AN Book Club, Topic 1 - Are the playoffs a crapshoot?

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a great diary and I wanted to make it the front page story. BBG took her time to write something great and I think it's a fantastic idea. I might even ask her to post it on the front page of the site, if she's interested. - Blez]

Okay, so after taking the weekend to digest the big news, I realized I don't want to talk about it anymore. Moot point. It is what it is and we need to get ready for 2006. It should also be noted that I'm going to put a hiatus on my best AN quotes for the offseason, since about 80% of them were taken from the game threads. It's only fair.

So...instead, can we discuss a good book? It's going to be a long off-season, and I want a reason to keep coming back to AN, and I really, really want to dissect some of the less traditional thoughts about baseball. If I'm going to be drinking the KoolAid with the rest of you this season, I want to know more.

My search took me back to a copy of "The Sinister First Baseman" by Eric Walker, which is the precursor to "Moneyball", and for the first time, I think I may have a glimpse into what the heck Mr. Walker is talking about. I hesitate to say that I understand or agree with it all, because he points out that as soon as you think you know all there is to know about baseball, that's when you are useless to the sport.

If you haven't read it, the highlights of the book include:

  • The precursor to OBP, described as not only looking at a player's batting average, but factoring in how many times said player got on base, a far more valuable measure of worth; heady stuff for 1982
  • The overrated statistic of RBI
  • The myth of how important defense is to a team; how a single good offensive player can help a team win more games over a season than an entire defensive team upgrade
  • The flaw of using errors to measure anything about a defensive player
  • The most interesting idea that a batting lineup does matter after all
  • The statistically proven myth of "clutch hitting"
  • A complete and accurate analysis of why Joe Morgan would hate "Moneyball", eerily written twenty years before "Moneyball" was fully introduced to the baseball world
  • The greatest baseball quote EVER
  • One of the most irritating of remarks, the true fingernail on the blackboard, is from the cretin who observes [a play during the game] and says, "See? That's what I mean about baseball-it's so dull; nothing's ever happening." In a truly civilized society, such people would be taken out and shot. In our own less-than-perfect world, we have to just grit our teeth and put up with them.
  • How, over the course of a season, playing for one run might win that one game right then and there, but ultimately will lose more games than it will win. Conversely, playing for "the big inning" will ultimately win significantly more games than the one run approach, even counting the 1-0 games you will lose by not playing the dreaded Small Ball. Ladies and gentlemen, your Oakland Athletics.
  • And today's topic: The playoffs are a crapshoot; there is in fact a whole chapter entitled "The October Crapshoot".
  • This is the book that truly revolutionized the baseball world, which put anyone who was willing to concede a different way of looking at baseball in the middle of the fight between players of The Game and Billy Beane and Co. In fact, the Oakland A's hired Walker as a consultant to put together an analysis based on some of the ideas he broached in his 1982 book.

I'd love to discuss this book and some of these points with you guys during the off-season. I'm so curious what AN agrees and disagrees with. Let me know if there's an interest in talking about this book and I can start up a weekly (bi-weekly?) diary, complete with some quotes from the book (since this book is really hard to find, but so worth reading and knowing about). If not, well, um...go Chargers?

So the playoffs. Now keep in mind, I never wanted to buy into this because I like the Wild Card. I like that my team has two chances to make it to the postseason. But if I believe that the playoffs are a crapshoot, then what I'm really saying is that instead of my team rolling the dice and winning once (one series), they will have to win three times in a row (three series). As a result, anyone can win in the postseason. Small sample size at its finest. For some reason, knowing that, the four consecutive game 5 exits for the A's don't hurt as much. We have company in the Atlanta Braves, and now the New York Yankees. Despite what the New York papers are trying to sell us, I don't think the Yankees are October chokers. I think there is no such thing as a magical, mystical October team, and the law of averages (and some average pitching) finally caught up to New York.

Don't get Walker wrong; he knows the playoffs are what link casual fans to the game, what bridges the gap, and makes the money for the sport, so it is important in that sense. Walker also talks about how the ring is the only thing that matters in baseball; that the division flag is meaningless, yet, ironically, that division flag is the true measure of how good a team is. Really? Why? What's wrong with putting all the importance and bragging rights onto the World Series?

There is, I hesitantly regret to point out, a small flaw in the situation. It is the assumption that the World Series proves something. It doesn't. If you look on the Series as an opportunity to see two quite good baseball teams playing the game as intensely as they know how, well and good.

 Usually, not always but usually, it's fine and exciting baseball. That however, is all it is. It doesn't prove a thing.

He goes on to talk about the sample size of 162 games, which mathematically works out a one game spread in W-L totals, a difference of .006, under 1%. The breaks will even out, the talent will be spread consistently; all teams have a fair chance to represent themselves. However, in a seven game series (and that's not even talking about the five game series that we keep getting kicked out of!):

We say normally the best team in the game will have a .600 win percentage and the worst a .400. I don't know about you, but I would certainly not call that a huge spread-and that's from very best to very worse. I think we may very reasonably conclude that the ability spread between two teams in the World Series will be rather less.

I would say that if any two teams who face each other in a Series could instead play a long string of one-on-one games, say a full hundred games, it would virtually never happen that either team would end up winning so many as five games more than the other (that is, that .550 vs. .450 would be the outside limit of inherent ability differences).

What do you suppose the corresponding gap would be over a mere seven-game series? Small--very small; in fact it is equal to a fraction of a game.

...what this means is that the Series is generally a virtual coin toss.

He goes on to take the average of the W/L numbers from all the World Series' from 1903 to 1981 and then flips a coin as many times, and comes up with pretty scarily close numbers.

Compare the teams all you want. But when you put your money down, you're gambling in the purest sense of the word. The Series losers need not, if they but understood, feel broken, nor the winners triumphant. But they neither of them do understand, and, in some ways, that may be for the best after all.

This is in just about direct contradiction to...well...everything held in the mystique of baseball.

What do you guys think? Agree? Disagree?
Update [2005-10-17 19:28:35 by baseballgirl]: Next week: The Myth of Clutch Hitting

(Just thought I'd let everyone prepare arguments now. :)