The 2014 World Series begins Tuesday night, featuring a pair of unlikely combatants in the 89-win Kansas City Royals and the 88-win San Francisco Giants.
How unlikely? The Royals rank as the third-most unexpected pennant winner since 1969 — trailing only the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays and 2006 Detroit Tigers — according to our Weighted Average Loss Total metric. And while the Giants have won a pair of championships in the last five seasons, their cumulative record over the past two seasons has barely cracked .500.
The fact that San Francisco and Kansas City combined for just 177 regular-season wins this year, the fourth-fewest by any pair of World Series opponents ever, has not been lost on the blogosphere. Amid the usual TV-ratings-fueled hand-wringing over whether baseball is or is not dying (it’s not), the Internet also spent the past several days worrying about whether this is the worst World Series ever (or, alternatively, angrily defending the matchup, or just wondering why we care about the teams’ regular-season records in the first place).
For the statistically inclined, it’s an interesting series, if not simply from a philosophical point of view. It’s true that these teams probably aren’t the best two in baseball, and that has led to what Daniel Meyer of Beyond the Box Score called an “existential crisis” for some fans:
“What is the point of it all?” and “Why even play 162 games?” are questions being thrown around as we all lament the reality of a World Series without Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw.
But in the same article, Meyer notes that Major League Baseball’s regular season (not even the playoffs, which are almost universally regarded as a crapshoot, but the 162-game regular season) is too short to definitively allow the best team to stand out from the pack. Even if MLB expanded to a schedule of 1,000 games per team (!!), the true best team in baseball would have less than a 54 percent chance of producing the regular season’s best record.
Along the same lines, there’s the classic Bill James simulation from the 1980s estimating that the best team in baseball only wins the World Series a little more than 29 percent of the time. And more recent research by Dr. Jesse Frey of Villanova University found that in a typical MLB season we can’t be more than about 40 percent confident in the identity of baseball’s best team anyway.
In other words, there’s a lot of ambiguity, from start to finish. While it seems unlikely that a team like the Royals or the Giants could secretly be baseball’s best despite unimpressive regular-season records, we don’t really know for sure — and besides, the playoffs aren’t a scientific experiment designed to conclusively identify baseball’s best team (otherwise, they’d look like this).
Embrace the uncertainty, and just enjoy this World Series as a showdown of two good, evenly matched teams. After all, there’s a 100 percent chance this matchup will contain the 2014 MLB champion.