This year's playoffs have already been a lot of fun. Well, for most teams that is true. The Angels, Athletics, Nationals, Pirates and Tigers likely disagree. Of these eliminated teams, it may be argued that the Angels are the biggest disappointment. The Angels came into postseason play with the best record in baseball at 98-64 (.605 winning percentage) but are going home after being swept by a Royals team that won nine fewer games over the course of the season. Things are similar on the National League side, as the top regular season team stands near the edge of disappointment. The Nationals, the team tied with the Orioles for the second best record in baseball at 96-66 (.593), were sent home last night by the San Francisco Giants, a team that won eight fewer games in the regular season and gained entry to the postseason through the wild card. What are we to make of this? Perhaps a more direct question is: how do the best regular season teams typically perform in the playoffs?
To respond to this question, I looked into the playoff performances of the best regular season teams in each league dating back to 1995, when Major League Baseball implemented the Wild Card, 8-team playoff system. To be clear, the best regular season teams were those that won the most games in their league. In the few cases that two teams had the same number of wins they were both included. In some cases the difference between the best and second best team would be only a win, but I am ignoring the magnitude of the difference between best and next best here. I should also note that basing the analysis on wins means we are not necessarily looking at teams with the highest level of true talent, just those who won the most, which is a different measure of best. For more on the fascinating issue of true talent I suggest you read this thread. For now we will stick with regular season wins as our measure. Without any more digression here is how far those top teams advanced:
Given these results, perhaps we should not be all that surprised that the Angels and Nationals were eliminated in the LDS this year; it is the most common result. But really it appears that these best teams end up with a pretty even breakdown of getting eliminated in the LDS, advancing to the LCS, or advancing to the World Series. On average, they went on to win 4.89 games in the playoffs (5.27 for AL teams, 4.32 for NL teams), which, with the setup of a best-of-5 LDS, would land them in the LCS.
There are a couple of other interesting notes that come out of this analysis. First, of the 8 AL teams that advanced to the World Series, 6 won, whereas only 1 of the 6 NL teams won when they got there. Second, the best regular season teams have met in the World Series 3 times: 1995, 1999, and 2013.
There may be a lot written in the next few weeks about how the Angels' and Nationals' 2014 seasons ended up in disappointment. Complex reasons for their demise will be identified and plans for next season put in place. I don't mean to suggest that either team is without flaws, but really the message should be that they were strong teams that fell to the randomness of the playoffs. Over the course of the season, the Angels lost 3 games in a row six times (two were part of 4-game losing streaks). The Nationals went 1-3 across 4 games 25 times. Unfortunately, the Angels' seventh 0-3 streak and Nationals' 26th 1-3 streak came at a really inopportune time. Good teams are not immune to stretches of poor results; results that are due to a range of factors, some of which are out of the team's control.
In the end, being the team with the most wins in the regular season guarantees nothing in the playoffs other than an appearance and an extra home game (if necessary). Even with thousands of games worth of information at our disposal, it remains remarkably difficult to predict the outcomes of a single baseball game and accordingly a short series of games. There is such a great deal of variance in the outcomes that the variance can swamp everything we think we know, especially in a short series. None of this is meant to denigrate the Royals, Orioles, Cardinals, Giants, or eventual World Series winner; their accomplishments are certainly worth noting. Rather, this is intended as another article suggesting we avoid overreacting to a team's (and player's) performance in October. The baseball playoffs are a wildly fun tournament that provide thrills and heartbreak (depending on your perspective) but will not necessarily end up revealing the best team of the season.
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All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.
Chris Teeter is a featured writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.