Atlanta Braves Should Know Better Than Anyone: MLB Playoffs Are All About Luck

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Atlanta Braves Should Know Better Than Anyone: MLB Playoffs Are All About Luck
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
This man knows all about what a mean mistress lady luck can be

The truest statement ever made about baseball is that it takes skill to get to the playoffs, but luck to win in the playoffs.  From their run in the 90's, the Atlanta Braves should know this better than anyone else.  

For most of the 90's, the Braves had one of, if not the best, teams in MLB.  You could point to a lot of little things that caused them to only win one World Series, but the biggest one was simply bad luck. Kent Hrbek pulling Ron Gant's leg off first base, a base-running mistake by Lonnie Smith, etc. Such incidents were all more or less luck, and all roughly determinative.

Humans have a natural aversion to ascribing things to luck.  You see this all the way from the bum who buys a lottery ticket based on "his numbers" to Fortune 500 CEOs who get fired because of unlucky market swings that were entirely out of their control.  Luck rules the universe more often than not, and we just don't want to admit it.

In no sport is this more true than baseball, and it's even more true in the playoffs.  Think about it for a second. In the NFL, the best team in the league usually goes around 13-3 or 14-2.  In baseball the best team in the league might go 105-57.  This year no team even won 100 games.  

In terms of winning percentage, the best regular season team in baseball this year, the Philadelphia Phillies, had a .599 winning percentage.  The best regular season team in the NFL last season, the Indianapolis Colts, had a .875 winning percentage. The best regular season team in the NBA last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers, had a .744 winning percentage.

In baseball, the best teams don't win all that more often than the worst teams.  

If you were to take the best team in baseball and match them up continuously against the worst team in baseball, the better team might win 65 percent of the time.  I'll spare you the mathematical details, but this means that the worst team in baseball would beat the best team in baseball roughly 25 percent of the time in a five-game series.  

Now put this into the context of the playoffs, where you have isolated the eight best teams, and you can see that each series is extremely close to a 50/50 tossup.  This is why the Wild Card team has been more successful in baseball than any other sport.  

Let's imagine a coin-flipping tournament where eight participants face off bracket style and flip coins to win a prize.  No matter what goes on, somebody is going to win the coin flip three consecutive times and win the championship.  In retrospect some announcers will say that the winner had zoned in on the flips and found a pattern or something.  In fact, he was simply lucky.  This is essentially the MLB playoffs.  

Baseball is a game designed so that very minute differences in teams play out eventually over a marathon-type season.  Then the championship is decided in a comparatively tiny time frame that has no way of really parsing out the quality of the teams like a full season does.  

So, the so-called experts are giving the Braves virtually no chance at beating the Giants, let alone getting to and winning the World Series.  I say they've got just about as good of a chance as anybody, roughly one-eighth.  Enjoy the ride and let's hope the Braves get a little bit lucky.  

I can guarantee you that after the World Series, commentators will point to some aspect or another that made it something other than luck, but it simply won't be true.  The team that wins the World Series will simply have done the equivalent of winning three consecutive coin flips. When it comes to the MLB playoffs, it's clearly better to be lucky than good.  

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