Why Have There Been so Many One-Sided World Series in the Last 15 Years?

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Why Have There Been so Many One-Sided World Series in the Last 15 Years?
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 2012 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers was over pretty much as soon as it began. The Giants swept the series in four straight, dominating the Tigers in every aspect of the game along the way.

And man was it boring. There was no drama. No suspense. Outside of Pablo Sandoval's three home runs in Game 1, there wasn't even that much fun to be had in the series' four games.

So it goes with the World Series. Boring renditions of the Fall Classic have become a trend.

Of the last 15 World Series, 10 have been either clean sweeps or five-game snoozers. We were lucky to get two seven-game series in a row back in 2001 and 2002, but ever since only the 2011 World Series has gone the distance.

So, what gives? Where have all the good times gone? Why does the World Series—dare I say it—kinda suck all of a sudden? 

Good question. Let's see if we can't dig up some answers.

 

Possible Explanation No. 1: These Things Happen

Whenever baseball fans are met with something that they perceive to be new and threatening to the integrity of the game, they have a tendency to freak out.

This is precisely what I did in my little preamble. Because 10 of the last 15 World Series have been too light on the drama to be enjoyable, the end is clearly nigh, right?

Probably not.

Major League Baseball's history is very much a collection of random shifts. Home runs are few and far between one day, and all the rage the next. Pitchers are putting up zeroes left and right one day, and then the mound is lowered and the hitters are putting up crooked numbers left and right. Performance-enhancing drugs make baseball even more of a hitter's game, and then the PEDs are gone and excellent pitching is allowed to make its return.

The point: Over a long enough time line, trends are going to occur, disappear, and occur again.

And believe it or not, what we're seeing now with so many boring Fall Classics is something that's not entirely unprecedented.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
The A's swept the 1989 World Series, and then got swept in the 1990 World Series.

Between 1983 and 1990, five of the eight World Series were decided in five games or less. Between 1988 and 1990, a grand total of 13 World Series games were played, one more than the minimum.

Between 1969 and 1976, four of eight World Series were decided in five games or less. The other four World Series in this span went seven games, meaning that it was feast or famine for baseball fans for almost a decade.

Don't think that things were any better in the pre-WWII era. Between 1937 and 1943, six of seven World Series were decided in five games or less. Boring World Series were even a problem way back in the earliest days of the blasted thing, as eight of the 13 Fall Classics between 1903 and 1916 were resolved in five or fewer games.

It's not just the World Series that is prone to dullness. It can strike anywhere, as it did in the American League Championship Series each year between 1987 and 1991. All five series were resolved in five or fewer games.

It could all just be the will of the baseball gods. We don't know much about them, but what we do know is that trying to predict what they'll do next is quite silly.

But if you must have answers, I did happen to notice a few common trends in the last 10 World Series that were finished in five games or less.

 

Possible Explanation No. 2: Star Hitters Haven't Hit

It takes a lot more than star players to win the World Series, but teams will have a chance of at least being competitive in the Fall Classic if their star players are lighting it up at the plate.

Case in point, Mike Napoli led the Texas Rangers with a 1.046 OPS in the regular season last year, and he went on to lead the Rangers with a 1.164 OPS in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The series lasted seven games.

In 2009, Chase Utley finished second on the Philadelphia Phillies with an OPS of .905 in the regular season, and he then led the Phillies with a 1.448 OPS in the World Series against the New York Yankees. The series lasted six games.

In 2003, Jason Giambi led the Yankees with a .939 OPS in the regular season, and he proceeded to post an .880 OPS in the World Series against the Florida Marlins. Among Yankees regulars, only Bernie Williams posted a higher OPS at 1.149. The series lasted six games.

In 2002, Barry Bonds led the Giants with a 1.381 OPS in the regular season, and he posted an absurd 1.994 OPS in the World Series against the Anaheim Angels. The series lasted seven games.

Obviously, there was more going on in each of these World Series than what the aforementioned four players were up to at the plate. But the fact that each of these series was competitive may not look like a coincidence once you consider how the stars of the losing teams of the last 10 one-sided World Series happened to perform.

1998: Greg Vaughn led the San Diego Padres with a .960 OPS during the regular season, but managed just a .710 OPS in the World Series against the Yankees. The only reason it was that high was because both of his hits were home runs. The Padres were swept.

1999: Chipper Jones led the Atlanta Braves in OPS during the regular season and he performed well in the World Series, but the same cannot be said about Ryan Klesko. He managed a .908 OPS in the regular season, but only a .333 OPS in the World Series. The Braves were swept by the Yankees.

