to include more than two teams.
Still don’t believe the playoffs are a crapshoot? Think about this: from 1991 to 2005 the Atlanta Braves won 14 straight National League East division titles. Yet they only won a single championship (1995) during that lengthy period of sustained success. Meanwhile, the Miami Marlins, a 20-year old franchise who has yet to win a division title, have captured two championships in the mere two times they’ve qualified for the playoffs. What are the odds?
Not very likely. But if the likely event was all that ever happened we wouldn’t be watching baseball, or any sports for that matter.