In the Lap of the Gods (Musings at the Break)

Tuesday, July 11 2023 @ 07:00 PM EDT

Contributed by: Magpie

I'm not going to write about the All-Star Game. Been there, done that.

Way, way back in 2005 (updated in 2012), I explained why baseball's All-Star Game was so much better than similar exhibitions in other sports. And two years ago, like the insufferable Old Fogey I know myself to be, I moaned and complained about how MLB is managing to screw that up as well. If you're really, really interested - well, click on the links!

I was saying just the other day that when the Jays have a good team, it's my hope that they can play .600 ball. At which point I suddenly remembered that the Jays have played 46 seasons now, and they've managed to play .600 ball just once in all that time. (And they didn't go to the World Series when they did.)

We can all agree that .600 ball is a nice thing to aim for, a thing worth pursuing. But how often does it happen? Not very often in Toronto, this we know. What about elsewhere? How many teams have played .600 ball over these 46 years while the Blue Jays have been trying, and mostly failing, at this task themselves? How many of those .600 teams went to the World Series?

I thought you'd never ask.

Over these 46 seasons, 89 teams have played .600 ball. Coincidentally, 90 teams have gone to the World Series in those 46 seasons (yeah, 1994). But the two lists - .600 teams and World Series teams - may not have as much in common as you might expect. Just 33 of the 89 teams that played .600 ball made it to the World Series. Granted the 1994 Yankees and Expos didn't get the chance, although we can't assume they'd have even won their divisions. There was a lot of baseball left to be played.

But there you are. The majority of teams that play .600 ball - 56 of the 89 - don't even make it to the World Series. And most teams that do go to the World Series - 57 of the 90, all told - don't match that regular season standard, posting winning percentages between . 516 and .598.

And here is the inevitable Data Table! I give you the number of .600 seasons each team has had since 1977, the number of times those .600 teams made it to the World Series, the last time the team played .600 ball, and their total number of World Series appearances in these last 46 years.

                    .600            Last    Total
     seasons WS Apps Time    WS Apps

New York Yankees    14     6    2022    10
Atlanta    9     3    2022    6
Los Angeles Dodgers    6    3    2022    7
Oakland    6    3    2020    3
Houston     5    3    2022    5

St. Louis     4     2    2015    7
Boston    4     2    2018    5
New York Mets     4    1    2022    3
Baltimore     4     2    1983    2
San Francisco     3     0    2021    5

Cleveland     3     1    2017    3
Los Angeles Angels     3     1    2014    1
Pittsburgh     3     1    2015    1
Philadelphia    2     0    2011    6
Detroit     2     1    1987    3

Tampa Bay     2     1    2021    2
San Diego     2     1    2020    2
Chicago White Sox    2     1    2005    1
Montreal/Washington    2     0    2012    1
Chicago Cubs     2     1    2016    1

Arizona     2     0    2002    1
Kansas City     1     0    1977    4
Toronto    1     0    1985    2
Minnesota     1     0    2019    2
Cincinnati     1     0    1981    1

Seattle     1     0    2001    0
Texas     0     0    ----    2
Miami     0     0    ----    2
Milwaukee     0     0    ----    1
Colorado     0     0    ----    1

As you can see, over these 46 years, four teams have never played .600 ball in a single season. But all but one team got to play in a World Series, everyone but Seattle.

Just 33 of 89 teams making it to the World Series, barely one in three, makes one wonder if it's even worth the trouble of assembling a team that good. (Of course it's worth the trouble, no matter what happens in October.) But there are extenuating circumstances we should consider. 