2000: Mike Piazza led the New York Mets in OPS in the regular season and he also performed well in the World Series. Edgardo Alfonzo, however, went from having a .967 OPS in the regular season to having a .360 OPS in the World Series. The Mets lost in five to the Yankees.

2004: Albert Pujols led the Cardinals in OPS in the regular season and he did just fine in the World Series, but a couple of the Cardinals' other top hitters weren't so good. Jim Edmonds went from having a 1.061 OPS in the regular season to having a .192 OPS in the World Series. Scott Rolen went from having a regular season OPS of 1.007 to having a World Series OPS of .059. The Cardinals were swept by the Red Sox.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
You forgot all about Morgan Ensberg, didn't you?

2005: Morgan Ensberg led the Houston Astros with a .945 OPS in the regular season, but managed just a .436 OPS in the World Series. The Astros were swept by the White Sox.

2006: Magglio Ordonez had an .827 OPS in the regular season and was Detroit's most productive hitter in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but he managed a mere .255 OPS in the World Series. The Tigers lost in five to the Cardinals.

2007: Matt Holliday had a 1.012 OPS in the regular season to lead the Colorado Rockies, and he posted a solid .765 OPS in the World Series. He did well, but the Rockies were swept by the Red Sox.

2008: Evan Longoria led the Tampa Bay Rays with an .874 OPS in the regular season, but managed just a .100 OPS in the World Series. B.J. Upton, who had been on fire in the ALCS, managed a mere .500 OPS. The Rays lost in five to the Phillies.

2010: Josh Hamilton led the Rangers with a 1.044 OPS in the regular season and had posted a 1.536 OPS in the ALCS, but the Giants held him to a mere .393 OPS in the World Series. The Rangers lost to the Giants in five.

2012: Miguel Cabrera led the Tigers with a .999 OPS in the regular season and posted a respectable .837 OPS in the World Series. Prince Fielder, on the other hand, went from having a .940 OPS in the regular season to having a .205 OPS in the World Series. The Tigers, of course, were swept.

The trend is pretty clear: Any team that can neutralize the opposition's star hitter—or one of the opposition's star hitters—has a good chance of enjoying an easy series.

Simple reasoning, perhaps, but actually think about this for a second. The best players in baseball are worth eight or nine wins a year as far as most WAR calculations are concerned, and much of that has to do with their offensive production. Take this offensive production away, and they're worth nothing at all.

Plus, we also have to consider the demoralizing effect that a struggling star can have on a team. Clubs are used to watching their star hitters come through time after time after time. Once they stop coming through on the grandest of stages, perhaps the impact is too jarring to overcome.

Of course, it doesn't help that pitching capable of shutting down star players is typically good enough to shut down non-star players as well. 

Like so...

 

Possible Explanation No. 3: HUGE Difference in Pitching Quality

You can go far with great pitching. The 10 clubs that we're discussing can vouch.

Consider the following table.

World Series Winner Winner ERA Loser Loser ERA
1998 Yankees 2.75 Padres 5.82
1999 Yankees 2.19 Braves 4.37
2000 Yankees 2.68 Mets 3.47
2004 Red Sox 2.50 Cardinals 6.09
2005 White Sox 2.63 Astros 4.58
2006 Cardinals 2.05 Tigers 3.00
2007 Red Sox 2.50 Rockies 7.68
2008 Phillies 2.86 Rays 4.50
2010 Giants 2.45 Rangers 5.86
2012 Giants 1.46 Tigers 4.11

Pretty astounding, isn't it? Of these 10 series, the only two that featured two teams that were both pitching well were the 2000 World Series and the 2006 World Series. The other eight were all lopsided when it came to the pitching.

Things were a little different in the last five World Series that lasted six or seven games. The pitching performances were much more even, resulting in more hotly contested battles.

The 2011 World Series saw the Cardinals post a 3.86 ERA and the Rangers post a 4.56 ERA. St. Louis' pitching was surely better, but it wasn't dominant in the same way the pitching of the 10 winners in the above table was dominant.

The 2009 World Series saw the Yankees win in six games despite posting a mediocre 4.58 ERA. They won in large part because the Phillies posted a 5.37 ERA.

In the 2003 World Series, the Marlins beat the Yankees despite the fact their team ERA was actually worse than that of their opponent. The Marlins posted a 3.21 ERA, while the Yankees posted a 2.13 ERA. Regardless, both clubs got solid work out of their pitchers, resulting in a well-fought six-game series.

In 2002, neither the Angels nor the Giants featured dominant pitching. The Angels finished off the series with a 5.55 ERA. The Giants finished it off with a 5.75 ERA. The Angels won in seven.

