You are going to lose

In the midst of all the banter about team composition and the nature of the regular season and postseason, a major truth has been lost. If the regular season is a marathon and the postseason is a sprint, is the archetype for success a marathoner who is able to adapt to the sprint, or a sprinter who can hang on just enough throughout the marathon stage to close strong in the final yards? The answer is clear—who cares!

Baseball is a game defined by failure. TThe old adage that those who fail only 70 percent of the time end up in the Hall of Fame neglects the seminal importance of OBP, but is true in spirit. And, because it is failure that defines the game, the margins between the best and worst are quite small; see, it is fundamentally impossible to be great or even good, only less unsuccessful than your counterparts.

In a sport like pro basketball, where it is possible to succeed more than you fail (and a sport where one supreme individual can make a larger difference), the chasm between the best and worst is a canyon. The best teams in basketball win about 75 percent of their games, while the worst teams celebrate in the neighborhood of 25 percent of the time. This stark separation is established over a mere 82 games. Yet in baseball, winning just 60 percent of your games entrenches you as one of the best teams in the sport, and even the worst teams are able to squeak out wins about 40 percent of the time.

Looking at these dynamics together shows us that major league baseball plays twice as many games to generate less than half the separation among teams than the NBA does. So, if the difference between the best and worst baseball teams is akin to that between, say, the 10th and 18th best NBA team (60 percent /40 percent), and here we have further narrowed that group to the eight best major league teams, then how can the outcome of any series be surprising or attributed to anything more than the fact that all the teams involved are of nearly identical quality?

Each postseason, seven teams will be eliminated and one will remain. The odds are in favor of every team losing at one point, even if that team can objectively be identified as the best. Look at it this way: If a team has a 60 percent chance of winning a series instead of a 50 percent coin toss, the chances of a 60 percent team winning three rounds is 22 percent. One team will beat the odds and win—and if it’s the best team, its odds are a tad better. But, just like batting, winning a postseason series is an exercise in failure too. Your team may win it all. Perhaps, your team even has the best chance to do so, but that advantage is really more like the difference between a .190 batter and a .220 batter of getting the big hit.

This perspective certainly won’t sell a whole lot of newspapers or rope in too many casual viewers. It’s not the backdrop for the creation of legend or the spinning of hagiographies, but it is a basis on which rational expectations should be rooted. Of course the term “fan” stems from “fanatic,” which inherently implies irrationality, so I’m assuming nobody cares.

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  1. joltinjoe said...

    I enjoyed reading this article.  I wish to add this observation:  Baseball has far more possitilities than does basketball.  More players on each team, differences in every ballpark, and continuous one on one matchups but with an added defense factor out of the hands of the pitcher/hitter matchup.  Weather too matters a lot in baseball but in basketball it is always the same.  No wonder then that failure is most often the result.

  2. MikeS said...

    In 2005 I told my wife that even though I thought the White Sox were the best team in the postseason and had a chance to win it all she should stay away from me during the post season because it would likely end badly anyway and this analysis is exactly why.

    I don’t know without checking but I would bet there are very few teams that have gone through a whole season without losing 3 of 5 or 4 of 7 at some point and probably against worse competition than they are facing now.

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