Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 9, 2016

In The Great Game, There Is Almost Always An October Surprise

The calendar turns to October, and the Great Game is stood on its head. Through six months from April through September the longest season unwinds at a pace in keeping with its length. Every at-bat is important, but an everyday position player who stays healthy will step into the batter’s box more than five hundred times during the regular season. Every game counts in the standings, but whatever the outcome of a single contest, there are one hundred sixty-one other chances to do better, or worse.

Then the postseason arrives, and the short series that comprise the playoffs bring heightened drama to virtually every pitch. Two teams get to play just a single game, and any of the other eight can go from odds-on favorite to early round loser in a flash. That’s why teams strive so hard just to make the tournament, and why even the Wild Card, with its promise of nothing more than a single sudden death contest, holds such value.

Look at teams seeded at or near the top as the playoffs begin in our other major team sports, and there’s a very good chance that one is looking at the franchises that will play in the finals. So last spring’s NBA Finals featured the number one team from the Eastern Conference defeating the Western Conference’s top seed. The Stanley Cup was won by the team with the second highest regular season point total in the Eastern Conference. Even the NFL, with a single-elimination format that might logically lend itself to more upsets, produced a Super Bowl last February between the top two seeds.

But October baseball often tells a different story. Just two years ago the World Series matchup was between a pair of Wild Card teams. More telling are the travails of teams that post the best regular season record. Since the playoff field expanded with the introduction of the Wild Card in 1995, just four teams that led the majors in wins during the regular season went on to win the World Series. Since there were several years in which two teams matched regular season records, the statistic is actually four for twenty-six. As a batting average .154 would relegate a player to the bench. An even worse record has been posted by teams that had great regular seasons, by winning 100 or more games. In the same time period twenty-one teams have topped the 100-win mark, and only the 1998 and 2009 editions of the New York Yankees were ultimately rewarded with a parade.

We are only at the first weekend of the playoffs, so making predictions would be a fool’s errand. As this is being written none of the Division Series have been decided, though by the time some readers get to this paragraph it’s possible that Toronto may have sent Texas home for the winter. Should that happen, be it in Game Three Sunday evening or in one of the two possible contests to follow, the result will just reinforce the record of unpredictability. With their 95 regular season wins topping the American League, and with the silly rule that awards home field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game, the Rangers have home field throughout the playoffs.

But first Texas has to remain in the playoffs, and now they must win three straight to do so. Home field hardly proved advantageous to the Rangers in the first two games of their Division Series against the Blue Jays. Texas started two established big game pitchers in Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Who could have foreseen Hamels failing to make it out of the 4th inning in what was ultimately a 10-1 Toronto rout, or that half the twenty batters he faced reaching base? One day later Darvish lasted longer, but surrendered four solo home runs, including three in the space of five batters in the decisive 5th inning as the Blue Jays moved to within a single win of advancing.

Of course if any fan base should be anxious about the crap shoot nature of the MLB playoffs it would be the long-suffering supporters of the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were the popular pick as likely World Series champions during the off-season, as in the eyes of many pundits they won the hot stove league by signing Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. Those predictions seemed prescient when Chicago exploded out of the gate, going 17-5 in April and 18-10 in May. Fifty games into the season the Cubs were 6 ½ games ahead in the NL Central, while the average lead in the other divisions at that stage of the season was less than 2 ½ games. By season’s end Chicago had come out on top in 103 of its contests, eight wins better than any other team in the majors.

Not surprisingly the Cubs were also highly favored by the computer whizzes who look to advanced metrics for their analyses. The website fivethirtyeight.com publishes it Elo Ratings, a ranking of clubs based on games played to date and 50,000 computer simulations of the remaining season. Chicago ranked number one every week of the season. As the playoffs started the website gave the Cubs a 26% chance of winning the World Series, making them the favorites.

Following two wins at home against the Wild Card San Francisco Giants, the Cubs odds according to the computer sims are now up to 36%. All this success comes as no surprise. Chicago has last year’s Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta, and could well sweep all three major individual league awards this season. Kyle Hendricks is a leading Cy Young candidate, who might only be waylaid by sentimental votes for the late Jose Fernandez. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo may wind up competing against each other for the MVP, and no one would be surprised is Joe Maddon wins Manager of the Year.

Yet the Cubs built their Division Series lead with unpredictable performances of their own. In Game One second baseman Javier Baez, playing because of his defensive skills, provided all the offense with an 8th inning home run off Johnny Cueto. In Game Two starting pitcher Hendricks drove in two key runs, and Travis Wood hit the first postseason home run by a relief pitcher since 1924.

With their 108-year title drought the Cubs are hard not to like. Should they be the NL representative in the Fall Classic, it’s likely that fans in every city except the one that is home to the AL team will become temporary denizens of the North Side. Still the odds from the computer simulations are a reminder of the chaotic beauty of the Great Game’s postseason. Even as they favor the Cubs, they tell fans that three-quarters of the time at the outset, and still nearly two-thirds of the time most recently, some other team comes out on top. Should that come to pass for real a few weeks from now, it won’t be because of curses or goats or an overeager fan reaching for a foul ball. It will just be playoff baseball.

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