Reacting (Rationally) to Losing

I said that the favorite is always the field.  By this I meant that in a playoff system consisting of three short series, no single team is ever the true favorite.  If you focus on any one team in the 8-team field, chances are that your team is going to lose to one of the other seven teams in the field.

(Would you have known from reading the mainstream media that the Yanks were not prohibitive favorites to make it to the World Series?  I’m not trying to pat ourselves on the back here.  It takes no great genius to figure these things out.  You just have to avoid parroting the set pieces written 20 years ago.)

This year, the field has proven to be the favorite with an unusual vengeance.  The individual favorites in the original 8-team field have all suffered mightily.   The AL team with the best record (the Rays) was eliminated long ago.  The defending champions, the team with the single best Vegas odds of any of the eight playoff teams (the Yankees), was eliminated Friday night.  The AL team left standing, the Texas Rangers (according to the Las Vegas odds), was the biggest underdog of any of the original 4 AL playoff teams.  At the beginning of the playoffs, Vegas gave the Rangers about a 10% chance of winning the World Series.

Then, of course, we have to consider what happened to that OTHER team that was supposed to make it to the World Series.  You know, those guys down the road in Philly, with the supposedly invincible three-headed pitching monster of Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels?  As it turns out, the Rangers’ World Series opponent will be the San Francisco Giants, who had the distinction of being an even bigger underdog than the Rangers coming into the post-season.  Vegas gave the Giants only about an 8% chance of winning the World Series.

But for the moment, our focus is on the Yankees.  At the outset of the playoffs, Vegas gave the Yankees about a 30% chance of winning it all. The log5 method for calculating playoff odds gave the Yankees a smaller chance of winning, maybe around an 18% chance.  To be sure, those were better odds than were projected for the Rangers (the log5 percentage for the Rangers at the start of the post-season was around 9%).  But that’s not really relevant.  The point is that this year, just like every year, the Yankees’ were significant underdogs against the field.

The Yanks (like all other teams) are perpetual post-season underdogs because the champion of major league baseball has to win three consecutive short series, and this is a difficult thing to do.  Back in the days when I was a kid, there was one short series – the World Series – to determine the champion.  In those days of long ago, the world championship went to the first team to win four games in the post-season. Who was the first team in the 2010 post-season to win four games?  The Yankees.  Back in the day, the World Series winner was the team that ended up with more post-season wins than losses.  The Yankees’ overall 2010 post-season record?  5-4.

Consider this as well: the Yankees played 5 games on the road and 4 at home against two of the best teams in the American League, and the Bombers finished this stretch at 5-4.  Obviously, that’s not good enough to be World Champions, but that’s not a terrible result either.  During the regular season we’d be OK with a result like this.  It’s not the result we’d want, but it’s hardly a “failure” or an “embarrassment”.

Let’s turn for a moment to the legacy of George Steinbrenner, who passed away this year.  Mr. Steinbrenner ran the Yankees successfully for a long time, and his legacy is full of positive accomplishments.  Unfortunately, part of Mr. Steinbrenner’s legacy is the notion that any Yankees season is a failure if it doesn’t end with a World Championship.  We’d be doing Mr. Steinbrenner and his legacy a favor if we’d just relegate this notion to the trash heap.

The Yankees are the most successful franchise in the history of team sport.  The Yankees have won 27 World Championships, which is 17 more than the team in second place.  As Mike T pointed out in the comments here, the Yankees have historically won World Championships about 25% of the time, about once every four years.  A 25% championship rate means that 75% of the time, the Yankees have not won it all.  This is not a bad record, this is a good record, a great record, by far the best record.

Being the best and most successful team in baseball means losing in the modern post-season more often than not. In fact, it means that we’ll lose in the post season more than any other team, because we’ll be in the post-season more than any other team.  This is not a record of “failure” or an “embarrassment”.  It is the record of a champion.

Did George Steinbrenner express a different opinion?  Sure he did.  But he was wrong.  To best honor his memory, we should celebrate Steinbrenner for all the good things he did, and not remember him for anything stupid  he might have believed about the post-season.  I mean, do we remember Napoleon only for Waterloo, or Robert E. Lee only for Pickett’s Charge?  Do we remember Cary Grant only for “I Was A Male War Bride” “Blonde Venus”, or John Lennon only for “Revolution #9”?  Let’s remember Mr. Steinbrenner for the new Stadium, the YES network, signing Reggie Jackson … for nearly anything other than his wrong-headed notion that the Yanks should win it all every year.

