Statistical Sox

A mournful defense of my beloved Red Sox, by way of some statistics-driven thoughts about winning and losing in sports.

Two nights ago the Red Sox lost to Cleveland, 4-3, in the final drab piece of a three-game sweep that pushed the Sox – generally considered one of the two or three best teams in baseball this year – out of the postseason. (If you were watching, unless you are a Sox-hating Yankee troll, you probably found it inspiring to see how intensely David Ortiz was rooting for his team to pull out a comeback victory after manager John Farrell took him out in the ninth inning for a pinch runner. If Ortiz, who last night ended a towering career of high-spirited accomplishment, could have willed a run across on pure desire and love of competition, he would have. I’ll miss him. I’m hard pressed to recall a player who has played with such obvious joie de jouer, and with such a huge grin on his face.)  

Anyway, the Red Sox this year may be a better team than the Indians, may be just about the best team in baseball (after the Cubs), and yet they not only lost, they got swept, totally wiped out. As Vonnegut wrote, so it goes. But especially in baseball. In fact, maybe only in baseball. Is there any other sport in which the difference between excellence and mediocrity is so narrow? In baseball this truth begins with individual performers, and especially for batters at the plate, where the difference between getting a hit two times out of ten and three times out of ten is the difference between a minor-league career and a Hall of Fame one. The same holds for teams and their records. A team that wins 50% of its games is mediocrity itself, while a team that wins 60% is the best in the league. Indeed, only one team this year (the Cubs) won 60% of its games or more.

Compare that with other sports. In the NFL, a typical best record for the regular season is 13-3 (81%), and 14-2 (88%) is far from unheard of. In the NBA last year you had the Warriors at 73-9 (89%) and the Spurs at 67-15 (82%). In soccer, in the German Bundesliga, Bayern Muenchen last year was 25-4, which (excluding five draws) rings in at 86%. And they do that year in and year out.

You know how many teams in MLB have ever won 80% of their games in a season, in more than a century of league play? Zero. How many have won 75% of their games in a season? One. The Cubs. And that was in 1906.

In a sense it is refreshing, as many baseball commentators have remarked, to have a sport in which excellence includes so much failure. More humbling is built into this sport than perhaps any other save golf. But that same statistical humbling makes playoffs problematic as a means of establishing a season champion. In the NBA, for instance, a team with one of the three best season records has become the eventual champion eight out of the last ten years.  In the NFL it is six out of ten. In major league baseball? Just twice. Basically, in soccer, football, and basketball, the dominant teams win the playoffs. In those sports, even a short best-of-five series has real meaning in terms of determining which team is better. Even a one-game confrontation is pretty likely to end in the stronger team’s favor.

Baseball, though, only makes sense – in terms of evaluating teams – over the long haul. One reason the sport conduces to such rabid statistical wonkery is that you really need to look at aggregated efforts in order to be able to measure a player or team’s achievements. Any single game, any brief string of games, may mislead. That’s because over the course of a very long season, statistical ebbs and flows afflict even the best teams. Again, this is way more pronounced than in other sports. What is the chance, in basketball, that the Golden State Warriors are going to lose four games in a row during the regular season? Almost nil. What are the chances they might be “swept” in a best-of-five playoff by a first-round opponent, as the Red Sox just were? Tiny.

In recent years Major League Baseball has expanded its format to include single-elimination wild-card playoff games, which were played last week. Apparently fans love them – and to be sure, it’s always dramatic when the sword of Damocles hangs over both teams, and you know that one or the other is going home for the season when the dust settles. But this is the drama of the slot machine. In one game, anyone can beat anyone. I guess that's what fans appreciate. From a baseball perspective, though, it's a bit of a travesty. As a friend of mine says, why not just flip a coin, for God’s sake?

At any rate, given what I’ve said here about statistics and baseball, it's clear that the World Series should probably be a best-of-thirteen contest. I’m confident my Red Sox would prevail. And – note to MLB -- think of the advertising revenues!

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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