Why The Best Teams In Baseball Always Lose

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Last year the Cubs were baseball’s darlings.  They were the best team in baseball. They won 103 games, the World Series (in dramatic fashion), and broke that 108 year old streak of goose eggs on their championship belt.  But rarely is baseball so kind.  Since 2000, the team with the best record in baseball has walked off the field champs just 4 times in 17 tries.  Of those 17 teams, 11 of them were one hundred game winners.  In addition, there have also been 5 other one hundred game winners over that span.  That means that only 2 of 16 one hundred game winners have won the World Series and only 5 of 16 one hundred game winners have even made the World Series.  To make things even more bleak for the Indians, Astros, and Dodgers’ 2017 World Series hopes, teams that held the best record in their individual league have only made the World Series 9 times in 32 tries since 2000, an ugly 28% of the time.  The team with the best record in the NL has only made the World Series 18% of the time, winning only once, while the team with the best record in the AL has made it to World Series 31% of the time, winning 5 times.  Whatever the odds are, and no matter who finishes with the best record in baseball or their individual league, whether it be the Indians, Dodgers, or someone else, their odds of putting away the trophy or even making the World Series are relatively small.

Everyone always mumbles on about the fact that Baseball is a game of chance, that it’s unpredictable, and full of luck.  And while I agree to a point, there are actual literal reasons why the best teams in baseball lose in October.  Let’s explore some of the reasons those teams lost over the past several years.  

 

2016 Texas Rangers 95-67 Best Record in AL, 3rd In MLB

Reason For Losing:  Stars didn’t play up to their capabilities

Maybe the Rangers shouldn’t have been considered one of baseball’s best teams in 2016.  According to baseball-reference.com their Pythagorean W-L record was a mere 82-80, they only scored 8 more runs than they allowed, and they went a remarkable 36-11 in one run games.  Even if you don’t believe they were one of the best, the Rangers still had two aces in Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, and a capable offense that ranked 7th in total runs scored.  In getting swept in the ALDS by the Blue Jays both Darvish and Hamels, the guys the Rangers needed to pitch well, got smoked for 11 earned runs in just 8 ⅓ innings in Games 1 & 2.  The offense couldn’t solve the Jays’ pitching early on, and by the time they woke up the series was all but over.

2015 St. Louis Cardinals 100-62, Best Record in MLB

Reason for Losing: Biggest strength didn’t play up to potential.

The 2015 St. Louis Cardinals didn’t have a single month in which they had a losing record in except for October.  They also sustained a similar W-L% from the first half of the season, .629%, through the second half, .603%.  So how could such a consistent team flail out of the playoffs so quickly?  Well, a rotation that ranked first in the majors and bullpen that ranked third, consistently let the Cardinals down.  The offense, which wasn’t great during the regular season, scored 5.25 runs per game during the NLDS against the Cubs, a giant step up from their 3.99 runs per game scored during the regular season.  But except for Game 1, every time the Cards got a lead they lost it, and every time they fell behind their pitching failed to keep them close.

2014 St. Los Angeles Angels 98-64, Best Record in MLB

Reason for Losing: Biggest strength didn’t play up to potential/ Stars didn’t play up to capabilities.

The 2014 Angels were the best hitting team in the Major Leagues, scoring 773 runs, but just an average pitching team, ranking just 15th in total team ERA.  If they were going to win in the playoffs, they needed to be able to sock the ball from the batters box.  They failed to do that against the Royals in the 2014 ALDS, scoring an average of 2 runs per game in the three game sweep.  To top it off, their top hitters struggled mightily.   Mike Trout hit .083.  Albert Pujols, who batted .167, was third on the team in average.  Josh Hamilton failed to record a hit.  The team’s total batting average for the series was .170. They couldn’t score on the Royals’ starters, and scoring on the Royals’ bullpen was an impossible task that postseason. Ultimately, that was the straw that broke the hat.  


2013 St. Louis Cardinals 97-65, Tied for Best Record in MLB

Reason for Losing: Stars couldn’t carry them over the hump/ Couldn’t take advantage of opponent's weakness

The interesting thing about the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals is that, per baseball-reference.com, their Pythagorean W-L record was actually 101-61, which means they were a bit unlucky during the season.  And unlike all the teams I just mentioned, they actually took the Red Sox to six games during the World Series.  So they really have nothing to be ashamed of.  However, we still have to note the reason they lost.  The Cardinals made the World Series on the backs of rookie Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright, and and the ability to hit good pitching.  They beat Kershaw twice in the NLCS, pounding him for 7 earned runs in Game 7.  In the World Series though, the Red Sox got to both Wainwright and Wacha.  Jon Lester shut down the Cardinals in both games he pitched.  And in return, the Cardinals failed to beat the combination of Clay Bucholz and Felix Doubront in Game 4 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.   

2012 Washington Nationals 98-64, Best Record in MLB

Reason for Losing: Angering the baseball gods/ Inability to finish

This was the infamous year in which the Nationals decided to sit rookie Stephen Strasburg during the playoffs instead of gun for a title because they were concerned about the long term wear and tear on his arm.  Let’s just say the baseball gods don’t look kindly on those who tempt fate.  In Game 3 of the ALDS, the Nats got waxed 8-0 by the Cardinals.  They sure could have used Strasburg in such a situation instead of Edwin Jackson.  And yet, even then the Nats held a 6-1 advantage in Game 5 through 5 innings, and a 7-5 lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and still managed to find a way to lose.  Yeah, closer Drew Storen couldn’t close the deal, but I wouldn’t count out some divine intervention either.   

2011 Philadelphia Phillies 102-60, Best Record in MLB

Reason for Losing: Biggest strength didn’t live up to expectation/ Inability to finish

Per baseball-reference, the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies Pythagorean W-L record was remarkably one win better than their actual total.  And remember this is the team that constructed one of the best starting pitching staffs on paper ever with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt.  So how did they lose in the ALDS to the Cardinals?  Well, that pitching staff didn’t quite live up to it’s billing.  Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt both got hammered for 5 earned runs a piece in Games 2 & 4, and while Halladay didn’t pitch terribly, he still failed to outpitch Chris Carpenter in Game 5.

2010 Tampa Bay Rays 96-66, Best Record in AL, 2nd in MLB

Reason for Losing: Stars didn’t play up to capabilities / Inability to finish

Following up a World Series appearance, there was high hopes for the 2010 Rays.  And during the regular season, they lived up to those hopes.  David Price was awesome in his first full season as a starter. Matt Garza and James Shields anchored the rest of the rotation. Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, and Carl Crawford once again terrorized opposing pitchers.  And yet, when the Rays made it to the playoffs it didn’t all come together like they thought it would.  Carl Crawford hit .143 in the ALDS, scored only one run, and stole only one bag.  Evan Longoria hit an unappealing .200. And lastly, David Price lost both Games 1 & 5 to the Rangers’ Cliff Lee, starting that whole “he can’t win in the playoffs” mantra he still carries today.   

What Did We Learn?

Usually when teams don’t meet high expectations it’s because either their star players don’t play well, or the team’s biggest strength fails to play well.  After crunching the numbers, and running through this experiment, we know it’s more than likely that either one or both of the Dodgers and Indians’ pitching staffs will disappoint.  We know that if the Astros struggle in the playoffs it will probably be because their big three (Springer, Altuve, Correa) fail to produce at the plate.  We also know it’s more probable than not that all three of the teams I just mentioned will struggle in the area they are best at, so we shouldn’t be surprised when it happens.  It’s tough to be good for 162 games, but it’s even tougher to be good in a 5 or 7 game series.