Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Two Best Events in Sports

You can have the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, and the NCAA Tournament (except for the games involving my alma mater). Take the Olympics, the Masters, and the World Cup (please take the World Cup, I beg you). Just leave me the World Series and the Breeders' Cup.

Those two events are by far the most compelling (IMO should have gone without saying) in all of sports. Coincidentally, they both occur in autumn, sometimes even overlapping. This year, barring a horrible streak of rainouts, the World Series will have concluded before the horses hit the track at Churchill Downs, but with both events coming up I will bore you with a few of my stray thoughts.

* I do not have a rooting interest when it comes to who wins the World Series, seeing as I don't particularly care for either club. I do have a rooting interest in the series though--rooting for seven games. There has not been a World Series game seven since 2002--also a series that matched San Francisco against an AL West club, apropos of nothing.

If one assumes that the outcomes of each game of a series are independent, and that both teams are equally matched with constant strength and no home field advantage, then the probability of a series of length N is as follows (geometric distribution):

4 = 12.5%
5 = 25%
6 = 31.25%
7 = 31.25%

The probability of going seven years without a seventh game is (1 - .3125)^7 = 7.3%; it's not a particularly likely streak, but it's not remarkable either. I'd still like to see it come to an end in 2010.

* I don't believe there's much value in handicapping a seven-game series, but I would give Texas an edge, something like a 55% chance of winning. There's even less value in doing so on the basis of full-season team records, but I'll proceed for the sake of discussion.

San Francisco had a better actual W% (.568 to .556) and expected W% (based on runs scored and allowed, .581 to .564), but Texas had the edge in predicted W% (based on runs created and runs created allowed, .557 to .543). However, these comparisons don't take into account strength of schedule, which can be a significant factor between the unbalanced schedule and the AL/NL imbalance.

My crude ranking system (yet to be published, as it will take a long, boring post to explain it) gives the Rangers the edge on two of thee comparisons when SOS is taken into account. Based on W/L, Texas has a rating of 121 to San Francisco's 118 (or a 51% chance of winning a seven-game series with no HFA). Based on R/RA, San Fran leads 129 to 119 (54%). Based on RC/RCA, it's Texas 123 to 110 (56%). Considering that, I think 55% is a reasonable estimate.

* From a preseason perspective, when's the last time there was a more surprising World Series than TEX/SF? I intend that as a rhetorical question, as the answer depends on your own perspectives on the teams before the season. For me, it's probably the most surprising since 2005. I picked Texas second in the AL West and San Francisco fourth in the NL West.

There have been other pennant winners that I did not pick for the playoffs (a long list, in fact, owing to both my misjudgments and the inherent inaccuracy of the accuracy), but I had picked both 2005 pennant winners to finish fourth in their division, so that one stands out.

While record in the preceding season is far from a perfect measure of preseason expectations, it might be instructive to look at the combined previous season W% of the two World Series participants. In the expansion era (1961-), the average pennant winner played .550 ball in year X-1. Both TEX (.537) and SF (.543) were below average, although not by a huge margin. Combined, their .540 W% ranks 31st out of the 49 World Series.

Several series in the twenty-first century have been lower, including 2001 NYA/ARI (.533), 2006 DET/STL (.528), 2002 ANA/SF (.509), 2007 BOS/COL (.500), and 2008 TB/PHI (.478). This should not be too surprising, since the expanded playoffs have had the effect of reducing the same season W% of pennant winning teams.

The highest previous season W% of the era was on display in the 1999 NYA/ATL series, by a huge margin; the two teams had combined for a .678 W% in 1998. 1962 NYA/SF (.614), 1970 BAL/CIN (.611), 1978 NYA/LA (.611, and a World Series rematch), and 1964 NYA/STL (.610) are the other high points. The highest of this decade was surprisingly 2003 NYA/FLA; the Marlins were below .500 in 2002, but the Yankees' 103-58 carried the combination to .563.

The two lowest X-1 W% combinations both involve the Twins. Not surprisingly, the worst-to-first MIN/ATL series of 1991 is last at .429, with the 1987 MIN/STL series at .464. The other series featuring teams that had combined to be sub-.500 in the previous season were 1988 OAK/LA (.475), the aforementioned 2008 TB/PHI, 1967 BOS/STL (.478), and 1965 MIN/LA (.491).

