Sunday, October 15, 2006

Unlikely Advances

When the playoffs began, two teams were left for dead by the oddsmakers and the public. They were both coming off late-season collapses, one resulting in blowing a division lead of 10 games with 50 to play and having to settle for the wild card, the other narrowly avoiding blowing a 7.5 game lead with 11 to play.

One of these teams, the Cardinals, was really a weak team; they won just 83 games and should have won even fewer. Though they weren't technically the fourth seed, they were considered the runt of the litter, a team that would continue its late-season collapse and make a first-round exit.

The Tigers, on the other hand, were a strong contender disguised as a pushover, cast by the media as a flash in the pan that had come back to earth and would be quickly disposed of by the most intimidating lineup in MLB history. Admittedly, a package of average hitting, good pitching and great defense isn't as sexy as a lineup of nine former all-stars.

A funny thing happened, though: The Tigers have won seven straight games to clinch the AL title, including three against the juggernaut Yankees, and the Cards are up 2-1 and favored to meet them in the World Series. What does this tell us?

1. Momentum is meaningless
2. Anything can happen in baseball
3. The Tigers are pretty good at baseball

Number 1 is something that should have become clear with last year's White Sox, who narrowly avoided one of the biggest late-season collapses of all time, but rebounded to go 11-1 in the playoffs. Of course, by the time they were in the World Series, everyone was talking about how they now had all the momentum, what with their playoff run. Apparently it shifted without anyone noticing.

This brings up an interesting point. At the beginning of tonight's Fox broadcast of the Cardinals-Mets game, they pointed out that the momentum in this series could shift very easily. If momentum can shift that easily, does it really even exist? Apparently baseball talking heads are not familiar with the definition of momentum. Momentum in real life not only actually exists, but it is not easily reversed. Swing a bat at a car barreling down on you, and you may dent the car as it runs you over. Swing a bat at a terrible 0-2 delivery from Brad Lidge, and you completely reverse the momentum of the series.

Number 2 is often stated as "anything can happen in a short series". I think even this underestimates the variance involved in baseball. Entering the season, the AL Central featured four very similarly talented teams (sorry, Royals fans). The Tigers shocked the world--who, except for stat geeks, had all vastly underrated them at the beginning of the year--by emerging from the pack to make the playoffs. If you played the 2006 season over, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see the Indians win the division and the Tigers finish fourth. That's what happens in baseball. The world champs improve their roster and finish in third place. You want a dynasty, go watch the NBA.

Of course, short playoff series just amplify this effect. The ultimate example is the World Baseball Classic, which "proved" that neither the USA, nor Venezuela, nor the Dominican Republic, are among the two best countries in international baseball, and only the DR is in the top four.

As for number 3, I can understand, up to a point, why people gave up all hope on the Tigers. The Yankees were totally overblown in the media as an unstoppable force. No one respected the Tigers going into this year, so no one had serious reservations about writing them off when they tanked late in the year. (By the way, if you think the '05 White Sox and '06 Tigers are similar now, wait until you see how much differently the media treats the Tigers entering the 2007 season. Remember how the White Sox were the favorites to repeat this year, after being rated the 5th or 6th most likely team to emerge from the '05 playoffs?)

Really, in the end, it came down to momentum. The Twins didn't play any better than the Tigers this year, but they ended the season hot, so they were rated as 5-1 dogs to win the World Series rather than the ice-cold, 20-1 Tigers. (Obviously some of this was also because the Tigers faced the heavily favored Yankees in round 1.)

But the smart people realized the Tigers had more than a puncher's chance. This is baseball, after all, and no team is realistically going to be much more than a 2-1 dog in a 5-game series unless it is an utter mismatch like last year's Cardinals-Padres NLDS.

Congrats to the Tigers, and I hope Jim Leyland doesn't screw up their march to the title by batting Neifi Perez second again or anything.

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