If there's one question that comes up again and again any time I do a media hit, it's this: Who do you think will win it all?
With good reason. We can talk about Milton Bradley's escapades, Ichiro's celebratory dance moves, the latest PED scandal, or any other topic until we turn blue. But in the end, what everyone really wants to know is, who's going to win the big one?
The answer to this question is always the same: We have no way to know, because the best team doesn't always win. Forget the Yankees' weak back-end starting pitching, Joe Girardi's shaky managerial tactics or any nebulous concerns about the team's state of mind.
The biggest reason to bet against the Bombers, or any team with the best record in any season comes down to simple mathematics.
More than any other sport, baseball sports a gigantic gap between regular-season and playoff sample sizes. Teams battle injuries, slumps, suspensions, travel and schedule quirks for 162 games before eight teams earn the right to play in the postseason. Their reward? A best-of-five first-round series, a timeframe that's so short, even the worse team would have a fighting chance of prevailing a couple times out of 10. The seven-game series that follow in the LCS and World Series aren't much better in terms of separating one team from another - all having three short series does is give the best team more chances to lose. And then there's this: A team with, say, a strong top-two in the rotation, good defense and an effective closer can and does often prevail in such matchups, even when pitted against a team with a dramatically better offense, more depth, and 10, 15, even 20 or more wins in the regular season.
Those that see only in black and white would argue that the team that wins the World Series is by definition the best team. But everything we know about measuring anything tells us that the larger the sample of evidence we have at our disposal, the better we're able to evaluate that trend. |STAR|Thus, a 100-win team is better than an 83-win team, even if the 83-team gets hot in October (hey there, '06 Cardinals!).
So the question remains: Just how often does the best team win? Answer: Very rarely.
Dig this chart from the awesome baseball site Flip Flop Fly Ball. Only twice in the past 14 years has the team with the best regular-season record gone on to win the World Series - the 1998 Yankees and the 2007 Red Sox.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course. Maybe the most dramatic American sporting event is March Madness, precisely because it's a one-and-done format where the smallest David has a 40-minute chance to knock off the biggest Goliath. Sports thrive on upsets and drama; if the best team always won, no one would care.
There's one other benefit to this trend too, at least from where I'm sitting. The 1994 Montreal Expos were the best team in baseball when the players went on strike, eventually canceling the World Series. Based on this trend, though, they probably would've lost anyway. I feel 0.8|PERCENT| better.
|STAR|One additional point here: Teams can and do often improve as the season goes on, by adding key players at the trade deadline, calling up top prospects from the minors, or getting guys back from the disabled list. All of those factors can make a season-long record a bit deceiving, and more recent results a little more relevant. With that said, I'll still take the 100-win team anytime.