Why the Angels Won't Win the World Series
(And the Cubs Will Win it All)
As Angels fans across Southern California settle in for a long and exciting playoff run, they’re justifiably hopeful that this year will match their success of 2002 when they won a World Championship. The Halos won 100 games this season, have the best record in baseball, and enjoy home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They acquired Torii Hunter and Mark Teixeira to augment an already potent lineup featuring Vlad Guerrero. Their starting rotation is arguably the best among the playoff participants, while their bullpen sports the all-time single season saves leader in Frankie Rodriguez. The Angels should be the favorites to at least make it to the World Series. Unfortunately, the odds are not in their favor. My opinion is not based on injuries, pitching matchups, rally monkeys, curses, or anything of that nature. It’s based on cold, hard historical data. Reviewing the playoff and World Series results since the current wildcard format began in 1995 reveals some surprising results that would make Gene Autry roll over in his grave.
Consider these facts:
- The team with the better record has won only 49% of all playoff series since 1995 (43 of 88).
- In 2001, Lou Piniella’s Seattle Mariners won 116 games and failed to reach the World Series.
- 12 other teams have won 100 games since 1995 and failed to play in the Fall Classic, including the Braves four times.
- 5 more 100-win teams played in the World Series and 4 of them lost.
- From 1995-2007, only the 1998 Yankees became World Series champs with the best record in baseball (Boston tied for the best record last year).
- A wildcard team has made it to the World Series 9 times in the last 13 years, claiming 4 world championships including 3 of the last 6.
- In 2006, the Cardinals won the World Series with only 83 regular season wins.
Basically, it appears that anything can happen in the postseason…and usually does. So, let’s break down the Angels’ chances one series at a time. Admittedly, some of the sample sizes used below are not very large, but the data reinforces just how unpredictable baseball has been in the wildcard era.
Division Series – Angels vs. Red Sox
Since 1995, the wildcard team has won a startling 58% of their opening series (15 of 26 series) including 55% (6 of 11) against #1 seeds.
In a format where the #1 seed plays the #4 seed, one would expect the top seed to breeze through this round, when in fact quite the opposite is true. Perhaps it’s because the wildcard winner might be more “battle tested” and have more momentum going into the playoffs due to a hotly contested race against multiple foes, whereas, the top seed typically wraps up a playoff berth much earlier and coasts into the playoffs with less competitive edge. Possibly it’s due to overconfidence by the higher seed, or less pressure on the underdog, or the inherent riskiness of a short series. Or maybe it’s just pure blind luck. Whatever the reason, it’s not good for the Angels. The probability of the Angels advancing out of the first round is at most 45%.
On the other hand, the Cubs can thank their division rival Brewers for a stroke of good fortune. If the Brewers had lost the wildcard race to the Mets, the Cubs would have faced the wildcard team in this round just like the Angels. Instead, they will play the #3 seeded Dodgers. Historically the #1 seed wins a 1 vs. 3 matchup a whopping 85% of the time (11 of 13). So the Cubs dodge a bullet and their likelihood of advancing out of the first round is 85%.
League Championship Series
Since 1995, the team with the better record has won this round 56% of the time (14 of 25) while the #1 seed has also won 56% of the time (10 of 18) assuming they survive the first round.
If the Angels get past their first series, things look better for them in the LCS. Interestingly, the results during the modern format (1995 to present) nearly match historical results for the LCS dating back to 1985 when MLB changed from the best of 5 games to 7 games. From 1985 to 2007, the team with the better record won 24 of 42 best of 7 LCS’s, or 57%, with identical records occurring twice. The probability of the Angels winning the ALCS (if they make it that far) is therefore estimated at 56% while the Cubs also would have a 56% chance in the NLCS.
The team with the better record has won only 38% of the World Series titles since 1995.
This is another stunner. The reason for this phenomenon could be a case of low sample size or because of overconfidence by the favored team or any other number of human factors, but the recent data is completely counter-intuitive. Nonetheless, it’s bad news for the Angels since they have the best record of all the playoff teams. On the bright side, the AL has won 5 of the last 13 Fall Classics. Also, since 1903 the historical chance of winning the World Series with a better record than one’s opponent is a more realistic 53% with a much larger sample size (54 of 101). Weighting these 3 factors equally, I estimate the Angels’ chances of winning the World Series if they get that far to be around 51%. The Cubs have a better record then everybody except the Angels and they had the same record as the Rays, but they’re in the National League so their chances are a little less at 46%.
If the Angels have a 45% chance of winning their first round, 56% of winning the second round and 51% chance of winning the final round, then the estimated likelihood that they win it all is only 13% (.45 x .56 x .51). This is only a tad higher than if all 8 playoff teams had an equal shot at the championship which would be 12.5%. Unfortunately, that’s the way the recent history has worked out. Using the same basic methodology, here are the handicaps for all 8 teams.
Angels: .45 x .56 x .51 = .13
Cubs: .85 x .56 x .46 = .22
Rays: .36 x .50 x .53 = .10
Phillies: .31 x .46 x .48 = .06
AL Central Champ: .64 x .44 x .54 = .15
Dodgers: .15 x .44 x .49 = .03
Red Sox: .55 x .50 x .53 = .15
Brewers: .69 x .46 x .49 = .16
Cubs fans rejoice! Disregard the last 100 years! The Cubs have the best shot of winning it all this year according to recent playoff data; albeit their odds are only slightly better than 1 in 5 so don’t rejoice just yet. The wildcard Brewers are next at 1 in 6, while their first round opponents, the Phillies have only a 6% chance. This is primarily because the #2 seed has won a paltry 31% of the time (4 of 13) in first round matchups with the wildcard team. Once again, it’s a very small sample size, so it should all be taken with a grain of salt. In the AL, the wildcard Red Sox and whoever comes out of the AL Central have the best chances of becoming world champs but their odds aren’t even 1 in 6. The Cinderella Rays with the second best record in baseball are the underdogs in the AL with only a 10% chance. Meanwhile, the team with the best record in baseball, the Angels, has only the 5th best chance of winning the World Series!
This methodology can also be used to predict the possibility of cross town rivals meeting in the World Series. There are two such possibilities this year. Citizens of the Windy City are dreaming of an all-Chicago World Series. First, the White Sox need to qualify for the playoffs (still TBD as I’m writing this), but if they do, the likelihood of the Cubs playing the South Siders in the Fall Classic is 13%. Sorry Los Angelenos, but the chance of your ultimate baseball scenario known as a “Freeway Series” in Los Angeles is much lower at only 4%.
Summary and Conclusion
Many people call the baseball playoffs a “crapshoot” including Braves skipper Bobby Cox. A’s GM Billy Beane was quoted in Moneyball as saying: “My (expletive) doesn’t work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is (expletive) luck.” The historical data presented in this article absolutely supports those sentiments. Considering that 51% of all playoff series are won by the lesser team indicates that it might as well be a coin flip. The MLB playoffs are indeed a crapshoot. Good luck to the Angels, the Cubs and all the playoff teams…with emphasis on LUCK.
Ross Roley is a lifelong baseball fan, a baseball analysis hobbyist, and former Professor of Mathematics at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is partially responsible for instant replay in the major leagues this year having highlighted the issue here on Baseball Analysts early in the 2006 season.