What next?

We told you that you’d be watching a small sample size.  Obviously, we hoped you be watching a larger sample size, one that would include World Series games.  But the Yankees ended up playing nine post-season games.  In regular season terms, that’s about a week and a half of baseball.

The Yankees finished nine games of regular season baseball last April 15.  Were you ready to make sweeping pronouncements about any of the Yankees last April 15?  Last April 15, Derek Jeter was hitting .333 and Jorge Posada was hitting .345.  Might as well sign those two guys up for the next 20 years.  In contrast, Nick Swisher was hitting .267 and obviously was heading towards a season of mediocrity.  Joba Chamberlain had a 3.37 ERA, and Phil Hughes had a 3.60 ERA.  Clearly, the Yankees had made a mistake promoting Hughes to the starting rotation ahead of Joba.   Because as we all know, we can make blanket statements about a player’s ability based on nine games of work.  Right?

Not right.  We have to be careful not to judge any Yankee based solely on his post-season performance.  That’s too small a sample size.  We’re in a better position when we notice trends during the regular season that carried over to the post-season (such as the Yankees’ problems with their starting pitchers).  But even then we should be careful.

One observation we made in the Rational Guide: when you’re looking at a small sample size, much of what you’re encountering is luck.  Did the Yankees get unlucky during this post-season?  I’m hoping to see some analysis of this question by one of our stats-masters, like Will.  But one measure we use to gauge luck is a statistic called Batting Average On Balls in Play, or BABiP.  BABiP measures how often a ball hit into play turns into a hit.  In the long run a team can expect to hit at a BABiP of around .300, and a team can expect to pitch allowing a BABiP of around .300.  To illustrate, the Yankees’ team BABiP in 2010 was exactly .300, and the Rangers’ team BABiP for 2010 was a little better (or luckier) at .307.  But when we’re dealing with a small sample size like a short series, we can expect BABiP to vary a great deal from that .300 average, and at least some of that variation represents luck (for good or for bad).

My rough calculation of BABiP for the 2010 ALCS: the Rangers’ BABiP was .344.  The Yankees’ BABiP was .242.  This suggests that a good number of Rangers’ hits found spaces between Yankees, while some number of Yankees’ line drives were hit right at Rangers’ fielders.

In order to raise the Yankees’ BABiP against the Rangers to .300, the Yankees would have needed around 10 extra hits.  On the surface, it doesn’t seem like 10 more hits (less than two hits a game) would have made much of a difference.  But remember, the Yankees’ ALCS batting average with runners in scoring position was .151 against the Rangers, 8 hits in 53 tries.  If some of those 10 potential extra hits came with runners in scoring position, it might have been a big help.  Also, what if we could negate a handful of Rangers’ hits, to bring the Rangers’ BABiP down to .300?  What then?

Did the Yankees get unlucky in this ALCS?  Possibly.  To some extent.

Here’s another measure of luck: Bill James’  “Pythagorean expectation”.  This “expectation” is a formula that projects a team’s expected win percentage based on the number of runs the team has scored and allowed.  Again, this expectation is most accurate when applied to a large sample size … but by the Pythagorean expectation, the Yankees should have won 39% of its post-season games, about 3 ½ games of the nine it played.  Instead, the Yankees won 5 games.  Was this luck?

Of course, if the Yankees had hit for a higher BABiP, then they would have scored more runs, affecting the Pythagorean expectation.  Right?

Three of the Yanks’ five wins were comeback wins.  Luck?

There was luck (bad luck) in Mark Teixeira’s getting injured, and having a number of Yankee hitters slump at the same time. Maybe it was bad luck for the Yankees to have had six days off after their ALDS sweep of the Twins, giving their bats time to “cool”.

We can argue back and forth about luck.  But we can’t expect to measure luck precisely with the tools we have at hand.  The luck involved in winning baseball games is difficult to quantify.  We know luck is lurking there, because no matter how many objective measurements we take and how we toss them around, we cannot predict how a post-season short series will turn out.