For one thing, .600 seasons are not evenly distributed through the years. Each league sends just one team to the World Series. But in any given season, more than one team in the same league might play .600 ball. Just last year, three NL teams played .600 ball, and so we all knew before the post-season began that two of those teams weren't going to the World Series (as it happened, none of them did.) And these types of seasons have recently become more common - besides the 5 teams in 2022, we had 3 of them in 2021, 5 in the abbreviated 2020 season, 4 in 2019, and 3 such teams in both 2018 and 2017. That's 23 teams playing .600 ball or better in just the last six seasons. Whereas in the twelve seasons preceding (2005 through 2016) there were just 10 teams that played .600 ball. 

And in the Before Times, before the Wild Card,  it was quite possible to play .600 ball and not even make the post-season. Eight teams actually endured that dismal fate. It all means that there sometimes are - what shall we call them? - excess .600 teams.

And there you go: the 40 NL teams that have played .600 did so in just  27 of these last 46 years. So obviously it was impossible for more than 27 of those 40 teams to play in the World Series, and as it happens just 12 NL teams did. 

Things went a little more according to the form chart in the AL, where the 49 teams that played .600 ball did so in 30 of those 46 seasons. So while no more than 30 of them could ever have made the World Series, 22 AL teams actually did make it to the end.

What does it all mean? You think I know?

There's a great deal of luck involved in playing .600 ball - winning six games out of ten. After all, history teaches us that approximately 30% of a team's games are going to be decided by a single run. And, as I've written so often, roughly half of those games are effectively decided by a coin flip. That's simply how one-run games work. If you flip a coin 3000 times, you can probably expect it to see it come up heads half the time. But if you only flip it 30 or 40 times, anything can happen. Literally anything. 

Magpie's Law: In a close game, the impact of random chance is sufficient to overcome the impact of overall quality.

It works on macro levels, when we consider the fate of teams and seasons. And heaven knows it works on a micro level, when we consider what can happen with a single swing of the bat. Remember the Saturday game against the Red Sox, some ten days ago? Eighth inning, Jays down by one, runners on second and third. Biggio jumped on a Jansen cutter and lined a ball down the right field line. A double, scoring two runs, giving the Jays a lead- except that it landed just foul. 

Now consider what went into making that ball land in foul territory rather than fair - the minute difference in what precise place and in what micro-instant the bat contacted the ball. Consider just the infinitesimal difference between a cutter coming in at 94.2 like the one that Biggio pulled foul, and one coming in just a hair faster - say 94.3 mph - that maybe he wouldn't have pulled quite so much. A micro-second later, a fraction of a fraction, just enough so that the line drive landed maybe 18 inches to the left. How can we measure those things, calibrate those differences. 

Because that was the freaking ballgame, right there. And that sort of thing happens all the time. It's impossible to overestimate the role that random chance plays in all of this. The significance of luck. Dumb luck. Stupid, unthinking, uncaring luck. 

It plays a huge part. Enormous! We are dwarfed by its mighty bigness!

It's always wise to remember  that there are things in this game that simply can't be understood, that can't be accounted for, that can't be measured and assessed. We may wish it was otherwise, but it's not.

So let's think about how Vladimir Guerrero could improve in his 2022 season, which disappointed so many folks out there, short of demanding a return to Sahlen Field? 

Well, maybe it would help if he just hit more balls hard? You would surely think so. And wouldn't you know it - Guerrero is hitting more balls hard in 2023 (56.3%) than he ever did before, including his remarkable 2021 season (55.6%). Not doing anything? Well, maybe it would help if he hit more line drives? You would surely think so, and by gosh, Guerrero is hitting more line drives this season (26.6%) than in any of his previous seasons. Did that do the trick? No? Well, how about if he hit fewer groundballs? That might work, although I personally doubt it. Anyway, Guerrero has indeed reduced his groundballs from 52.3% a year ago to 46.2% this season, almost matching his 2021 performance (45.6%). As process goes, all this looks exactly like what one would want to see. And what good has all this done him?

Your process is the only thing you can really control, but it doesn't actually take you where you need to go. It's still  in the lap of the gods. It always has been, it always will be. 

And the gods are a fickle and capricious crew. Always were, always will be.