Thursday, October 31, 2013

Series win just wasn't in the Cards

Almost anything can happen when two teams compete on a baseball diamond. And we saw much that was unexpected in the just-ended Red Sox-Cardinals World Series: improbable fielding errors, baserunning miscues, controversial calls by umpires, unbelievably strong pitching performances and some miraculous hitting. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the series is how unsurprising - even predictable - the end result was.

The teams entered the postseason with identical 97-65 regular season records, and sportscasters constantly referred to the Red Sox and Cardinals as very similar in strength and as the best regular season teams in their respective leagues. As far as overall regular season records go, they were correct. However, there was a difference between the two that most failed to notice. Despite the fact that the World Series is an interleague competition, virtually no one discussed the teams' regular season interleague records.

Or course, merely glancing at interleague wins and losses to predict a World Series outcome is a terribly simplistic approach. It fails to consider all of the variables of pitcher vs. batter, of speed and power and fielding prowess and consistency and endurance, of bullpen vs. bullpen, of homefield advantage, etc. It's superficial almost to the point of being irresponsible. Yet, this year, it's all you needed to do.

The Red Sox were highly proficient in interleague games during the regular season, posting a 14-6 record (a .700 mark - what baseball inexcusably calls a "percentage"), the best of all American League teams. The Cards, on the other hand, were just 10-10 (.500) in interleague play. That was good for just ninth place among the 15 National League ballclubs. Among NL playoff teams, the Pirates, Dodgers, Braves and Reds all had better interleague records than the Cardinals. And even the non-playoff Nationals, Diamondbacks, Mets and Cubs did better against AL opponents.

Does that mean the 66-96 Cubs would have done better in the Series than the 97-65 Cardinals did? Of course not (but... maybe). It's important to note that Major League Baseball record comparisons are very much apples-to-oranges these days, as teams play different collections of opponents during the season. And 20 games of apples-to-oranges interleague play isn't much of a sample. But it may be just enough of a taste to detect a lemon.

Within our small sample of 20 games, the difference between the records of the Boston and St. Louis ballclubs actually amounted to just FOUR games. If Boston had won four fewer or if St. Louis had won four more, their interleague records would have been the same. So, what can four little games mean?

Quite a bit, actually.

While the Red Sox did not lose an interleague series all year, those four additional losses caused the Cardinals to drop half of their interleague series. The opponents in those four games are also quite telling. St. Louis had trouble with AL teams with winning records and managed only one win in six tries against elite AL clubs that turned in 90 wins or more on the season. Boston had more limited action against elite NL clubs, but posted a 2-1 record against the 92-win Dodgers.

When overall regular season records are considered, it turns out that the interleague opponents of both St. Louis and Boston were about the same - in the .485-.486 range. And nearly 1,000 game results - a much greater sample - go into the calculation of those records. So, maybe this year, we're not looking at apples and oranges, but just apples. Despite their identical regular season records, Boston devoured the apples while St. Louis gagged.

The Red Sox, as everyone certainly knows by now, took the World Series in six games - four wins, two losses, for a winning mark of .667.  That's exactly the same mark they posted in interleague games against playoff-bound NL teams (Dodgers). The St. Louis World Series mark of .333 is just what the Cards turned in against their playoff-bound AL opponents (Athletics).

Surprise: Sometimes the simplistic approach works.

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CARDINALS interleague 2013, 10-10 (.500) #9 in NL

Regular season
3W 1L (.750) against the Royals 86-76 (.531)
3W 1L (.750) against the Astros 51-111 (.315)
2W 1L (.667) against the Mariners 71-91 (.438)
1W 2L (.333) against the Angels 78-84 (.481)
1W 2L (.333) against the Athletics 96-66 (.593)
0W 3L (.000) against the Rangers 91-72* (.558)
*-For some reason, MLB counts the one-game playoff
between the Rangers and the Rays in the regular season.

AL regular season opponents overall: 473-500 (.486)

Among Cardinals AL opponents, only the Athletics entered
the postseason. The Cardinals were 1-2 (.333) against 
them. The Cardinals posted a record of 1W 5L (.167) 
against 90-plus win AL teams. The Cardinals were 6-4
(.600) against teams with records below .500. They 
were 4-6 (.400) against teams with records at .500 
or above.

World Series
2W 4L (.333) against the Red Sox 97-65 (.599)


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RED SOX interleague 2013, 14-6 (.700) - #1 in AL

Regular season
3W 0L (1.00) against the Padres 76-86 (.469)
3W 1L (.750) against the Rockies 74-88 (.457)
2W 1L (.667) against the Diamondbacks 81-81 (.500)
2W 1L (.667) against the Giants 76-86 (.469)
2W 1L (.667) against the Dodgers 92-70 (.568)
2W 2L (.500) against the Phillies 73-89 (.451)

NL regular season opponents overall: 472-500 (.485)

Among Red Sox NL opponents, only the Dodgers entered 
the postseason. The Red Sox were 2-1 (.667) against
them. The Red Sox posted a record of 2W 1L (.667) 
against 90-plus win NL teams. The Red Sox were 10-4
(.714) against teams with records below .500. They
were 4-2 (.667) against teams with records at .500
or above. 

World Series
4W 2L (.667) against the Cardinals 97-65 (.599)

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