October 31, 2006

Red Bird Mediocrity

The Cardinals won the World Series this past weekend after winning 83 regular season games, the fewest wins of a World Series champion ever. The adjective “worst” has been used by baseball writers to identify this World Series winner.

During a mid-World Series awards ceremony at St Louis’ Busch Stadium, Derek Jeter was asked whether the Cardinals’ participation devalued the World Series. “No, it doesn’t cheapen the World Series,” replied Jeter. But Jeter has worked for George Steinbrenner for fifteen seasons now, eleven at the major league level. Jeter is a seven-time All-Star and a lasting face of Joe Torre’s dynasty Yankees. Reggie Jackson owned the Bronx in the late-1970s and led the Yankees to back-to-back championships. But Steinbrenner owned the Yankees and by 1982, Reggie was leading the Angels to the American League West title. ESPN will soon remind us of the Jackson-Steinbrenner-Billy Martin emotional quagmire with its film adaptation of Jonathan Mahler’s 2005 book, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning. Jeter however will finish his stellar career with the Yankees because in addition to being a brilliant player, he is also a diplomat.

Derek Jeter knows when not to say something. So there is Jeter, who made $20.6 million in 2006 playing in the Major Leagues, at an event hosted by Major League Baseball, at Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals and a reporter asks him if the Cardinals inclusion cheapens Major League Baseball’s marquee event. If Jeter says “yes”, he not only embarrasses the Cardinals while a guest in their workplace, but also undermines the event presently being conducted by Major League Baseball, the system through which he earns his very healthy living. WWJD? What would Jeter do? Of course he says that it does not cheapen the World Series!

A team wins 83 games, good for the fifth best record in the National League and 13th best in the National and American Leagues combined. Not even good enough to finish in the top third of all thirty teams! Two games over .500! They win three games against the Padres and then win eight out of 12 over the Mets and Tigers to win the championship. Even the Devil Rays, who finished 2006 with a .377 winning-percentage, the worst-record in baseball, pulled off a hot-streak when they won eight of 12 (June 10 to June 22).

Let’s give the Cardinals the benefit of these three post-season series and add these games to their record. When we add this post-season hot-streak to their regular season, they have a combined won-loss of 94 and 83 for a winning percentage of .531. A .531 win-percentage over a 162-game schedule translates into only 86 wins. Had they won 86 games in the regular season, they would only have tied the Red Sox for the 12th best record in the Majors. And we are supposed to appreciate them as World champs?

The 83-win Cardinals’ victory cheapens the World Series because it breaks the implicit promise of the Series itself: Major League Baseball’s best, competing to be the best. This is the promise of the World Series. Or, it was. When the Cardinals, fifth best in the NL, face the Tigers, third-best in the AL, we do not see baseball’s best face off against each other.

Major League Baseball would have the message of the current structure and outcome be, Cardinals = World Series Champions, and World Series Champions = Baseball’s Best Team. Therefore, Cardinals = Baseball’s Best Team. Where is the boy, standing alongside the Cardinal’s parade route calling out, “the champion has no clothes on!”?

Do not read this as a knock against the Cardinals. It could have been the Tigers who had won. In 2003, it was the Marlins. Tony LaRussa would still be a future Hall of Fame inductee. Albert Pujols would still be one of the top players of this generation. The Cardinals still be wearing one of baseball’s most classic uniforms. St Louis would still have, arguably, the most gracious baseball fans in the country.

The word mediocre is derived from the Latin, mediocris which refers to a middle height or standing. When a team finishes 13th out of 30, in the middle of the pack, they receive the term mediocre. This is a knock against a system that rewards season-long mediocrity, short-term success, and makes a marketing promise on which it does not deliver.

This World Series registered the lowest television ratings to date for the Series. Paul Gough speculated in The Hollywood Reporter on October 30 that Fox must have been disappointed to have two small-market franchises in the Series. But it does not take the Yankees and Dodgers in the Series to make for a compelling Series. It takes great teams. The Cardinals were ok and grew hot. The Tigers were good.

The Mets and Yankees each finished the 2006 regular season with 97 wins each, good for a .599 winning percentage. I would have loved to have seen these two teams face each other in the Series. The Mets had blown away the National League and the Yankees had fought through injuries and falters to prevail over the long-haul. This would have made for great October baseball and a World Series champion worthy of the title.


Blogger chrisvan said...

Any argument suggesting that a Cardinals victory represents a cheapening of the World Series is an argument that reflects a very serious value statement on the characteristics of a winner. It is a so-called money ball value system, where performance is measured over a 162 game spread and the team who puts forward the most consistent run differential is by far the most likely victor. Ladies and Gentlemen: the 116 victory Seattle Mariners are the best team ever!

By contrast, our current play off system values not sustained excellence but excellence in the moment of truth, when the game and season is on the line. It values winning in October over winning in April, and suggests that the accomplishments of a team during the regular season are nice, but not critical.

If you're metrics are money-ball derived then the real question is why bother having a playoff at all? Just take the run differential or wins and whoever has the most takes the prize. If need be, statistically standardize all teams to adjust for quality of opponents. The system starts to appear more like the college football BCS tournament, with rankings derived from stats and human preference determining championship.

I love baseball for the rare players like David Ortiz or Derek Jeter who always seem to be at their best when the season is on the line and the situation is desperate. That is the quality in a champion that I want commemorated at season's end, and the Cardinals did just that.

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