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.
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?