Tuesday, September 05, 2006

What Are the Chances the Team with the Best Record Makes the World Series?

by Alan Eliot

Is there a correlation between having the best league record and making the World Series (WS)? How about winning it?

Right now, it's a pretty good time to be a Mets fan. Barring catastrophe, at 84-52, a full 11 games ahead of the 73-63 Cardinals, they should easily finish with the best record in the NL. In the AL, we're looking at possibly the Tigers or Yankees taking home best record in the AL. Most likely.

The question is, however- does it matter? I mean, other than (short-lived) bragging rights?

To answer this question, it is very useful to look at the history of the postseason. The postseason has always been a time of high drama, but not all postseasons have been created alike. In fact, to better analyze the facts, I'd separate the history of the playoffs into three distinct eras: 1903-1968, 1969-1993, and 1995-present. The reasons why will be evident momentarily.

1. Survival of the Fittest: 1903-1968
Chances, of making the World Series (WS), if you had your league's best record: 100%
No, this is not a typo. And it has nothing to do with ridiculous playoff luck. From 1903 (with the creation of an official World Series) up until 1968, there was no such thing as "playoffs". There were no "divisions". There was an AL. There was an NL. Every team in the AL was vying for one spot in the "postseason", aka the WS. Same goes for the NL.

Until 1960, the AL had 8 teams (became 10 in 1961). Until 1961, the NL had 8 teams (became 10 in 1962). In this era, from 1903-1968, the team with the best record in the AL played the team with the best record in the NL in the WS. It actually makes bookkeeping very easy- if you know that the NY Giants played in the 1954 World Series, you know they had the NL's best record that year. Simple.

Did record have any impact on predicting a winner in the World Series? Let's take a look. In that era, 65 WS's were played (the only skip occurred in 1904). In 63 of them, the two teams had different records. The team with the better record won 35/63 of the WS's or 55.6% of the time.

In that dog-eat-dog era of "be the best or else", the team with the better record was more likely to win the WS. But not by much.

2. The Age of Divisions (1969-1993)
Interesting Percentages:
a. Years where team with NL's best record did not make WS: 12/25, or 48%
b. Years where team with AL's best record did not make WS: 9/25 or 36%

In 1969, MLB decided to try a new format, dividing each league into two divisions: West and East. Most of us are familiar with this format, where the teams with the best record in each division would make the playoffs, and play each other. Hence, from 1969-1993, four teams made the postseason (as opposed to two in the years prior), and it meant that there would be teams in contention for a championship who did not have their league's best record.

Some interesting facts from this era (25 WS):
a. As noted earlier, the NL team with the best record reached the WS 13 times (52%), and won it 6 times (24%)
- they didn't make the playoffs one memorable time (more below)
b. The AL team with the best record reached the WS 16 times (64%), and won it 8 times (32%). Note, however, that in two years the best record holder was guaranteed to reach the Series, since both AL teams had the same record: 1971, with the A's and O's and 1992, with the A's and Blue Jay's.
c. The above means that 44% of the time, the World Series Champ did not even have their league's best record. Under 1903-1968 rules, they would not have even been eligible to play in the World Series.
d. Crazy 1981 - This season was infamously split into two "mini-seasons". The respective winners of each mini-season met in the playoffs that year (each division had two mini-season winners), meaning that eight teams made the playoffs that year. However crazy it sounds, the holder of the best record in baseball, the Cincinnatti Reds, did not even make the playoffs. This is because they didn't "win" the West in either mini-season, even though overall their combined record of 66-42 was tops in MLB. St. Louis, which had the best combined record in the NL East, was similarly shafted from the playoffs. That year, having the NL's best record gave you a 0% chance of winning the WS!

Of the teams that met in the WS, the team with the better record won 12 times, or 48% of the time.

This era saw teams who had dominated the leagues not make the World Series - for the first time in history. Granted, we have a small sample size of 25, but a few things were apparent:
1. the team with the best record in their league more often than the other team made it to the WS (in the NL not by much, in the AL more so)
2. surprisingly, more often than not the team with the worse record among the two competitors won the WS.

That is, having your league's best record meant you were slightly more likely than the other team to make it to the WS. Once there, records didn't matter in determining the winner.

