Friday, October 6, 2017

Which Team Is the Best?

Which team is baseball's best in 2017? We're getting ready to find out with the playoffs and World Series coming up… or are we? The best team wins the World Series, right? Not necessarily. The 'cream rises to the top,' doesn't it? Maybe in milk, but not always in baseball.

What are you talking about? The best teams make the playoffs and then slug it out for the title, don't they? Not always. Just ask the 2001 Seattle Mariners, the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals, 2014 L.A. Angels, 2011 Phillies, or any other team that had baseball's best record in any year, yet did not win the World Series.

How do you define 'best?' Is it the team with the most wins, the most home runs, or the highest batting average? Or is it the team that takes it all, regardless of regular season record or statistics?

The Dodgers, Indians, and Astros in 2017 all won more than 100 games, and most people probably agree they are the best three teams this year for regular season play. As I write this though, the playoffs are just beginning, and it's possible that a team with a less impressive record could win it all. Will any of those teams still be considered among the best if they don't win a title? Some will say yes, and some will say no.

History records that the 1906 Chicago Cubs and the 2001 Seattle Mariners are tied for the most wins in the regular season. Both teams won 116 games, and neither team won a championship. The Cubs (116-36) won 13 more games than their cross-town and World Series rival Chicago White Sox (93-58), yet the American League team took the Series title. The 2001 Mariners didn't even get to the Fall Classic, losing 4-1 to the Yankees (95-65) in the ALCS.

No, the best team does not always win. Sometimes, the least likely team wins, such as in 1973, when the Mets (82-79) won 17 fewer games than the MLB best Reds, (99-63) and 12 fewer games than the AL Champion Oakland A's at 94-68, (who in turn, won three fewer games than the AL best Orioles, 97-65.) That year, the two teams with the best records didn't even make it to the World Series. That '73 Mets team was just three games over .500, and they won it all. The Cardinals in 2006 were 83-78 over the regular season, and then beat the Tigers (95-67) four games to one.

Yes, a team that has a great regular season, and goes on to win the World Series would definitely qualify for the 'best' label. But what about a team that leads baseball in wins for the season, but can't keep it together in the playoffs? Clearly, a team that can't win the big games when it counts (in the post-season) loses some of their luster. Can a team that has a spectacular regular season, but falters in the playoffs or World Series be considered the best that year? Opinions vary. It doesn't necessarily mean such a team wasn't that year's best – it just means that because the regular season and the playoffs are different animals, everything changes.

To be the best over the course of 162 games (or 154 games prior to 1961), a team obviously must have more good days than bad, more so than everyone else. During a season, every team will have winning and losing streaks. Keep in mind that the best any post 1900 team has ever done, percentage wise, is the '06 Cubs, who won 76% of their games. Which obviously means that on average, they lost a game about every fourth day.

Over the course of a long season, the team that generally plays best overall tends to finish at the top. Many variables factor in, obviously, including (but not limited to) difficulty of schedule, injuries, team chemistry, and sometimes sheer luck (if you believe in such things.) The best team will probably emerge in each division, because they are likely to have overcome setbacks better than their rivals. The first place team may not have the highest team average, the most home runs, etc., but those players and the team were better in the clutch over the season. That is, they hit, scored runs, fielded, and pitched better when they really needed to, when the game was on the line, more often than everyone else.

Everything changes when the playoff season begins. In the post-season, even the greatest team in history can have a bad week at the wrong time, and it can be fatal. The beauty of baseball, and in most of sports, is that on any given day, a weak team can beat a strong team. And it can happen over a period of four to seven games just that way – in a playoff or World Series. Which, of course, is why they play the games and don't simply award the World Series trophy to the team with the best record.

For a baseball team from March to September, a mistake here and there isn't going to kill their post-season chances because, unless it happens at a critical point in the waning days of the regular season, they usually have time to make up for it. That isn't true in the playoffs. A bloop hit, booted ground ball, hanging curve ball, or a pitcher left in the game just one pitch too long can have a far greater impact in the playoffs than the same thing would have during the season.

Even one mistake at a crucial time can mean the difference between winning or losing the World Series, even for what most people might consider the best team in baseball. Viewed in that light, it is still arguable that the best team might be the World Series winner, or it might just be a team with a great record that, for many reasons, may not have made the playoffs at all. Then again, it might be, like the '73 Mets, an unlikely winner; a team that beat the odds, overcame every obstacle, and won when no one expected they could.

Some team will be the 2017 World Series winner. Whether they really were the 'best' team or not depends on how you frame and define 'best,' and it is really a matter of opinion.

Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'Twisted Logic: 50 Edgy Flash Fiction Stories', 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'. His books are available in paperback and e-book.

He also writes about sports for Season Tickets, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.

No comments:

Post a Comment