Should We Be Impressed?

Yesterday Rich Lederer of The Baseball Analyst made the following observation.

The St. Louis Cardinals. The only team that won 11 postseason games. The only playoff team that won its last game. The only team whose players can say they are the 2006 World Series champions.

Who’d thunk four weeks ago? The Cardinals barely made the playoffs, holding off the Houston Astros on the season’s final weekend to capture the National League Central title. St. Louis (83-78) entered postseason play with the third-worst record ever and emerged as the World Series champ with the lowest winning percentage.

Better to get pinned with that label than to win 116 games like the Seattle Mariners in 2001 and the Chicago Cubs in 1906 and not win the World Series. Flags fly forever. The number of victories becomes a piece of trivia. Quick, how many regular-season games did the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals win on the way to their last championship? The answer is 92, but nobody cares anymore.

There are only two things that matter: (1) making the postseason and (2) winning your last game. Do both of those, and you can call yourselves World Series champs.

The Baseball Analysts is a beautiful website devoted to the objective analysis of baseball. Yet here is a statement arguing that all that matters is winning the World Series.

Lederer notes what many other objective observers have pointed out. The playoffs are not about identifying the best team. As Lederer observes: Thanks to the Cardinals, the team with the inferior record has now won 3-of-the-last-4, 6-of-the-last-8, 10-of-the-last-14, and 21-of-the-last-37 World Series. Call it mystifying. Call it exciting. Or do as Billy Beane and call it a crapshoot or “five hands of blackjack.” Roll the dice or deal the cards.

If the playoffs are for fun, not science, should we truly be impressed by the team that wins the “crapshoot?” Or, put it another way, shouldn’t we be more impressed by the 2001 Mariners, who won more regular-season games than any team in nearly 50 years? After all, every year, someone wins a World Series. Teams only win 116 games once every few decades.

Lederer notes that the Mariner’s accomplishment is just a piece of trivia. Well, isn’t all of this just a part of trivia? Quick, who won the World Series in 1935? I’m a Tigers fan, so I know it was Detroit. But I hardly expect anyone who is not a Tigers fan to know or care.

Okay, I would not be writing these words if the Tigers won. Had the Tigers won the World Series, I would know that this proved Detroit was the best team in baseball in 2006. At least, the fan in me would know. The person who pretends to be the objective observer of baseball knows that the playoffs don’t tell us much. Sure it is entertaining (of course, more fun when your team wins). But the playoffs should not matter much when we assess the quality of a team. And such an assessment tells us that the Tigers are better than the Cardinals. At least, that’s what the fan in me says.

For those wishing to hear more on why the Cardinals are not the best team in baseball, check out this comment by Jeffrey Standen (better known as The Sports Law Professor). And no, I am not linking to Standen just because he mentioned The Wages of Wins (okay, maybe that is why).

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