We San Francisco Giants fans have been so fortunate over the past five years with three World Series championships, a remarkable achievement. But the Oakland A's fans have faced frustration over the same five years because their team has just been unable to deliver in the playoffs. Being the stat geek that I am, I wonder if the Giants' success and the A's failure is attributable to the Giants being a better team or just to random chance. If you'd like to see the statistics that indicate the Giants' great run in the playoffs and the A's failure is due to luck, rather than the better team prevailing, read on. If you don't want to see a bunch of numbers, it's time for you to do something else now.
Let's be clear. Good records year after year over 162 game seasons are achieved by good teams, and luck plays a small role. But once the playoffs begin, all bets are off.
Over the past five years (2010 through 2014) both the Giants and the A's have been strong performers during the regular season. Their record are remarkably similar. Over those last five years the Giants regular-season record is 436 wins versus 374 losses, for winning percentage of .538. The A's have put up 433 wins and 377 losses, for winning percentage of .535. Only a three game difference over 810 games played. Both teams qualified for the playoffs in three of the five years. In 2012 both teams won 94 regular-season games, and in 2014 both teams won 88 games.
The two teams' experience in the three post seasons has been radically different. The A's cumulative playoff record of four wins and seven losses resulted in advancing no further than the Division Series, while the Giants record of 34 wins and 13 losses resulted in three World Series Championships. Before we go any further, let's think about the Giants' .723 winning percentage over the playoffs and World Series. This was achieved playing against the other best teams in baseball. Neither the Giants nor any other team in baseball history has been able to sustain a winning percentage that high over a regular season. And remember, during the regular season, the competition is all the teams in the league -- the good ones, the average ones and the poor ones. A regular-season .723 winning percentage would result in 117 wins. That would be a major league record and should give us a clue that the Giants have been fortunate to have been hot during the post season.
The Oakland A's have just had miserable luck in the playoffs. In both 2012 and 2013 they lost in the Division Series with two wins and three losses. In The 2014 Wild Card game, they were ahead 7-3 after the 7th inning and took the lead again by a score of 8-7 in the 12th inning, yet managed to lose the game. With a four-run lead going into the eighth inning, the A's (and every other team in baseball) would win almost every time. But not that one time.
Luck has been with the Giants. Do you remember in 2012 when they were down two games to none in the Division Series and had to win three straight to advance? And then in the League Championship Series they were down three games to one and had to charge back to win three in a row again. The odds of winning three games in a row are 1 in 8, and so the odds of doing it twice in a row are 1 in 64. Yet they pulled it off. I hope you don't think it's because the other teams choked and all six Giants' wins were because they were trying harder than their opponents.
To win three World Series Championships, the Giants had to win 10 consecutive playoff series. The odds for that are about 1 in 1000. The Giants' success in the playoffs and the World Series is attributable in large part to great performances which are nothing but statistical aberrations. Baseball is often a game streaks, both good and bad. There are days or weeks with average players put up improbable stats and outperform the stars.
Let's take a look at the MVP of the 2012 League Championship Series, Marco Scutaro. He came to the Giants midseason in 2012 after hitting .271 for the Colorado Rockies in the first part of that season and with a career batting average of .277 achieved with almost 5,000 at-bats. He never hit over .300 for a full season. As a Giant he hit .362 -- an almost unbelievable hot streak. In the League Championship Series, he got 14 hits in 28 at-bats for a .500 average. That made a huge contribution to the Giants winning those three consecutive games. But for anyone to hit .500 requires a small number of at-bats and some luck. Obviously no one can for very long. And please, don't tell me Scutaro was a star performer during the playoffs because he mentally focused and physically dug in. In the Division Series that year, he went 3 for 20 and in the World Series he went 4 for 16, for a combined batting average of .194, below the Mendoza line. After doing so well in the League championship Series, he just quit in the World Series?
The Giants got the same unexpected performance in the 2012 World Series from Pablo Sandoval. He went 8-for-16, batting .500 with three home runs in one World Series game. If he could replicate that home run production over a full season, he would hit about 110 round trippers. Just for comparison, in the 2014 World Series Sandoval hit well with a .429 average, but he had no home runs. We wouldn't project him to hit zero for a season either.
The Giants have seen just the opposite from Buster Posey. Over five full years of regular-season play he has a .307 batting average and a .484 slugging percentage. But in 16 World Series games he has a batting average of just .230 and a slugging percentage of just .328. In the 2014 World Series he hit a whopping .154. So who would you rather have on your team, Posey or Sandoval or Scutaro? Are the better playoff records for Scutaro and Sandoval attributable to their greater concentration, efforts and skill than Posey during the playoffs and World Series, or is it just they had a hot streak and Posey didn't?
In a short series baseball can be very random, while basketball tends not to be. We can see this if we compare the winners of the World Series MVP awards with those of the NBA finals. For the past 10 years (2005-2014) nine of the winners are locks on the Hall of Fame. The only one exception is Kawhi Leonard, the 2014 winner who is still so young. But you know all the others by just the first names -- LeBron, Kobe, Dirk, Tim, Tony, Dwyane and Paul. And in the playoffs their performance is comparable to their regular-seasons. Baseball is entirely different. I think you'd agree with me that Jermaine Dye, David Eckstein, Mike Lowell, Cole Hamels, Hideki Matsui, Edgar Renteria, David Freese and Pablo Sandoval are not likely to be headed to Cooperstown except as visitors. David Ortiz is the one exception for baseball, and it's too early to tell for Madison Bumgarner.
Again and again in baseball, we see streaks which we know cannot continue. We don't say that a player who is hot in May is able to accomplish that because he is concentrating more than in the months when he reverts to normal. Why we think that happens in the playoffs? Just look at a few stats from the start of the 2015 season. Andrew Miller, the Yankees' current closer (who is now the second to succeed the irreplaceable Mariano Rivera), had saved all 10 of his opportunities and has an ERA of 0.00 through May 3. His career ERA is 4.72, so I guess we'll see how long he continues at this torrid pace. In a similar vein, Nelson Cruz, who hit a season-high of 40 home in 2014, already has 21 this year.
It's truly a shame that the A's have had such bad luck in the playoffs. They have managed to compile one of the best records in baseball over the last five years with one of the lowest payrolls. As a longtime Giants' fan and season-ticket holder, I have enjoyed the fabulous run in the last five years. I was riveted to either radio and television following every pitch during the 18-inning game and during the incredibly tense Game 7 of last year's World Series. It was nothing but baseball at its best. All I'm suggesting is that when we stop to analyze what happened, we appreciate the true reason as opposed to a fairytale.
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Leland Faust is the founder of CSI Capital Management, an author, public speaker and tri-athlete. He was named to the top 100 investment advisors by Barrons, Top 100 Most Powerful People in Sports by the Sporting News, is a Cal & Harvard Alum. Follow Leland on twitter @LelandFaust