Wednesday, October 19, 2011


But let's look at it anyway. Sometimes you just gotta make charts, just as other recalcitrant, curmudgeonly types just gotta go do a numbers-numbing study. It's as natural as breathing through an iron lung.

So the question is: do teams that play well in, say, the last month of the season get any traction in the post-season? We must unfortunately limit ourselves to study such a question with more recent years, as the entire notion of the playoffs (and the odds of reaching the ultimate destination, the World Series) has been diminished thanks to the efforts of Bud Selig and a gaggle of massive media companies in various stages of meta-conglomeration.

We won't put you through the whole study--because unlike some folks, we know (yes, we really do!) when the data is pointing ominously toward randomness: real randomness, not the kind sometimes ascribed to pitchers with respect to balls in play. But the charts are kinda fun, and they will help illustrate the point being made in our title.

So here's the first one. We calculated the won-loss records for the final 27 games of the regular season for the eight 2011 post-season teams. These were placed into the post-season grid. The "heat mapping" here (not nearly as psychedelicate as what you'll find for batters and pitchers elsewhere) tells you whether the hotter or the colder team won in the particular round.

The data for 2011--not complete as yet, of course, since the World Series begins tonight--shows that in four of the six post-season series, the "hotter" team prevailed.

Of course we can all see the flaws in this approach right from the start. The Rangers-Tigers ALCS gives it to us in a nutshell right away. Does it make sense to characterize a team that went 20-7 as a "colder" team? 20-7 is a .741 WPCT.

It's kinda silly--among other things, the thought of it makes us long to see Ida Lupino slap "silly boy" Cornel Wilde around in Road House (before vamping him in that skimpy bowling outfit--and believe us when we tell you that there's nothing sillier than "bowling noir").

So we'll press on with a flawed concept, because it's preferable than bowling alone. And besides, the charts are kinda neat. We'll only bother to show you two more of these, however, since we know they are silly and flawed (just like that Mexican fire opal ring that Humphrey Bogart bitterly remembers giving to his murdered wife in Dark Passage, which leads to that paradoxical noir notion that you should never give a dame what she wants, because as soon as you do, she doesn't want it any more).

So here are the same "hot-cold" charts for 2010 (where you'll see that "hot" teams emerged victorious in six of the seven post-season series--now that's a factoid that was just begging to get some airplay on Fox Sports, nicht war?) and for 2006 (a chart that should probably be burdened with one of our patented irrelevant allusions, in this instance to a particular Miles Davis album--doubly, and evocatively irrelevant if one considers the style of jazz being played on that particular LP).

It's pretty clear that despite the pretty charts, the data here just isn't of much use at all. We would probably find it more interesting to discover if playoff teams exceed their seasonal winning percentages during the last month/last 27 games. What we see when we do that--or when we look at the ebb and flow of such percentages over time--is that this, too, fluctuates a good bit, with some years possessing playoff-bound teams that were hot at season's close, and others where they were less so.

We can do this data a different way--one that's more meaningful, but that will--alas--simply also point out the essential randomness at work here. We can look at the rankings of the eight teams in terms of their last-27 game WPCT, and look at the rankings of the winners and losers in the World Series. When we do that, of course, we see that the average ranking of the winner is only slightly better than that of the loser (4.3 to 5), which is all right in the old fair-to-middling range anyway--and the final screw-turn is that in the fifteen World Series since 1996, the team with the lower last-27 game WPCT has won eight times.

So even this very selective endpoint reinforces our coin-flip metaphor. 

OK, there is one other possible way we can look at this to see if there is any type of hot-hand carryover into post-season results. To do that, we expand the number of games from 27 to 45--a little more than a fourth of the season.

And then we look at all the teams, from 1969 to the present, who played at least .667 baseball (at least 30-15) over that span of games. And we see how they made out.

How did they make out? First we need to remember that there are two eras of playoffs in need of defining here--the two-round playoffs from 1969-1963 and the three-round playoffs that began in 1995. (We've drawn a line in the chart to show where the first era ends and the second begins.)

One fact that comes out of this is that there have been 53 teams who have played .667+ baseball over the last 45 games of the season in this 43-season time span. So this happens almost every year, and we've had a run of multiple teams doing this in the same year for awhile now. There have been 23 such occurrences in the past fourteen years (1.67 per year), as opposed to 30 in twenty-five years during the two-round playoff era. There was only one instance of three teams being this hot over the last 45 games prior to 1993: that was in 1980, and--as the chart shows--none of these teams even made it into the World Series!
Fear not, felonious friends: if you click on Ye Olde
"Innocent Victim" Scarlett here, she'll get "bigger."

Of course, with the Wild Card in place, it's much more difficult to dominate down the stretch and be shut out of the post-season. It has only happened to two teams in the three-round era: the 1998 Blue Jays and the 2005 Indians.

Currently, if you play .667 or better in those last 45 games, you're a 90% lock to be in the post-season. In the two-round era, that probability was only 70%. So, as Scarlett Johannson and an army of Internet hackers can tell you, it pays to get hot!!

The odds of winning the World Series once you get into the Post Season are now 1-in-8; from 1969-1993 that was 1-in-4, so we are probably at or around a 1-in-6 shot at this point. Right now, nine hot teams out of 53 (just a bit over 1-in-6) have won the World Series. Texas can be the tenth. Fifteen hot teams made it to the World Series (just under 30%), and of those fifteen (would you please keep your eyes on the text, OK??) nine of them (60%) were winners.

So, after all this, let's figure that Texas is slightly favored to win, simply because they'