In Baseball Playoffs, You're Never Going to Guess Who Will Win

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Go ahead, crunch the numbers to your heart's content. Rank the starting rotations, the bullpens, the defenses. Analyze each team's results from the past week, month or half-season, to find out who's the hottest. Or opt for simplicity, if you prefer: Who has the best record? The best run differential? The biggest home-field advantage? The best manager? Come on -- surely there's a way to figure out who's going to be showered with confetti when the World Series ends some four weeks from now.

Or, you can save yourself the trouble, put the names of all eight postseason participants -- Yankees, Angels, Twins, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies, Cardinals, Rockies -- in a hat, and pull one out. You would have only a slightly lesser chance of being correct than the most sophisticated analysis would.

The baseball postseason is one of sports' greatest crapshoots, one that defies any sort of logic and routinely laughs in the face of anyone who would dare try to conquer it. There simply is no consistently proven formula for winning in October.

Baseball's regular season is a 162-game mathematical proof, long enough in sample size and unrelenting enough as a test that the results are indisputable truths; whether you go 103-59, like the New York Yankees, or 59-103, like the Washington Nationals -- you are what your record says you are.

The postseason, on the other hand, with its extra days off and reconfigured pitching roles -- four starters instead of five, closers frequently called upon for two-inning saves -- changes the entire complexion of the game, making it difficult to project regular season traits upon October's altered landscape.

"My job is to get us to the playoffs," Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane famously said in Michael Lewis's "Moneyball." "What happens after that is [expletive] luck."

This season, the Yankees were baseball's best team. But unlike in the NBA or NFL -- where, more often than not, the best team entering the playoffs goes on to win it all -- that, in and of itself, is no guarantee of success in baseball.

"Once you get in," Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said, "everyone's equal."

In this decade, in fact, only once (the 2007 Boston Red Sox) has the team with the best record in baseball gone on to win the World Series. By contrast, on two occasions (2000 Yankees, 2006 St. Louis Cardinals), the team with the worst record in the field wound up winning.

It stands to reason that the team playing the best baseball down the stretch tends to succeed. But it doesn't usually work out that way. In 2006, for example, the Los Angeles Dodgers closed with seven straight wins, including six on the road, but were promptly swept by the New York Mets. That same year, the St. Louis Cardinals endured a 12-17 September, including a seven-game losing streak in Games 150-156, and barely finished above .500 (83-78), yet won the World Series with an 11-5 burst in the postseason.

The 2007 Colorado Rockies put together the hottest stretch run in history, finishing with a 14-1 kick to close out their season. And while they won their first two series to advance to the World Series, they were unceremoniously swept by a superior Red Sox team.

Doesn't dominant starting pitching lead to October success? Sorry, it doesn't. Here is a list of current and recent aces who have career losing records in the postseason, plus ERAs that are higher than their career regular season marks: Johan Santana (1-3, 3.97 postseason ERA), CC Sabathia (2-3, 7.92), Greg Maddux (11-14, 3.27), Randy Johnson (7-9, 3.50), Jake Peavy (0-2, 12.10) and Tim Hudson (1-3, 3.97).

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