Jim de Bree | World Series Ain’t What It Used to Be

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree
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Since 1961 I have been an ardent baseball fan. Back then, the World Series was of paramount importance and everyone stopped to watch it. Things have changed. 

Back then, the best team in the National League played the best team in the American League and the winner was declared the champion. There was a high probability that the winner was the best team in baseball. 

The participants in the World Series played 162 games (154 before expansion) to prove they were the best in their league. Rarely did a team with less than 92 wins get to play in the World Series.  

Today, the champions are determined by playing a tournament where every team has a chance to win. Teams do not get weeded out by a long regular season. The team that gets hot during the tournament is frequently the winner. 

Major League Baseball started this concept in 1969 when it broke each league into two divisions with the division chaxxmpions playing each other to determine the league champion. Within five years the change became apparent. 

In 1973, the two best teams in the National League were the Western Division champion Cincinnati Reds, who won 99 games, and the Los Angeles Dodgers who won 95 games. 

The New York Mets, who were the only team with an above .500 record in the Eastern Division, had a record of 82-79. In fact, the Giants in the West also had a better record than the Mets. 

The Mets beat the Reds to win the National League pennant and then lost the World Series to the Oakland A’s. 

The 1973 Mets still hold the record for the worst regular season record of any World Series participant.  

During the past quarter-century, a second round of playoffs was introduced and this year the playoffs were expanded to include a total of 12 teams. That means that 40% of the teams qualify for the postseason. 

That is good for fan interest because late-season games become more important for more teams, but it dilutes the importance of dominating the regular season.  

Many fans who hate the Dodgers claim their 2020 World Championship should not count because the regular season consisted of only 60 games. In reality, it was harder to win the 2020 World Series because, instead of needing to win 11 games, the Dodgers had to win 13. Furthermore, they played only two games at home; the remainder were played on a neutral field.  

Statistically it is much harder to win the World Series today than it was when I was a kid. To simplify that analysis, assume that the team with the better record has a 60% chance of winning each playoff series. I realize that the odds vary for any given series, but using a constant 60% probability simplifies the analysis. 

Using these odds, before 1969, the team with the best record only had to play one series, which it had a 60% chance of winning. Thus, having the best record in baseball and winning the championship were highly correlated. 

Starting in 1969, the team with the best record had a 60% chance of winning the league championship series, and if it won, it had a 60% chance of winning the World Series. 

That meant that its chances of winning dropped to 36%. (In 100 years, that team would win the league championship series 60 times and it would win 36 of the 60 World Series in which it played.) 

Thus, at the beginning of the postseason, there was a 64% chance that a team other than the team with the best record would win the World Series. 

This creates more fan interest, but makes the regular-season record less relevant.  

Adding additional playoff rounds further reduces the best team’s chances of winning. 

In 1969, the Word Series was the second round of competition. Adding the divisional playoffs reduced the best team’s chances of winning the World Series by 40%. Instead of playing in 60 World Series, the best team now plays in 60 league championship series and advances to the World Series 36 times. 

If it wins 60% of those World Series, it wins only 22 times.  

In my example, the team with the best record, which before 1969 used to win the World Series 60% of the time, now wins only 22% of the time. 

That makes it considerably harder for a team to be considered a dynasty, because it will win the World Series less often.  

While the actual probabilities are significantly more complex, in recent years we have not seen teams win multiple championships like the Yankees of the 1950s or the Oakland A’s of the 1970s did.  

Perhaps we should be measuring dynasties by sustained regular-season performance. Franchises that put together great teams also need considerable playoff luck to win the World Series. 

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.

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