“You’re afraid of our fleet. Well, you should be. Personally, I’d give us one chance in three. More tea anyone?”
–Sean Connery as Capt. Marko Ramius, The Hunt for Red October
I’ll go out and say it: I think the Phillies are the best team in the playoff hunt, and have been all year. It’s hard to imagine the possibility that their starting pitching wouldn’t carry them three-quarters of the way to a title, and the bullpen and offense will do as well as is needed. Here’s a warning: I’m about to say that it’s more likely than not that the Phillies, despite having assembled a great team and despite having embarked on a great season, will once again fall short of a World Series title. So if you reject that premise out of hand and can’t be bothered to read the argument behind it, you know where to go. But I’m not saying that to be all doom-and-gloom, or even because I’m worried by the recent eight-game losing streak (I’m not). I’m saying it because the facts support the argument.
If you asked me to bet money on any one team to win the World Series, I’d put it on the Phillies. They’ve got the best record, the best pitching staff, a pretty decent offense that has all its starters back for the first time in weeks, and the easiest road to the Fall Classic. The logical conclusion is that the Phillies would win, but because of the vagaries of small sample size and the whoopee cushions and banana peels that shroud playoff baseball year in and year out, nothing is for certain.
Am I optimistic? Sure. But there’s a long way to go. Just like the crew of the Red October, I give us….about one chance in three.
Online oddsmakers are a little higher on the Phillies, making them about a 1.5-to-1 favorite to win it all, give or take, as things stand now. That puts their odds, when you factor in all the idiosyncrasies of sports gambling, more or less where I would: about one chance in three. So if the Phillies are the best team, with a relatively easy route to the World Series, why am I not making parade plans?
Well, a few reasons:
I can’t stress this one enough. So much of what makes baseball’s gears turn is random. A batter hits a screaming line drive that, if struck a fraction of a second later, would have fallen for a hit rather instead of ending up in a fielder’s glove. A Vance Worley two-seamer tails back over the black, and the umpire gives him the borderline call. These things tend to even out over 162 games, but over a best-of-five or best-of-seven series? Not so much.
The Cody Ross Effect
Of course, a bad bounce or a creative strike zone isn’t the end of the story–individual performances vary wildly from game to game. This is how Don Larsen, a pitcher with a career ERA+ of 99, threw a perfect game in the World Series. This is how Cody Ross, in last year’s NLCS, and countless others (Mike Deveraux is the name that always gets stuck in my head) throughout time always pop up out of nowhere to carry their teams to glory while Evan Longoria goes 1-for-20 in the 2008 World Series. I hate to say that many teams lose because of bad luck, but they do, and there’s nothing more complicated than that. The Phillies could enter a playoff series superior to their opponent in every way and still lose, and if you don’t believe me, remember that these Phillies lost two of three to Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Houston at different points this season.
Other Good Teams
You know who else is making parade plans, apart from Phillies fans? Yankees fans. Brewers fans. The Phillies aren’t the only good team in this hunt, and the teams I’ve mentioned are closely enough matched that a short series becomes a total crapshoot. The Brewers’ top three starting pitchers, Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, and Shaun Marcum, aren’t exactly Halladay, Lee, and Hamels, but they’re good enough to make any game interesting, no matter the opponent. Then there’s Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, and Prince Fielder.
Or how about the Yankees? Sure, their starting pitchers are CC Sabathia and the Four Seasons, but they’ve got a lineup capable of bothering any pitching staff, including one as good as the Phillies’. The point remains: in the playoffs, being clearly better than one’s opponent isn’t enough. That’s why they play the games–it’s not fair, but it’s entertaining, and that’s the tradeoff we make. If the best team won all the time, the Phillies would probably still have a World Series ring, but it would have come last year, not in 2008, when the Cubs, Angels, and Red Sox were all better teams.
So while I hope for the best, I’m under no illusion that this playoff run is a sure thing. And if it goes bad, there may not even be any use in pointing fingers. The playoffs are incredibly unpredictable. Try to bear that in mind if everything starts to go wrong.