Baseball is a game of narrow margins. Consider the praise we heap on a player who gets a hit 30% of the time and the vitriol we spew at one who only hits 20% of the time.
The best team this season - your St. Louis Baseball Cardinals - have won a little over 60% of their games. The worst teams win just barely 40% of the time. It's important to keep in mind because watching your Division Winner lose to a terrible team can feel like a disaster, but in the narrow margins of baseball, it's not that surprising. You could buy a ticket to a Sunday afternoon game between the '27 Yankees and the '62 Mets, and it might just happen that was a day that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig went 0-fer and Roger Craig tossed a gem.
Those gaps between teams close to almost nothing once you reach the playoffs, and only the five best teams from each league remain. The Hardball Times has a simple calculator to determine the odds of winning a playoff series based on each team's winning percentage. It even provides a bit of weighting for home field advantage. The Cardinals odds of beating the Pirates in a 5 or even 7 game series? Just 55% - a hair better than a coin flip. And I suppose that shouldn't be surprising, as it just essentially took 159 games of a Best-of-162 series to separate them.
That 162-game season does a fine job of making sure the best team wins, but the postseason is a parlay bet. You need to hit three winners in-a-row, against pretty much even odds. If you were laying a three-team parlay in Vegas against 50/50 odds, you'd have a 7 to 1 chance of winning - 12.5%. Since the advent of the divisional round in the playoffs, the Cardinals have been to twelve postseasons and won twice - a rate of 17%. So that's a bit better than 7 to 1, maybe because they've so often been one of the better teams in the field, but it's still pretty damn close to what you'd expect from a roll-of-the-dice.
Thinking back over all of those playoff teams, it sure feels like chance plays a primary role. The best team (2004) didn't didn't win it all. The worst team (2006) did.
Sometimes, it feels like there is a rumbling resentment or dismissal of the playoffs from certain corners of the analytic community because of the randomness of it all. If you're Holy Grail is the quest for True Talent Level, the playoffs are not for you. The playoffs are a chance for Runs Batted In and all of his context-dependent friends to get back together and put on a show, like an Eagles reunion tour or something.
And when you really grasp just how random it all is, it's tempting to think that it just doesn't matter - all the little moves along the way. But it matters. It matters like, so hard.
If you're trying to beat the House, like a professional blackjack player, you need to play the percentages perfectly to nudge the odds just slightly in your favor. Sure, sometimes you might hit on 17 and not bust, because who the hell knows what that next card is? But the odds are long, and if you don't play perfectly, the odds will kill you. And even if you do play perfectly, they'll still probably kill you.
And so it is in the playoffs. Win or lose: It's largely a matter of chance. But everything Mike Matheny and John Mozeliak can do to make sure the best players are put into situations where they can be successful is critically important.
Let the games begin, and may the odds be ever in our favor.