The Twins also account for another dubious distinction; their three World Series are the only ones in the expansion era in which both teams were sub-.500 the previous season. Both the 1965 and 1987 series saw Minnesota playing an opponent that had won the NL pennant in year X-2, but struggled in year X-1 before rebounding and taking the flag back.

I'm now descending from "vaguely interesting trivia" to "absolutely worthless drivel", but it's something I noticed looking over the data. This series features one of the closest year X-1 matches between the two participants, with just one game difference between them (TEX was 87-75, SF 88-74 in 2009). The only perfect match of the era is the 1985 STL/KC series (both were 84-78), with 1965 MIN/LA (79-83, 80-82) and 1980 KC/PHI (85-77, 84-78) also off by just one game.

* I have to admit feeling a twinge of happiness with the Phillies' defeat. The Phillies were, both in my estimation and the conventional wisdom, the strongest NL team in 2010. But when a national baseball writer (even if it is a demonstrated fool like Tracy Ringolsby) picks a team to sweep through the playoffs 11-0, it's hard for me to not root against them. It wasn't just Ringolsby--the Vegas notion that the Phillies were 2-1 favorites to win the World Series is tough to defend logically.

The recent Phillies are among the more overhyped teams of recent memory. Their regular season records have been good, certainly, but not historically special. Winning two straight pennants (combined with the third that some members of the media awarded to them) caused a lot of people to downplay the regular season record.

I looked at the team with the best record in the NL over each three-year period beginning in 1961. Obviously, there is nothing special about this approach, no reason to think that looking at three years is better than looking at two or four or using a different approach altogether. It is a timeframe that fits the Phillies' record, as it captures their world title, their pennant, and their best regular season record.

The Phillies' three-year regular season record of 282-204 (.580) is the best in the NL over the last three seasons, but it ranks 28th of 48 in the expansion era, hardly the record of a historically great club. Recent NL leaders with better marks include several combinations of Cardinal seasons (2000-02, 2003-05, 2004-06) and all of the three-year groups formed from Atlanta's 1990s run.

At least to this point, the Phillies' would-be-dynasty is certainly no better than St. Louis' 2004-2006. The Cards record over that period was 288-197 (.594). Their postseason results were the same as the Phillies: a World Series win, a World Series loss, and a NLCS loss.

Absolutely worthless drivel: the best three-year NL record during the period was 310-176 (.638), compiled by the 1997-99 Braves. If you want one which includes a World Series win, it's the 1974-76 Reds (308-178, .634). The lowest three-year mark by a team which led the NL over that stretch is 260-226 (.535) by the 1982-84 Phillies.

* The main storyline for the Breeders' Cup revolves around Zenyatta. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with horse racing, Zenyatta is a six-year old mare that has raced nineteen times in her career and has never be beaten. Nineteen straight is the longest winning streak in major North American horse racing, surpassing the streaks of sixteen compiled by Citation and Cigar. Most of Zenyatta's victories have come in races against other fillies and mares, but after winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff in 2008 (I refuse to refer to this as the "Ladies' Classic" as is now proper), she became the first female ever to win the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2009.

Zenyatta will be retired after the race, and so there would be obvious interest in the final start of a legend, let alone the fact that she could finish her career perfect and become just the second horse to win the Classic twice (Tiznow repeated in 2000-01). She also could become the first horse to win three Breeders' Cup races.

This will be a tough task, however. The Zenyatta-doubters (a group which I admittedly would include myself in) will point out that she has run most of her races over a synthetic surface and in California, and that her only race against males was the 2009 Classic (which, in fairness, is the premiere race in North America).

Zenyatta certainly has a good chance to win, and I can even get behind the idea that she's the deserving favorite. However, if you let me have a choice between Zenyatta and the field, that's easy. Quality Road, Blame, and Lookin' at Lucky all should get support, and there are some other horses of intrigue that may run (like Japanese star Espoir City, the usual European invaders, and second line three-year olds First Dude, Fly Down, and Paddy O'Prado).

* A related Zenyatta storyline that some racing writers have begun to wring their hands over is whether Zenyatta will be Horse of the Year or not. Horse of the Year is voted on by a group of turf writers, similar to the MVP award. However, it's held in a little higher esteem in the horse racing world than the MVP is in baseball circles. A better comparison is college football's national championship, particularly prior to the BCS.

