MLB Preview: Just How Important Is It To Finish With the Best Record?

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MLB Preview: Just How Important Is It To Finish With the Best Record?
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MLB Countdown: 17 Days Until Pitchers and Catchers Report

If you live in the Northeast corridor, this may very well mean that there are still 17 more shoveling days until Spring Training, but at least there's some end in sight to this misery.

I was pondering the following question: What is the correlation between earning the best record in your league (and in MLB) and: a) getting to the World Series and b) winning it all?

Hopefully, this question has some relevance to me and my fellow Phillies fans, as expectations for the 2011 season are gloriously high. With the most highly-touted starting rotation seen in quite some time—at least their potentially untouchable front four of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt have drawn comparisons with the best in MLB history—the projections for regular season wins have been astronomical.

While it’s hard to measure something so intangible, it’s also hard to remember any offseason generating buzz comparable to that of the 2011 Phillies.

I was pondering the correlation between regular season wins and World Championships as I went outside to attack the avalanche that covered my driveway and buried both of the family cars. And yes, my two-and-a-half year old boy enjoyed playing in the snow with Mommy as I did battle with the elements, but I would rather be inside working.

Question No. 1: At what age does snow become more of a pain-in-the-tush than a pleasure?

The answer is largely rhetorical. I still find a fresh snowfall beautiful to regard, but I have shoveled more white crap in the last one-and-a-half seasons than in the previous 15 combined. Unless I view it from the perspective of my inner child or my actual child,  I have clearly had enough of it.

Question No. 2: Just when will we get the good side of the greenhouse effect and global warming?

These last two winters have been brutal.

While my wife and little one were building a snowman, I waged war with an old-fashioned, heavy, inefficient shovel and a broom that had seen better years. Shoveling with such anachronisms was the winter equivalent of stepping up to the plate in my slow pitch softball league with a wooden bat. Or maybe a wiffle ball bat.

With each heavy load, I pretended that I was swinging the bat as one of the Phillies— perhaps Ryan Howard versus Brain Wilson in the bottom of the ninth in Game 6…nah, too late for that. I did get hundreds of swings in, and absent any trips to the batting cages, shoveling will probably be my best and only offseason workout.

So what of the real question at hand? Among playoff teams, does finishing with the best record in the league mean anything?

Returning from the cold, I examined the last 16 World Series winners and league champs (starting in 1995 with the expanded playoff format) and found the following to be true:

The team with the best record (or tied for the best) in MLB only won the World Series three times: The Yankees did it in 1998 and 2009, and the Red Sox did so in 2007.

The team with the best record in baseball only made it to the Fall Classic four other times. This group is comprised of: the Indians in 1995, the Braves in 1999, the Yankees in 2003 and the Cardinals in 2004.

Out of 16 seasons with the expanded format, having the best record in baseball during the regular season only got teams to the World Series seven times, and only resulted in a championship three times. To me, that’s a surprisingly low number.

How about teams that had the best record in their league (I will call them the No. 1 Seeds), regardless of how they compared to their counterparts in the other league? The No. 1 Seed in the AL advanced to the Series seven times (winning the three that I cited); the NL’s No. 1 seed advanced to the Fall Classic only three times, winning just once.

A sobering thought: The last No. 1 seed in the NL to make it to the World Series was the Cardinals in 2004. The Redbirds took their MLB-best 105-57 record to the show versus the 98-64 Red Sox (the AL wild card team) and proceeded to get swept.

Just two years later, the Cardinals returned to the show with a mediocre 83-78 (they won their division with only the fifth best record in their league) mark, but defeated the 95-67 Tigers (a wild card team with the third best record in the AL) in five games.

How have wild card teams fared in the last 16 postseasons? Three AL wild cards advanced to the World Series, with two of them taking it all—the 2002 Angels and the 2004 Red Sox.

The National League has been even more wild and crazy. Six wild cards have made it to the World Series, winning it all twice: the Marlins in both 1997 and 2003.

By my calculation, that means that in the last 16 seasons, Wild card teams have won as many world championships (four apiece) as No. 1 seeds. Together, they have won half of the 16 titles, with the other half going to the remaining two division winners.

Amazingly enough, since MLB has expanded the playoffs, there is more or less an even probability of any of the playoff teams winning it all.

Perhaps your head is spinning from all of the data crunching, to say nothing of the snow if it has hit your area as well. So what is the lesson learned for this Phillies columnist and unabashed fan?

I would love to see the Phillies’ four-headed monster (or R2C2, if you prefer) rack up a ton of victories and lead the Phillies to the best record in baseball, compiling 100-plus wins in the process.

It would be wonderful, but as for title hopes, it appears that it is only important to get into the playoffs. Once there, anything can happen—with much of it defying expectations.

I’m not sure why having home cooking, boisterous fans, “last licks” in more games and a better regular season record has not seemed to mean much of anything once the postseason starts.

Despite these very surprising trends, the Phillies fan in me still wants my team to have the best overall record in baseball this year. Thanks to the recent provision that the league winning the All-Star Game gets home field advantage in the World Series, this achievement is mostly for pride.

If the Phillies do amass the best record in baseball, and win the World Series, they will be the first NL team to do so since the Atlanta Braves finally won it all in the strike-shortened season of 1995.

It’s not too much to ask for 2011, is it?

And just one more request, okay?

No more freakin’ snow beyond Feb. 13.

 

For more information on Matt Goldberg’s new books, other writings and appearances, please e-mail: matt@tipofthegoldberg.com 

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