3. The Age of the Wild-Card (1995-2005)
Interesting Percentages:
a. Years where team with NL's best record did not make WS: 7/11 or 64%
b. Years where team with AL's best record did not make WS: 6/11 or 55% (This group famously includes the 116 win Mariners in 2001, who lost in the ALCS)

Following a year in 1994 when many fans got fed up with the game, baseball execs decided to spice up the game in 1995 by adding a Wild Card, and by splitting each league into three divisions. Now, the best non-division winning team would also get a berth in the playoffs. This created some more

Interesting Facts (11 total World Series):
c. Years an NL Wild-Card team won the WS: 2 (Marlins, 1997 and 2003).
Years an NL-best-record team won the WS: 1 (Braves 1995)
d. Years an NL Wild-Card team made the WS: 5 (Marlins 1997, Mets 2000, Giants 2002, Marlins 2003, Astros 2005)
Years an NL-best-record team made the WS: 4 (Braves 1995, 1996 and 1999, Cardinals 2004)

e. Years an AL Wild-Card team won the WS: 2 (Angels 2002 and Red Sox 2004).
Years an AL-best-record team won the WS: 3 (Yankees 1998 and 1999, White Sox 2005).
f. Years an AL Wild-Card team made the WS: 2 (Angels 2002 and Red Sox 2004)
Years an AL-Best-Record team made th WS: 5 (Indians 1995, Yankees 1998, 1999 and 2003, White Sox 2005)

Other fun facts:
a. The team with the better record between the two only won the WS 4/11 times.
b. The Yankees are 3-0 in World Series where they have the worse record (1996, 1999, 2000). They are 1-2 when they have the better record (1998, 2001, 2003).
c. The NL-best-record team has lost in the first round 4/11 years (Giants 2000, Astros AND Cards-tied- 2001, Braves 2002 and 2003). The NL-Wild Card team has lost in the first round only 4/11 years, and haven't since 2001. (Rockies 1995, Dodgers 1996, Cubs 1998, Cardinals 2001)
d. The AL-best-record team has lost in the first round 3/11 years (Indians 1996, White Sox 2000, Yankees and A's 2002). The AL-Wild-Card team has lost in the first round 5/11 years (Yankees 1995 and 1997, Red Sox 1998, A's 2001, Red Sox 2005)

As number of teams making the the playoffs has increased, we start to see a trend toward randomness, where teams with the best records are doing no better than Wild-Card teams. Over time, the more teams that have been added to the playoffs, having the best-record becomes more and more meaningless. So far, in the Wild-Card era, if you make the postseason, it very much is anyone's playoffs. Once again, we also see that in the World Series, record is also meaningless.

Overall Conclusion:
People who claim that records become meaningless in the playoffs are right, sort of. This has panned out in the recent Wild-Card era, but remember that this is a very small sample size. The relative abundance of Wild-Card teams in World Series since 1995 may be fluky, or it may point to a true phenomenon (if you make it, everyone has an equal chance of winning). Only time and more statistics will shed light on this matter.

What we do know is that (again, keeping in mind sample sizes) before 1995, having the best record did confer a playoff advantage, albeit slight- you were more likely to make the World Series: from 1969-1993, this was more obvious with AL teams, and less so with NL teams. Before the modern era of divisions from 1968 and before, where only the AL's and NL's best record teams made the World Series, the better record teams between the two were more likely to win the WS, also albeit slightly. This World Series advantage based on record has not proven to be the case since divisional play, and in fact record has no predictive value since 1969 in determining the outcome of the WS.

What does this mean for the Mets, or Tigers, or Yankees? No matter how strongly they dominated their leagues this year, many just like them in the Wild-Card era have made quick exits from the playoffs. Given how well Wild-Card teams have fared recently, they might do well to hope that the Wild-Card team comes from their own division, so as not to have to face them in the first round. Having the best record, when all is said and done, probably correlates with a very slight advantage in the playoffs. Historically, this has been so. That being said, given eight teams, the team with the best record in their league is far, far more likely not to make the World Series than to make it- much less win it.

That is, the Mets may be most likely of all four NL teams to make it to the World Series, but the other three teams combined are far more likely to make it than the Mets. Individually, no. However, no matter who makes it to the World Series, we can say with confidence that at that point, records don't correlate with winners.

Alan Eliot
's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays


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