I think Rob Neyer put it really well: “I will probably go to my grave believing that the New York Yankees were better than the Texas Rangers in 2010 … But in a series that is closely matched – as this one was closer than most thought – catching the breaks is a lot more important than having slightly more talent.”

So … we’re going to have to leave it at that. The Rangers beat us fair and square.  We’re Yankees fans, and we believe (with some justification) that our team would have beaten their team if luck had evened out.  But we’ll never be able to prove it.  All we can say for certain is that the Rangers are a very good ballclub and that they kicked the stuffing out of us this time.  Congratulations, nice job, best of luck in the World Series.  See you down the road next time.  Next time it will be different.

Or maybe not.

We know that the playoffs are a crapshoot, dominated by small sample sizes, where luck matters more than small differences in talent.  We know that we can’t win the World Series every year; all we can do is make the post-season most of the time, then hope for the best.

It hurts.  It’s disappointing.  It’s life as we know it in the big leagues.  We pull for the most successful franchise in sports, and it’s up to us to reflect the quality of this franchise.  Plus, we have the comfort of knowing that the Yanks will start the ball rolling all over again in Florida next winter.  I’ll be ready.  What say you?

58 thoughts on “Reacting (Rationally) to Losing

  1. Great post. We have a Championship level team that should compete again next year.

    All I know is that I am thankful for this Yankee team, they played hard all year, that's all you can ask for.

  2. Ahhhh! We have worked hard all year to cultivate a rational readership, and it pays off now when I most need the comfort. thanks CT and Taylor.

  3. Great article as usual Larry. This is the reason I'm not more mad about how the postseason has turned out. The articles I read on this blog to rationalize what really happened based on the numbers not observations. You said what I told a friend of mine a few days ago. How many teams can say their team made it to the postseason from 1995-2010, missing once and call that a failure? And in that time span we won 5 championships. That sounds pretty good to me.
    I am glad I got to experience one good memory..seeing game 3 of the ALDS. I also had one bad one with alcs game 3 but that proves how much of a crap shoot the postseason is.Being a Yankee fan allows us to experience postseason baseball.Winning it all makes it more sweeter but I'm not going to be bitter because my team lost. I'll be happy knowing they will try to win it all again next year!

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  5. Let me throw something out there that has always bugged me about October.

    If were going to be intellectually consistent about the “luck” and “small sample” of the playoffs (which I embrace) it follows that winning a World Series really doesn’t mean all that much. The best team was the one that won the most over the course of the regular season, and there really should be two separate awards, either in actuality or in the minds of fans. The team that wins in October is generally just a team that got hot at the right time, something that happens all the time during the regular season.

    As Yankee fans, are we ready to declare our 27 championships irrelevant?

  6. This is a thoughtful piece, and it's helped assuage a lot of my disappointment and anger over the post-season.

    Taylor_C, your comments provided a much needed laugh. Although, I do agree with your assessments of Cervelli and Pena, sarcastic as they may be! I'm not saying I want them released, much less thrown off the side of a highway, but they appear to be marginal major leaguers at best. That said, I don't think either should bear much responsibility for the Yanks' "failure."

  7. The Rangers deserve to be in the Fall Classic. They outplayed us in every facet of the game, pitching, hitting, base running and yes, even coaching. Yes, we had a great year…but we're done – they are not.

  8. well written article, thoughtful, ,but i think you're trying to make all the sad yankee fans feel better. I am a die hard yankee fan, i always have been, always will be, but the fact is the rangers were better when it mattered and luck was not the deciding factor. luck is always a factor in baseball, and sometimes the deciding one, but not this time. The difference in BABiP was not due to luck with the ranger "finding a few more holes", they consistently made solid contact off of our pitchers while the yankees often popped up, hit weak ground balls, and untimely double plays. The yankees caught many breaks with line drives getting hit directly to our outfielders, but so did the rangers, and so does every team over the course of a game, or a series. The yankees need more pitching, starting and relieving, as well a catcher that can take most of the weight off of jorge's shoulders, he looks terrible at the plate and behind it. I love swisher, but he cant hit top quality pitching that you see in the post season, and the list goes on. But to make on last strong point, girardi managed game 6 like the yankees were heading for game 7 without question. You dont use relievers to set up other situations later in the game when later in the game may never really happen. Yogi said it best, it gets late out there early, and girardi finally learned what that means, lets just hope it doesnt cost him his job. Anyway, good luck yanks in 2011, i look forward to seeing an aggressive Brian Cashman in the offseason after the "early" end to the season.

