To baseball aficionados this is nothing new.

The New York Yankees have the best record in the American League with a 97-65 record. Over the course of 162 games they have distinguished themselves as the best team in the league. At various points over the season, they probably didn’t look like the best team in the league. If you were to take small sample sizes you would see they lost:

  • 3 game series to Kansas City (71-91)
  • 3 game series to Seattle (67-95)
  • 3 game series to Cleveland (80-82)
  • 3 game series to Oakland (74-88)
  • 3 game series to Toronto (81-81)

Are the New York Yankees a favorite to make the World Series? Yes, but that doesn’t mean they will. Anything can happen in a series, especially in the Divisional Round of the playoffs where it is a five game series.

One of the distinctives of baseball is the 162 game season. It is meant to separate the good teams from the bad. Over the course of 40 or 80 games, a team can go on a streak and put up numbers that skew how good/bad they really are. Over 162 games, those streaks even out and a team is their record.*

*While the 2011 Red Sox were arguably the best team in baseball for four months, they have to play two more months. They have to play 162 games. And in game #162, they lost and missed the playoffs by one game. Deservedly so. I wouldn’t necessarily be in favor of an additional wild card team, even if it meant Boston would’ve made the playoffs this year.

Many baseball fans, or those that tune in for the playoffs, forget that the 2010 San Francisco Giants (92-70) and the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals (83-78) were lowly regarded playoff teams. However, both of those teams went on a hot streak, caught a few breaks, leveraged the playoff format to their advantage and went on to win the World Series. Were they the best teams those seasons? That’s debatable, but they won the World Series and that’s what people remember. Good for them.

The movie Moneyball is out now, which is based on the brilliant book of the same title. In the book, Oakland A’s GM, Billy Beane, says “My job is to get us to the playoffs. Everything after that is f****** luck.” It sounds cold, and to many baseball romanticists out there it could be interpreted as heretical. I do think it is true, though. All you can do is put your team in a position for that chance at a championship. Sometimes, though, things happen.

In 2004, the New York Yankees were up 3 games to 0 over the Boston Red Sox in ALCS. Most everyone knows that Boston came back to win Game 4, and went on to win the series. A number of breaks had to go Boston’s way, though, for that to happen. In Game 5, the Red Sox score two runs in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game. In the top of the ninth, the Yankees had a runner on first, Ruben Sierra, with two outs. Their batter, Tony Clark, crushes a hit to right field. In almost any other ball park, the ball stays in play and Sierra comes around to score. However, in Fenway the ball hops over the short right field fence and the hit is ruled a ground rule double. Sierra has to stay at third base. I remember watching the play, breathing a sigh of relief, and knowing Boston just got a break. Boston manages to keep Sierra stranded at third, and then they’d go on to win the game…in the 14th inning.

People like the underdog narrative of the playoffs, like with baseball or college basketball’s March Madness. It makes for a great story, and when it is your team that is pulling off the win it’s a great feeling. However, it doesn’t always mean that winning team is the best team. They’re just fortunate enough to be the last one standing.

10.07.2011 Update – Last night, the New York Yankees lost in Game 5 of the Divisional Round, and thus were eliminated from the playoffs. Having the best record in the American League while playing in the toughest division in baseball? Having the best run differential in baseball? Doesn’t matter now.

Detroit may be the better team, especially since making some shrewd moves during the summer, but it’s hard to argue that definitively with a win in a five game series. They were the last team standing between the two.

10.07.2011 Update #2 – The Philadelphia Phillies lose in Game 5 of their Divisional Round matchup tonight. They had the best record in all of baseball, 102-60. So, if you’re keeping score, the teams with the best record in both leagues are out of the playoffs. So much for playing 162 games. Welcome to the crapshoot.

10.08.2011 Update – Today, Joe Posnanski posted about the unpredictability of October baseball. He shows in better detail how the teams with the best record rarely meet in the World Series since the dawn of the Divisional Round.

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