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As the baseball playoffs begin, making predictions is sheer folly

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 12:22 AM

Long ago, psychologists discovered that racetrack gamblers became more confident of their picks as soon as they actually put their money down. At least you can analyze a horse. But studies showed the same jump in confidence after making a lottery guess.

Apparently, one of our most powerful delusions is that we can influence the future by predicting it. We calm ourselves with our prophecies. But, sometimes, if we want the most pleasure, we should reverse that pattern. Sport is one of the few places where not knowing what's going to happen actually delights us.

That's why the baseball playoffs are my favorite time of year. In every pro sport, they say, "That's why they play the games." But, in October, baseball means it the most.

When we get too analytical, too serious, we can miss one of the most fundamental appeals of the contemporary game: The six-month regular season lends itself to devoted fans of the sport, the true believers and the nerds. But the postseason is strictly nuts.

I try to remind myself of where responsible empirical deduction gets you: nowhere. Four years ago, I wrote: "St. Louis and Detroit may not even belong in the playoffs. After the All-Star Game, the Cards have gone 34-39 and the Tigers 35-38. Both collapsed right at the wire." Oh, there was more ironclad fact-bloated analysis. Of course, the Cards and Tigers met in the World Series.

At the moment, the public might not be quite up to speed on how wide open this postseason has suddenly become. Whenever the Yankees are the reigning world champions, there's a tendency (outside the Bronx) to become resigned, even depressed, as October arrives. Oh, they're going to buy another title. Need a pinch hitter? Get Lance Berkman. Another reliever? Kerry Wood. If you haven't hit 400 homers or struck out 20 in a game, we don't want you contaminating our locker room. If the Yanks pay a fortune for Javier Vazquez and he's a bust, just exile him to long relief, ignore the blown millions and win 95 games anyway.

But things changed last weekend. The Yankees lost two games at Fenway Park to a virtual Red Sox scrub lineup, and New York dropped back to wild-card status, a game behind Tampa Bay. That means no home-field advantage for the Yankees against anybody, including in the World Series, unless they play Texas. Fine teams don't like to admit it, but closing out the Yankees in a Game 6 or 7 at Yankee Stadium is as daunting as anything in sport.

Then, on Monday, the Yanks dropped $82.5 million free agent A.J. Burnett from their division series rotation after an inept 10-15 season. On opening day, the Yankees' rotation depth was obscene.

Now, Burnett has joined Vazquez in pinstripe purgatory. Joba Chamberlain? He grew up to be a mediocre middle-inning reliever. Phil Hughes's ERA has risen from 3.66 before the All-Star Game to 4.90 since. So, candles are being lit to St. Andy Pettitte, who has pitched just three times since July, with a 6.75 ERA.

CC Sabathia will pitch on three days' rest. How about two? One?

Maybe the Yankees can beat the Twins, even at their beautiful new Target Field. Perhaps they can lick the Rays, if they meet in the League Championship Series. But, if they meet the stacked pitching staffs of the Phillies or Giants in the Series, will they win that, too?

Maybe. But some computers say the Yanks have just a 53.5 percent chance of beating the Twins. That's how close playoff baseball usually is. The odds of winning three such series is only about 15 percent. So the wide-open delirium of 2001-08, when the Yanks threatened but never actually won it all, will probably return. (See '06 prediction above: Rush out and get down on the Yanks.)

Analysis is fun. I promise to commit more of it. But in October baseball, number-crunching is only an iota above a guess.

Having the facts is great. It's nice to know that the Phils have one of the best power-pitching trios in postseason history in Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt whose 219, 211 and 193 strikeouts put them among the top 10 in the National League. Don't be surprised if they meet the Giants, with Tim Lincecum (231), Jonathan Sanchez (205) and Matt Cain (177) in the LCS. If 21-year-old lefty Madison Bumgarner gets a chance to shine, remember that he's just the latest in a line of home-grown San Francisco pitchers who've resurrected the Giants since the Barry Bonds era.

But it also helps to know which teams have heart, intangibles and underdog daring on their side; look at the written-off Braves who made the playoffs as a last-day wild card. Chipper Jones and Martin Prado are hurt, and the Braves didn't hit much even when they were healthy. However, Atlanta has Bobby (1-for-14) Cox. Don't the gods owe him a miracle Series?

Remember how Tony La Russa, after his 100-win teams broke his heart in October, stole the '06 Series with more thanks to So Taguchi, Scott Spiezio and Jeff Suppan than Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter. It made no sense. But it happened.

It's entertaining to know that Tampa Bay's speed (172 steals) scares the Yankees as much as New York's power (an MLB-leading 859 runs) frets the Rays pitchers. But don't discount the power of unexpected magic to trump such factors.

Cincinnati, one of the great addled baseball towns, hasn't had a playoff game in 15 years. But they now have a pitcher in Cuban exile Aroldis Chapman, who clocked 105 mph on a pitch against the Angels.

Will Aroldis be this year's K-Rod? Few gave Anaheim much chance in '02 before reliever Francisco Rodriguez, with 52/3 big league innings in his life, found himself at center stage in every pivotal moment. At age 20, he pitched 11 times, fanned 28 hitters and won five games in one postseason.

Even when you repeat things like the K-Rod saga, it's hard to believe. But if it's preposterous, it can happen.

Will the Twins and Rangers - the two ex-Washington Senator teams - meet for a pennant? Will Twins closer Matt Capps face a hostile crowd on the road in the final inning of Game 7 of the Series because the NL won the All-Star Game with Capps as winning pitcher?

No, none of that will happen. Because it has already been imagined. Give up. We don't know. And it's far better that way.

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