Why the title of this post? What would lead me to say that baseball is a great game, when an 83-win team just won the World Series? There are a lot of folks decrying this development, but after thinking about it a while I think it shows how great a sport baseball really is.
First of all, the Cards’ series win shows just how evenly matched MLB clubs really are. The difference between the Cardinals record and that of the Tigers was 12 games, which seems like a huge amount until you realize that it amounts to about 1 extra win every 2 weeks of the season. Of course, the beauty of the long baseball season is that over the course of 6 months and 162 games you do get the separation across clubs. And there is certainly reason to celebrate winning 95 games, as the Tigers did this year.
But the other interesting thing that happens over a long season is that clubs change over time. The Cards team that won the World Series is very different from the one that started the season. I’m not a Cardinals expert by any means, but I do know that their closer, Jason Isringhausen, was injured late in the season, which forced Tony LaRussa to try some other arms out of the pen. Given Izzy’s ineffectiveness this year, it’s likely that using other pitchers in that situation made the Cards a better team. Likewise, over time players come and go with injury, but during the Series the Cards were basically healthy (Izzy aside). Further, St. Louis didn’t have Jeff Weaver at their disposal during most of the regular season, which based on his career record you would think would be a benefit. In the postseason, though, Weaver pitched brilliantly, making the Cards a better team than their regular season record would indicate.
On the other side of the ball you have the Tigers, who played with the full complement of players (basically) who posted a 95-win record, but had to contend with a long layoff and looked rusty and out of their groove in the Series. This was the team that we saw down the stretch in September, the one that lost the division title in the last week of the season as it stumbled to the finish line. It was not the team that steamrolled the Yankees and A’s en route to the World Series. For Detroit, it was a case of not playing well at the right time – over the course of 162 games they won 95, but they were supremely capable of losing 4 in any stretch of 7.
What I find interesting about this is that there really is no secret formula to winning the World Series in major league baseball. Being the best in the regular season means that your organization is best able to win over the long haul (which is why the Yankees won 97 games this year). Because rosters aren’t frozen at the beginning of the season, the challenge is not just assembling but managing the roster/lineup/pitching rotation/bullpen/bench every day over the course of the season. It means handling the inevitable injuries, wading through slumps, and doing whatever is possible to bring in the best players and get rid of the worst. The regular season is indicative of which organization is best equipped to handle these challenges, which is why money does present a significant advantage.
But the playing field levels in the playoffs. In a best of 7 (or especially a best of 5), you have to play with the roster you’ve assembled to that point, and you have to hope that your team plays the best baseball they can in that stretch. At that point, regular season records, both actual and Pythagorean, are pretty much out the window. You can’t really predict the outcome of such a series when the participants are by definition among the top teams in the league. Whoever plays the best in that set of games wins. Period. It’s actually quite maddening – if you’re a Tigers fan, you feel that yours was probably the better team in the World Series, but in this particular stretch of games they looked like the Devil Rays. If you’re a Yankee fan, you can see why the Steinbrenner Doctrine (not winning the World Series = failure) is self-defeating, as even the best-constructed team couldn’t possibly be assured of winning in a tournament.
But you have to try. And that’s what makes it a great sport and a great game: teams continually trying to figure out a way to assemble a team that can win in the regular season and the postseason. It gives you Billy Beane and Terry Ryan, Wayne Huizenga and George Steinbrenner, Ozzie Smith and Tony LaRussa, David Eckstein and Alex Rodriguez. We now fire up the hot stove and move into the offseason, and every team will look for strategies that will help them win a championship. The endless drive to figure it out will keep us talking and thinking about baseball even while there are no games being played. What better tribute to a sport?