Like the MNC, the winner can be viewed as the overall champion of the season. In college football, you had conference champions (think divisional awards for horse racing, like Champion Three-Year Old Male, Champion Older Female, or Champion Sprinter) and bowl game champions (think Breeder's Cup race winners). There was no unified way to pick an overall champion, so journalists got together and took a poll. The strange thing is that people found themselves intensely emotionally invested in the outcome of that poll, but so be it.

Zenyatta, whose career accomplishments pretty straightforwardly place her among the all-time greats, has never been voted HOTY. Some folks seem to be concerned about this apparent contradiction, a great performer in an individual sport never voted as the best in a given year.

Historically, it is very difficult for a filly or mare to get the nod as HOTY. Since 1971, when the current honors (the Eclipse Awards) were introduced, only four female horses have won the honor: All Along in 1983, Lady's Secret in 1986, Azeri in 2002, and Rachel Alexandra in 2009. Generally, HOTY goes to the top older male horse (which is logical since older male horses are generally the best horses. It's similar to the MNC usually going to the most impressive champion of a major conference). A three-year old male also has a clear path to the award, by scoring impressive victories over older horses (as done by Tiznow in 2000 or Curlin in 2007) or by dominating races against other horses of his generation (Point Given in 2001).

Generally, horses from other groups will only get consideration if there is no clear choice among the top males. Even fillies/mares having undefeated seasons will get passed over in favor of a worthy male (see Personal Ensign in 1988; she even won the Whitney against males but couldn't beat out Breeders' Cup Classic winner Alysheba for HOTY).

That's pretty much what happened to Zenyatta in 2008. She won all seven of her races, but didn't face males or run off of a California synthetic track. Curlin had an impressive season, winning the Dubai World Cup, the Stephen Foster, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, becoming the all-time earnings leader in the process. He got HOTY.

The 2009 HOTY race was a little less conventional as three year-old filly Rachel Alexandra won the award. Rachel Alexandra had won the prestigious Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose against other three-year old fillies, but also defeated three-year old males in the Preakness and Haskell and older males in the Woodward. She was not entered in the Breeders' Cup because her owners did not want her to run over a synthetic track; her detractors claimed it was because they wanted to duck Zenyatta.

Zenyatta certainly had a case for HOTY, and would have been a reasonable choice, but I agreed with the decision to side with Rachel Alexandra. Rachel Alexandra won races all over the country; Zenyatta ran only in California. Rachel Alexandra was a dirt horse; Zenyatta stuck to synthetic surfaces, which simply have not yet reached the same level of importance in American racing. Zenyatta's win over males was admittedly in the most impressive race possible, but Rachel Alexandra's three wins over males were all in Grade I races. Perhaps the best point in Zenyatta's favor was that she won at the classic 1 1/4 mile distance, while Rachel Alexandra's longest race was the 1 3/16 mile Preakness.

Looking at the 2010 HOTY race, Zenyatta will win by acclimation if she can repeat in the Classic. She will also be an easy choice if any horse other than Blame, Lookin' at Lucky, or Quality Road win the race. In the event that one of those colts win, though, it would be tough to deny them the award. Each would have a head-to-head win over Zenyatta (and the rest of the field) in the most important race of the year. Blame boasts victories in the Stephen Foster and Whitney; Quality Road in the Donn, Met Mile, and Woodward; and Lookin' at Lucky in the Preakness and the Haskell.

It is possible that Zenyatta could be voted HOTY even in the event that one of her top three challengers wins the Classic. However, I would hope that voters would do this out of a belief that she was the top horse in 2010, not out of a desire to right the historical record. (*) A horse, especially a mare, can easily be considered an all-time great through finishing second three times in the HOTY voting.

(*) If this post wasn't already too long, I would advance a half-baked theory about how this is exactly what happened in 1998, when HOTY voters went for Skip Away instead of Awesome Again, after passing over Skip Away for Favorite Trick in 1997.


  1. Thanks for the Breeder's Cup info. I used to follow the sport of kings more closely, but my time has become tighter and I had to trim my sports tree.

  2. Thanks. You should be able to find two minutes to watch the Classic. It's a good one--I haven't been as excited for it since 2006 (Bernardini/Lava Man/Invasor).

    On an unrelated note to Jon's comment, some additional stat stuff on the WS matchup spurred by some Twitter discussions this morning. Using my crude ranking system to generate a SOS estimate for each team, then using that SOS estimate to create a park factor-like adjustment for runs scored and allowed, Texas ranks 6th in the majors in both runs scored and allowed per game. San Francisco ranks #1 in RA/G, but just #21 in R/G.


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