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October, 2006

Why the Yankees Lose

By LouV

The worst thing about the Yankees being eliminated from the playoffs from a Yankee-fan or non-Yankee-fan perspective, is to listen to the media experts rant about what's wrong with the team. The reasons abound -- the Yankees "are a collection of stars, not a team", or it's spoiled players, or the manager, or the pitching, or the general manager, or George Steinbrenner. No one in the media seems able to comprehend the basic math in play -- that the laws of probability doom the Yankees to fail seven out of every eight years, and there's little they can do about it (although they can do a little). 

There are 30 major league baseball teams. This means that, everything being equal, the probability of winning the World Series is 1 out of 30. The laws of probability only hold true if you take enough samplings, but even if a less than minimal amount of, say, four samplings were taken, that would mean a typical major league baseball team would win 4 championships every 120 years (4x30). And since championships are typically bunched -- a team might win 2 or 3 championships during a five or 10 year period when it accumulates a great group of players or even a great management team -- that means that a typical Major League Baseball team can expect to go long periods of time without winning a championship -- win a championship then go 80 or 90 years before winning a couple more. Major League Baseball doesn't want you to know that. So normal probability theory is never spoken about on ESPN, or written about in the local newspapers. 

Everything Isn't Equal - NY Yankees Lower Their Odds to 8-1

And of course everything isn't equal. Major League Baseball allows teams to spend as much money as they like to build teams. Big market teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, and Atlanta Braves can spend inordinate amounts of dough to field great teams. The Yankees are the most known spenders. What the Yankees do by putting out a team with a 200-million-dollar payroll is almost guarantee themselves that they make the playoffs. They knock down the odds from 30-1, to 8-1. There are eight teams that make the playoffs, all of them within range of each other talent wise. Anybody can beat anybody in a short series, and so the 8-1 odds hold pretty true. Timing (the health of your players, which important players are in a groove come playoff time) and luck (balls bouncing this way and that and fans interfering with play) play as important a role as overall talent in a short baseball series. 

Skeptical but happy Yankee fans (although for all we know one of these guys could be a Met fan) enjoy their team having its way with the Detroit Tigers during the regular season, winning this game on August 31st, 6-4. The Yankees beat the Tigers 5 games to 2 during the regular season. But in the playoffs, the laws of probability took over. 

And so the Yankees can expect failure in 7 out of every 8 playoff appearances (with enough samplings taken of course). Failure in this case is not winning the World Series. Looking at the Yankees over the last 12 years in which they've made the playoffs 12 straight times, they won the World Series four times in five years in the late nineties, but now have gone six straight years without winning. This is par for the course. Yet the media, which includes baseball analysts from ESPN and all over, and newspaper beat reporters, lambasts these Yankee teams, looking for reasons why they don't win; why they don't stack up against the Yankee teams from the late nineties that did. This is similar to the lambasting that the Atlanta Braves used to endure for making the playoffs every year, but only winning the World Series once in 12 playoff appearances, which included three pennants (a measure of success). 

Randy Johnson easily beat Jeremy Bonderman 6-4 on this August 31st game (was 6-2 entering 9th). Johnson beat Bonderman 4-0 in May as well. Not so in the playoffs.

How to Lower the Odds Further

The Yankees can lower their odds below 8-1, and have done so in the past. They did that with great pitching. Superlative pitching. In the late nineties the Yankee staff featured Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, David Cone, David Wells, Mariano Rivera in the pen, and above and beyond all of that, ace of aces, El Duque. They won three straight championships with that pitching. Without El Duque, they might not have won a single one, even with all that pitching. Which shows you how even great pitching doesn't lower the odds to 1-1 or 1-2. Superlative pitching lowers the odds to 1-1 or 1-2. The Yankees of recent vintage have tried, but not been able to assemble that kind of staff. And so they lose (or don't win the whole thing) according to the 8-1 odds they are playing against; not winning 7 out of 8 years.

Even this year, the Yankees had better pitching than the media has accused them of having after their first-round loss. Randy Johnson pitched with a bad back all year and still won 17 games -- beating Detroit and Jeremy Bonderman twice. Easily. Mussina and Wang also shut down Detroit during the regular season. But in the playoffs, the laws of probability rolled forth -- Kenny Rogers's curve ball curved on a crisp September night, and Randy Johnson's bulging disk bulged. 

Like Playing Roulette

Not winning the World Series seven out of eight years projects to not winning the World Series 14 out of every 16 years that you make the playoffs (or failing 28 out of 32). Those are hard and tough numbers for any Yankee fan. As hard as the failing-29-out-of-30-years odds that a typical team faces. But it is what Major League Baseball has been prescribing, little by little through the years as it expanded from 16 teams to 30, and the day that it went to an extra round of playoffs in 1995. 

The Yankees winning percentage in the 1900's was much higher, because the probability against them winning was much lower. Back before 1960, there were only eight teams in each league, and there were no pennant playoffs, no draft, and the Yankees were able to spend freely. That meant that they could amass a better team than most teams in the league (as they do now), with a huge payroll, and in doing so almost guarantee themselves a pennant (vs just a playoff appearance these days). Which meant each year they almost guaranteed themselves 1-2 odds of winning the whole thing. Then all they needed to do is make sure they had better pitching than the best National League team, which they often did. Thus 21 championships in 41 years between 1921 and 1961. But the rest of the baseball world cried "break up the Yankees!".

With the current-day strategy, Major League Baseball enjoys the best of two worlds. Firstly, big market teams like the Yankees are allowed to freely build great teams with mega payrolls, and baseball in general benefits by having marquee teams in big markets like New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago. But those big market teams don't win every year because the 1-8 playoff crapshoot allows teams from small markets to slip in and roll the same dice. So everyone has hope. What fans don't realize is that they're involved in a game of Roulette, and they just don't have a clue the odds are so high.

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