Things were a little different in the 2001 World Series. The Yankees pushed the series to seven games despite the fact Arizona's 1.94 ERA made their 4.26 ERA look like a joke. However, the Diamondbacks' ERA was largely skewed by the fact that Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson allowed only six earned runs over 38.2 innings in the series, good for a combined ERA of 1.41. Without them, the Diamondbacks would have been doomed.

The 2001 Diamondbacks are also proof that bad relievers can make things way more difficult than they have any right being, and that's a problem that the 10 teams on our radar didn't have to deal with.

 

Possible Explanation No. 4: Bullpens Are Different These Days

Remember Byung-Hyun Kim in the 2001 World Series?

Yeah, it wasn't pretty. He blew Games 4 and 5 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium by allowing several backbreaking home runs. Had he not blown those games, the Diamondbacks could have won the World Series in five games rather than seven.

The Giants were undone by bullpen woes in the World Series the very next season, as four different relievers joined forces to blow a 5-0 lead that Russ Ortiz carried into the seventh inning of Game 6. With a better bullpen, the Giants would have won the series.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
In fairness to Feliz, he's not a World Series goat if Nelson Cruz isn't in right field in the ninth inning of Game 6.

More recently, the Rangers were one strike away from winning the World Series in six games last year when Neftali Feliz coughed up a two-run triple to David Freese that tied the game. Darren Oliver gave up a pair of runs in the 10th inning to blow another two-run lead, and Freese won it with a walk-off homer in the 11th inning off of Mark Lowe.

That was all part of a forgettable series for the Rangers' bullpen. In a total of 19.2 innings, Rangers relievers combined to post an ERA of 8.44.

Now, compare these performances with how the primary relievers of the last 10 teams to win the World Series in five games or fewer fared...

1998: Mariano Rivera and Jeff Nelson made three appearances apiece and combined to throw 6.1 scoreless innings.

1999: Mo and Nelson made seven appearances and pitched 7.1 scoreless innings.

2000: Mo and Mike Stanton made eight appearances between them. Stanton collected two wins, Mo collected two saves, and the two of them combined to allow two earned runs in 10.1 innings.

2004: Keith Foulke and Alan Embree made seven appearances and combined to allow one earned run in 6.2 innings.

2005: Neal Cotts, Bobby Jenks and Cliff Politte made 11 appearances between them, allowing three earned runs over 8.2 innings

2006: Braden Looper, Adam Wainwright, Tyler Johnson, Josh Kinney all made multiple appearances, allowing one earned run in 7.1 innings.

2007: Hideki Okajima, Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Timlin and Manny Delcarmen all made multiple appearances, yet only Papelbon wasn't scored upon. Keep this series in mind.

2008: Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Chad Durbin, Scott Eyre and Brad Lidge all made multiple appearances, and only Madson gave up more runs.

2010: The Giants barely needed their bullpen. Brian Wilson led all Giants relievers with 2.2 innings pitched, and he didn't give up any runs.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Romo didn't allow a baserunner in the World Series this year.

2012: The Giants needed their bullpen this time around, and it was up to the task. Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla and Tim Lincecum combined to throw 11 scoreless innings.

With the exception of the 2007 Red Sox, all 10 of these clubs got killer relief work from their bullpens. They thus didn't have to go through what the Diamondbacks, Giants and Rangers had to go through, so perhaps it's no wonder that they were all able to wrap up the World Series so quickly.

But what's really interesting here is how things started to change right around 2005.

In 1998, 1999 and 2000, Joe Torre relied on two primary relievers to get key outs. Terry Francona did the same with Foulke and Embree in 2004. These guys were pitching well and getting the job done, so why complicate matters by bringing in other relievers to do their jobs?

Not so much for the White Sox in 2005 and every team that came after them. Ozzie Guillen spread the ball around between several different relievers when the White Sox won it all in '05, and the trend continued with Tony La Russa in 2006, Francona in 2007, Charlie Manuel in 2008 and so on.

Sounds about right. The name of the game when it came to bullpens back in the day was to just use your best guys whenever key outs were needed. Somewhere along the line, somebody figured out that it's better to be a little more specific to the situation when using one's bullpen. Instead of throwing your best against their best, it's oftentimes better to exploit individual matchups and the like.

Managers don't always micromanage their bullpens in this manner during the regular season, but it's something that must be done in the postseason when every game counts. When it's done right and some good luck is involved, the final few innings of a game can pass without any issues.

