Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 9, 2014

It’s October, So Chaos Rules

Fans of no other sport have quite so great a love affair with numbers as do followers of the Great Game. Baseball is awash in statistics, and many of the faithful can quickly cite relevant data about their favorite player or team. In recent years the sport has led the way in the development of new and advanced metrics, to a degree that can leave older fans who grew up in a simpler time of batting averages and ERA a bit befuddled. Now statisticians in the other major sports are quantifying their own complex ratios and averages in an effort to better define their own most valuable performers and franchises.

Part of baseball’s timeless tie to numbers stems from the fact that the game’s statistics are arrived at over the longest season in sports. By the time 162 games have been played, the numbers that they yield are solid and sound, free of any aberration caused by small sample size. Then comes October, and more often than not a lot of those sound statistics along with predictions based on them, are rendered moot. The playoffs are all about small sample sizes and short series. A season’s numbers may allow one to confidently predict that team A will beat team B more often than not, or that a pitcher is likely to dominate or a batter has a good chance to star. But all too often fans and pundits alike are lulled into forgetting that hidden within those statistics is the reality that team B can still prevail in any given contest, or that the ace can have a bad game or the slugger can suddenly slump.

This year’s playoffs still have two full rounds to go, but already the results have served to remind that well-established numbers aside, there is a reason why they actually play the games. What fan would have bet money that the best pitcher in the game, a virtual lock to claim the National League Cy Young Award for the second year in a row and third time overall, would exit the postseason with a record of 0-2 and an ERA of 7.82? But there goes Clayton Kershaw, and with him the rest of the Los Angeles Dodgers, headed for the golf course.

For statistical promise undone in the chaos of October baseball, Kershaw has plenty of company on the mound. Imagine a starting rotation of the Dodgers star joined by fellow Cy Young winners Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander along with All-Stars Jon Lester and C.J. Wilson. Now imagine a team with that rotation losing all six playoff games those pitchers started, in no small part because they posted a collective ERA of 7.64.

If the top pitchers in the game fared so poorly, offensive production must have been through the roof in the two Wild Card games and the four Division Series. Well, not everywhere. Yasiel Puig struck out seven times in a row, and found himself on the bench for Game Four of the Division Series between L.A. and St. Louis. The Washington Nationals had the third lowest on-base percentage in a National League Division Series in the past twenty years. The Nats and the Giants played eighteen innings in Game Two of their NLDS and combined for a total of three runs. The Angels led the majors in runs scored, but tallied just six in three games against the Royals. Mike Trout, the likely American League MVP, batted .083 against Kansas City. He and fellow sluggers Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton combined for three hits in thirty-seven at-bats.

Of course some teams got hits, but even there the results stood regular season statistics on their heads. The two teams from Missouri, St. Louis and Kansas City, brought up the rear in their respective leagues for home runs in 2014. So naturally the Cardinals went deep seven times against the Dodgers, while the Royals used 11th inning long balls to win both of their first two games against the Angels.

This postseason has also already reminded fans that it takes more than money or splashy moves to win a title. The two big budget teams from southern California are done, as are both Detroit and Oakland, the two big buyers at last July’s trade deadline. Of the four teams advancing to the League Championship Series, only the Giants rank in the top ten in team payroll, at 7th. The Cardinals, Orioles and Royals are all clustered in the middle of the pack, between 13th and 19th.

Irrespective of the outcome of the two Championship Series that begin Friday in Baltimore and Saturday in St. Louis, the narrative for the World Series is already set. The National League will be represented by a playoff-tested team that has proven its ability to prevail in October. The Giants are in the NLCS for the third time in five years. Both previous times, in 2010 and 2012, manager Bruce Bochy’s team won it all. The Cardinals are the Yankees of the National League, and more successful than the Bronx Bombers of late. St. Louis has been to the playoffs eleven times in fifteen years, including four trips to the Series and two titles. Last year they lost in six games to the Red Sox. Three years ago they beat the Rangers in seven.

In sharp contrast the junior circuit’s entrant will be a relatively youthful edition of a franchise with little recent playoff success. Kansas City hasn’t been this far in the playoffs in nearly thirty years, because the Royals haven’t made the playoffs at all since 1985. While Baltimore has made it to October on occasion, the Orioles haven’t been able to push through to the final round of the postseason since an even more distant 1983.

Because baseball fans and pundits alike love their numbers, that narrative will lead many to predict a swift and certain victory by the NL’s entry; and perhaps those confident forecasts will prove correct. But don’t bet on it. This is the Great Game, and this is October. The time when certainty and a season’s worth of proven numbers give way to the thrill of chaos and one-on-one matchups, with a season-ending parade on the line.

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