  9. Jesse,

    All sorts of issues with your post here. But to cherry pick the biggest one: Swisher can't hit quality pitchers that we see in the playoffs? He hit two home runs off of Cliff Lee in a *one game* earlier this season. He was one of the Yankees' best hitters all season. Swish can hit good pitchers just fine.

  10. Thanks, Larry. Good piece. While I wish the Yankees had won Friday nite, I didn't expect it – and therefore wasn't disappointed. I'm surprised they were favorites – obviously, a factor of Vegas odds makers and the bettor's money, rather than from a rational standpoint.

    The Yankees quit looking good when Petite went out. For whatever reason. They came back and overacheived in the Twins Series – I figured on winning a 5 game series, not a dominant looking sweep. Thanks to the team for that.

    I enjoyed IIATMS this year – thanks to you and Jason for putting out a very professional product. Hope they (whoever is in charge) let you come back next year.

  11. Actually "I Was A Male Warbride" is a very sharply written screwball comedy with surprisingly subversive humor.

  12. I love the fact that you really dug into some facts and odds. However, the one thing that you didn't mention, is that the Rangers were the better team in this series hands down.

    The each played 3 games in their respective ballparks, with the Rangers going 2-1 in each.

    The Rangers outhit the Yankees by over 100 points, not to mention coming up clutch with RISP

    With the exception of CJ Wilson's game 5 start, the Rangers starting pitching was dominant comparatively speaking.

    The Rangers ran wild on the bases

    Don't give the injury to Tex as an excuse. He was horrible in the series as it was, and Swisher played better offensively in his place.

    And last but not least………..what kind of Yankees team would ever intentionally walk a batter (no matter how good) 3 times in one game? If there is anything that Yankees fans should be afraid of it is that mentality. Have the Yankees lost their killer edge? No other Yankees championship teams would have ever bowed down like that.

    Bottom line, regardless of what Neyer said, the Rangers have a better team

  13. Thanks Larry for a great piece. Oh, and thanks for not referencing some of the knee jerk reaction articles. They don't deserve acknowledgment. One I read in particular made me sick to my stomach.

  14. I've got a (rather labor intensive) way to go through and take a look at series LD/GB/FB/PU rate. Will take a crack at it soon, and if it warrants its own post, it'll be up. I can tell you, however, that of the 24 balls in play by the Yankees that PitchFX has labelled as Line Drives during the series, a massive 13 of them turned into lineouts. So, without cleaning the data (which needs to be done to draw true conclusions) the Yankees had a BABIP of .450 or so on line drives during the series. League average BABIP on line drives is roughly 70%.

    So…that sure points to the Yankees having terrible, terrible luck. We'll see if the fully processed data tells a different story.

  15. Next datapoint–the same data for the Rangers batters, shows that they converted line drives into hits at more than an 82% rate…so they were actually quite lucky on line drives (though not quite as lucky as the Yankees were unlucky).

    I smell a post.

  16. I've been an Indians fan since the late '50s. I'm one of those baseball fans that used to "hate" the Yankees.

    Most of my loathing was born of frustration with losing. As I matured, I recognized this, and have since looked at players and teams, games and seasons, outcomes and careers as points of contact with the most- beautiful sport.

    The highly successful Yankees teams of the late '90s were ones which gave me great satisfaction to watch. In the ensuing decade, the high level of professionalism and excellence of the teams has maintained my appreciation for the Yankees.

    Your post perfectly encapsulates why I've come to regard the Yankees as worthy and loyal opposition.

    Finally, for any readers who may have come this far in my comments . . . when tasting the bitterness of yet another post-season defeat, take a second to consider how you'd feel to be a Cubs or Indians fan. AAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  17. Nice article, but ultimately wrong.

    New York's play in the 2010 postseason exposed their big weakness: pitching.

