Wednesday, October 11, 2006

So does that mean ...

the playoffs are luck-based, too?

I read your post and see a point there, somewhere -- if I had to paraphrase it, I'd say "the best teams don't always win the World Series" -- and yet I still have to wonder, what's the point? I'd venture a guess that most, if not all, baseball people would agree with that assertion -- just look at some of the World Series champions in recent memory, from that early '90s Cincinnati squad that swept the As to the spate of recent Wild Card-to-World Series Champs. Clearly many of them were not the "best" team in the league. The White Sox probably weren't the "best" team last year.

And clearly, this discussion leads us down the path of no return, the path of defining "best," and indeed of defining the purpose of the playoffs, and maybe even the purpose of sport. I certainly have no desire to pursue any of those.

As is often the case, I agree with you to a point, but I think you overstate your case. The playoffs, particularly best-of-five series, allow for a lot of variance. And the anecdotal evidence from these playoffs (it's far too small of a sample size to be significant, much less to prove anything, as you assert, but you're the stat guy, so you know that) supports your argument.

But I don't know if I'd say the playoffs are a total crapshoot. Last year's White Sox had the second-best (by 1/2 a game) regular-season record in baseball; the 2004 Red Sox had the third-best. And even when the winners are wild-card pretenders, I don't think it's really such a hugely improbable feat, especially in the shorter divisional series.

For instance, the Padres were probably better than the Cards, but not by much. Definitely not by such a wide margin that the Cards' series win is some kind of statistical injustice. Sure, you can choose your stats carefully -- road OPS and the like -- and you can point out the fact that the Cardinals swooned late. But you could also point out the fact that halfway through the month of August, the Padres were a sub-.500 ballclub from a mediocre division. Does a red-hot September somehow carry more weight than an ice-cold finish? And if so, why, unless you've invoking the same logic you argue against -- that timeliness dictates the value of a performance?

(On a side note, I think the Cardinals beat the Padres because the Padres don't have a Pujols or a Carpenter. The Cards had the best player and the best pitcher. They also had the best defense, thanks in large part to the Pads' infield injuries and Mike Piazza's lifelong delusion of being a catcher. Maybe that's reductive; maybe it's oversimplified. But you watched the games -- it sure seemed like that's what made the difference.)

Really, though, the Cards/Pads series is neither here nor there. My larger question is the same question I always pose to sabermetricians: so what? So there are other stats that may better quantify the value of a player to a team. So the playoffs can't be predicted on an abacus. So what? Of what use is that to a fan?

And what would you have us do about it? Give the WS trophy to the best regular-season team? Make VORP, OBP, and OPS the new Triple Crown? Give the Cy Young to whoever has the best WHIP and ERA+?

I doubt you're saying any of that. So what's the point of complaining about the playoffs being difficult or impossible to predict? Who said sports should be easy to predict? Sabermetrics isn't even predicated on predicting the outcome of a game or a season, so far as I'm aware; it serves to quantify a player's value, no? So who cares if Billy Beane says the playoffs are a crapshoot? Who cares if he's partly right?

Call me stupid, call me stone-age, call me anti-stat (though I'm not). I just don't see the point in this kind of argument, and what's more, it always sounds like sour grapes, whether it's coming from Billy Beane -- a guy whose team keeps losing postseason series -- or you -- a guy whose team just lost a postseason series.


Anonymous said...

I think Doyle's point can be applied to just about every sport. When was the last time the best basketball team won the NCAA tournament? You CAN'T say the Steelers were the best team in the NFL last year. And , to be frank, Texas was nobody's idea of a football national champion until it beat USC in the national championship game.

Thing is, we chalk those kind of one-game upset wins up to the greatness of college hoops and basketball; with baseball, many of us (myself included) feel screwed when those upsets extend to three or four games, ruining six months of solid baseball. Playoffs, as we're reminded every year, come down to who's playing best AT THE TIME, not who's been playing great all year. I don't think the Angels or Marlins are any less deserving of the titles than the 98 Yankees or 2001 D'backs. Just like the 97 UA team should be considered the best in the land, even though they couldn't win their own conference.

Bringing the Padres into the equation is pretty unfair, especially if you followed them closely this year.

As someone who watched probably 145 Padre games this year, I can say the team struggled when it went through long stretches — particularly at home — of shitty hitting and inconsistent pitching from their ace, Jake Peavy. In the end, it bit them right in the ass, just as a lot of us feared.

Peavy got schooled in Game 1, and the Pads struggled to do anything offensively at home, where they hit terrbily all year. Once they got to St. Louis, the writing was on the wall. They won Game 3, as expected, but couldn't beat the NL's Cy Young Award winner in the decider. While it sucks, yes, I would hardly call their series shocking. In a lot of ways, it played pretty true to form.

I agree with Justin — to argue whether each national champion was the best in their sport all year, or simply the hottest team at the time a champion was crowned, is a fool's errand. Every team has excuses when it comes to why they can't win it all; to say 'we were better all year ... just not now' is the king of them all.

I have a good point about journalistic accountability (it includes me getting reamed by the UA's running backs coach for callling them arguably the worst team in America) that seems apropos now that we're back to talking about journalism, but I'll save that for another day.


Diesel said...

Re: Pads-Cards: You're right about Pujols and Carpenter being the best hitter/pitcher in the series, and I don't deny that having the best of each is, in fact, a major reason the Cardinals won the series. But this is one of two places where I had a serious problem with Bochy's approach to this year's playoffs. First, he decided to keep Bellhorn on the playoff roster, which is inexcusable. Then, he decided to pitch to Pujols virtually every time he came to the plate, regardless of the situation. I tend not to agree with the "walk him every time" crowd, but when it's so obviously one guy that's beating the shit out of you, it may not be the worst thing in the world to take the bat out of that guy's hands.

And, really, Carpenter had nothing to do with the Padres not being able to hit Jeff Weaver and Jeff Suppan.