You know, kinda like what happened in the bulk of the one-sided World Series after 2004. The managers of the winning clubs micromanaged their bullpens to perfection, and they were rewarded for their efforts. The individual games may have been nail-biters, but the end result was an easy series victory.

 

Possible Explanation No. 5: The Little Things Count for a Lot

They say baseball is a thinking man's game, and I think that's true now more than ever before. Baseball games have become chess matches on steroids (not literally, of course).

It's not about my best nine versus your best nine anymore. Now it's about my 25 guys versus your 25 guys, and every man from the team's ace pitcher down the last guy on the bench is in play.

Throughout a 162-game regular season, you're not going to see a manager exhaust every last resource he has at his disposal every single day. That wouldn't be practical, nor would it be entirely safe.

But in a short postseason series in which every game counts? All doors are open and all hands are on deck.

You can take what Bruce Bochy did in this past World Series against the Tigers for a good example. He pushed a lot of buttons, and everything he did worked out to the Giants' advantage.

In Game 1 of the series, Bochy took the ball out of Barry Zito's hands and put it in Tim Lincecum's hands despite the fact Zito had only thrown 81 pitches in 5.2 innings. If the game was being played in, say, 2002, Zito probably would have stayed in for another two or three innings. Instead, Lincecum got the ball and whatever chance the Tigers had of coming back was killed instantly.

In Game 2, Bochy removed Madison Bumgarner from the game despite the fact he had needed only 86 pitches to throw seven shutout innings. In the old days, Bumgarner would have been left in to try and finish what he had started.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ryan Theriot...World Series hero? Hey, if the shoe fits.

In Game 4 of the series, the winning run was scored when Ryan Theriot singled, advanced to second on a bunt by Brandon Crawford and came home on a two-out single by Marco Scutaro. Theriot had only logged one at-bat in the series before Bochy decided to DH him in Game 4, and Crawford had collected three hits in his last five at-bats before he was asked to bunt.

Any other manager may not have had the guts to play Theriot, much less the guts to bunt him over in extra innings with a guy who had been swinging a hot bat.

Little things, my friends. They can make a huge difference. And if piled on top of one another, they can make a long series into a short one in a hurry.

I wonder if this why the National League has been dominating the World Series in recent years, as the Senior Circuit has won three straight and five of the last seven Fall Classics. The NL game revolves around the little things a lot more than the AL game does. If the World Series does indeed hinge on the little things, then it would make sense that NL clubs would have the advantage.

If so, then the American League has some serious catching up to do.

 

All Things Considered, What's the Most Logical Explanation for All the Short Series?

So, what's the verdict here: Fluke or sign of the times?

I'd say it's a little bit of both.

For the most part, I think much of the lopsidedness of the last 10 short World Series can be chalked up to the simplest explanation possible: One really, really good team was going up against a team that was merely really good.

Beyond that, there were some fluky things that seemed to have a hand in the final outcome of a couple series. Most notably, the 2006 Tigers, 2007 Rockies and 2012 Tigers all had to sit through long layoffs before the World Series got underway. Their layoffs clearly didn't do them any favors.

But collectively, I'd say that the amount of one-sided World Series in the last 15 years can be chalked up to the fact that baseball is so much more of an exact science now than ever before.

We talked about how star hitters have been neutralized in the last 10 one-sided World Series, and that's something that can be explained by how much more teams know about individual hitters these days. Star hitters, especially, have scouting reports the size of Buicks. Teams that use these things to their advantage are going to do well.

We talked about how the pitching has been so lopsided in most of the last short World Series, and the credit for that goes to the pitching coaches. They did their homework, formulated a game plan, and their guys put it in motion. Every pitching coach does this every year, but the preparation and/or the execution are just plain better some years.

The one trend that stands out as being a rather big exclamation point is how much bullpens have influenced things in recent years. It's pretty clear that good relievers can make a major difference, and that any manager who knows how to deploy his relievers is going to make an even bigger difference. An excellent bullpen with an excellent manager at the controls may not be capable of winning a game, but it sure can keep a game from becoming a loss.

The little things, on the other hand, can be big enough to turn a possible L into a W. That's something the Giants proved not just in the World Series, but in their comebacks over both the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS and the Cardinals in the NLCS.

To sweep a World Series or win a World Series in a quick five games, a team has to a) do everything right and b) have everything go right for it. The luck factor is something that's always been there in baseball, but what's different about the last 15 years as compared to all the other years in baseball history is that teams now know of more ways to make everything go right for them out on the field.

The best way I can put it is to say that the trend of one-sided World Series in the last 15 years is partly a result of the will of the baseball gods, and partly the result of good, old-fashioned human ingenuity.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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