    Minnesota – which can barely score runs WITH Morneau – was not able to score much against a slightly above average New York pitching staff.

    Texas, on the other hand, put up huge numbers.

    Throw in New York's underperformance against lefties even beyond Cliff Lee (yes ARod, this means you) and the Yankees' paucity of scoring is also unsurprising.

    So focus on small sample size, focus on the odds, but don't forget to focus on the fact that New York coughed up 5, 7, 8, 10, 2, 6 runs respectively in the series against Texas.

    Is Texas' offense that good? It is good, but Texas was well behind the Yankees, the Rays, and Boston in total runs scored.

    It isn't 6.33 runs per game scored good – at least if the pitching is any good.

    As Cincinnati was shown, as the Phillies were shown, as the 'Rays were shown, good pitching beats good hitting. Clearly the Yankees were in the short end of the same equation.

  18. Nate, good comment. And if you'd catch me over a few beers, I'd probably admit that I never "felt" this team as being the best in baseball. But no one pays me to tell them how I feel. (Actually, the more true statement is that no one pays me.) I discount the subjective stuff. For example, people like to talk about how a team looks in the dugout, or on the field — the team looks flat, that sort of thing, as if the way a team looks produces wins or losses. Actually, it's the other way around.

    Good to give credit where credit is due. Great series by the Rangers. Anyone feeling the emergence of a new rivalry? NY versus Texas is always good for a rivalry (thinking Giants – Cowboys, Bush v. Clinton, that sort of thing).

  19. This is some great rationalization. I really enjoyed reading this article. I whole heartedly agree with everything you have said, and I've been writing some similar ideas myself (ya know, when I'm venting and trying to rationalize a World Series match-up that doesn't include the Yankees, or even a predicted team, so odd) So, thank you for this.

  20. Call it good luck, bad luck, or my personal favorite "The Rangers beat us fair and square," but what the Yankees mostly had going against them is the "curse of ARod." Only their massive payroll allowed them to overcome it last year (one time is 7 years of having the curse), but the good news is they are obligated to keep the curse for another 7 years!

    Couldn't have happened to a nicer group…

  21. I agree heartily with everything expressed here. But the one issue not addressed is the Yankees' unbelievable past post-season success. If the Yanks' history had been like the Atlanta’s 1991-2005–getting to the post-season a lot but rarely winning (the Braves won it all once in 14 tries), we wouldn't have all these irrational articles. But the Yankees actual uncanny, almost impossible success has trained everyone at least as much as Steinbrenner. From 1927 to 1953, they went 15-1 in the World Series. Insane. They won 14 of 16 Pennants between 1949 and 1964, including 9 titles. They never lost a pennant in a late-season collapse. Coming into this year, they were 11-2 in the ALCS. Mind-boggling! The 80's cooled these expectations off. But to get the irrationality to where it is today it took what’s happened in the wild card era. Though it's much harder to win a title, they won 4 out of 5 years (and came 2 outs from 5 of 6). They at one point won 14 of 15 series! That should be impossible! In that run, they had a 14-game World Series winning streak, a 15-1 record in games with a blown save (on either side), and an 8-1 record in extra-innings. Ridiculous. If you’ve had all those things go right, you can see how the fan/journalist expects it to happen every year! All this with having five home-grown players come up within a few years who've not only had unusually long, unusually productive hall-of-fame caliber (or close) careers (Williams, Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, Posada) but stayed with the team their entire careers in an era where that rarely happens (less Pettitte for a few). So, while saying that the odds weren’t in their favor to win it all is true, they’ve beat the odds so many times, you start thinking that THEY DON’T APPLY!

  22. As a Red Sox fan I’m glad to see Yankee fans are as irrational as Red Sox fans. If you are someone who believes in the randomness of baseball there are many more bad results than good results. When a team makes the playoffs 3 bad things can happen; a loss in the first round, a loss in the LCS or a loss in the WS. Only 1 good thing can happen, win the WS. So if a team makes the playoffs 10 yrs in a row the best you can hope for is 3 WS wins. Now we don’t live in a truly random world so we have to take match ups into consideration and human performance. Many times the Yankees will match up well with a team and should prevail. This time they didn’t and the reality is Hughes and Burnett did not pitch well, A-Rod and Tex did not hit particularly well and Posada couldn’t throw out a runner to save his life. Another fact is the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays are essentially built to beat each other. We just all figure that is always going to be good enough to beat everyone else too.

  23. Eric, terrific comment. Outstanding.

    I'd toss from our consideration what the Yankees were able to accomplish in the 30s and 50s. Those were absurdly strong teams, and they only had to win a single 7-game series each year to be crowned champs. I'm hardly expert on that era, but I'd hesitate to say that they were uncannily lucky in those days. Not without looking a lot harder at those eras.

    I agree strongly with what you've written about the modern era; in fact, I wrote some of these same things myself here: I think in time that we'll come to see the Yankees' 3 consecutive championships (could have been 4) from 1998 – 2000 as one of the most remarkable achievements in sports, remarkable in terms of the skill of the players AND in the amount of luck involved in winning all those short series. I wonder if we'll ever see a team win 3 championships in a row again (could have been 4), or 4 of 5.

    Those wins were sandwiched between the Yankees' 1982-93 post-season drought (where the team simply may not have been all that good), and the 2001-08 era of good to great teams that weren't able to win it all. Overall since the playoffs expanded to 8 teams, the Yankees have made it to the post-season 15 times in 16 years (an incredible achievement in itself) and won World Championships 5 of those 15 years. 5 wins in 15 tries is an extremely good record, a better record than the log5 calculations would have projected, and certainly better than what teams like the Braves and A's experienced during this same period. So yes, on balance the Yankees have probably been luckier than not during this era.

    Yes, I get that Yankees fans may have been spoiled by this success. That's why it's up to the denizens of the mainstream media to properly educate the masses … and for the most part this education does not take place.

    Great comment! Keep 'em coming.

  24. You are all missing the point. It has nothing to do with anything anyone has said so far. It is all about Presidential politics.

    The Yankees don't win with a Republican in the White House (certainly since 1958), and win about half the time with a Democrat. Obama won his first year, lost his second.

    Since 1921, the numbers are:

    Republicans: 7-41
    Harding: 0-2
    Coolidge: 3-3
    Hoover: 1-3
    Eisenhower: 3-5
    Nixon: 0-5
    Ford: 0-3
    Reagan: 0-8
    Bush (I): 0-4
    Bush (II): 0-8
    That makes 30 consecutive years with Republicans in the White House that the Yankees did not win the World Series. In that time period, they made it to the Series 4 times (1960, 1976, 1981, 2003) with Republicans, without winning once.

    Democrats: 20-22
    FDR: 6-6
    Truman: 5-3
    Kennedy: 2-1
    Johnson: 0-5
    Carter: 2-2
    Clinton: 4-4
    Obama: 1-1
    The Yankees lost in the World Series only 3 times (1942, 1963, 1964) with Democrats in the White House.

    So, in spite of what the rich Steinbrenners might otherwise want, they need to root for Democrats in the White House.

    Is this luck? Is it being good? No matter: it just is.

    And, but the way, for anyone who wants to chalk up all the other Yankee successes to short series random events: Mantle said that the only time he felt that the better team lost was in 1960. He made no excuses for 1955, '57, '63, or '64. Every short series victory through the '50s and '60s was attributable to skill. And those 'damned Yankees" were always called lucky; but they were always the best.

  25. Well, I'm sure the Yankees had their share of bad luck and Texas had its share of good luck but they just plain kicked the stuffing out of us luck advantage or not. I don't think it was bad luck that no Yankee pitcher other than Andy Pettitte or Mariano Rivera could command the strike zone or that most Yankee hitters not named Robinson Cano did not hit enough line drives for BABIP to be a major factor was a matter of luck. It was a matter of playing like crap. And I don't think bad luck explains Joe Girardi's poor managerial decisions like not pitching Pettitte in Game 2, not using Rivera in the 9th in Game 3 or continuing to issue IBB to get to Vladimir Guererro (which is like playing Russian Roulette with three bullets in the gun) were a matter of luck unless you contend that it was bad luck rather than poor judgment that he was hired in the first place.

    Hey, I'm cool with losing when the other guys played better which was clearly the case here. But to claim we were just unlucky is a major rationalization. We got beat and did not show much fight, heart or skill in doing so.