Reader mail. Fact or myth: Starting pitching is more likely to guarantee success in the regular season than in the post-season.
But maybe not for the reasons you think.
It's true because ALL TALENT is more valuable in the regular season than in the post-season. A high level of talent is almost certain to deliver a playoff spot, but far less certain to assure post-season success. I have written about this previously.
The reason boils down to simple math: the longer the period of time, the more likely that the better team will win. Look at it in its broadest terms. In any given game, the 1962 Mets would probably have something like a 15% chance of beating the 1927 Yankees in a single game. I'm just guessing on that assumption, but assuming that to be true, they would then have only a 1% chance of winning a seven-game series, and a 0% chance of winning a 162-game series.
Now let's be practical. If the best baseball team has .600 talent, meaning that they are likely to win 60% of their games against generic opposition, they have a 60% chance of winning a generic one game series, a 65% change of winning a three game series, and so forth on up until they reach roughly a 100% chance of winning a 162 game series.
Let's be even more practical. They would have an 89% probablility of winning 90 or more games out of 162 games against generic opposition. Getting into the post-season is just about a lock.
But then there is the matter of the playoffs. The competition is tougher, of course, but even if it were not, there is always a significant chance that an inferior team will win a short series.
First of all, the .600 team is no longer playing with a 60% chance of winning each game, because their competition has improved. In a league consisting only of playoff teams, it's unlikely that any given one could play better than .550 ball. So, if the best team is down to a 55% chance of winning each game, that only gives them a 59% chance to win 3 out of 5, and a 61% chance of winning 4 of 7. The chances of winning a five game series, followed by a seven, then another seven, are less than one in four.
A great pitching team like the Phillies now, or the Braves in their glory years, is almost certain to make the playoffs. But if they get there, given the assumption of a 55% likelihood of winning each playoff game, they have only about a 60% chance of winning each series and a mere 22% chance of winning the whole magilla. (That's assuming they are already in the playoffs. Starting before the first pitch is thrown in the spring, our theoretical team with .600 talent only has about 1 chance in 5 to be the World Series champ, given that they have a small chance of missing the playoffs entirely.)
Look at the Braves of the 1993-99 era, the period when they had three #1 starters:
They did in fact make the post-season all the time. (6 for 6. It would have been 7 for 7 except that there was no post-season in 1994.)
They did win about 60% of their post-season series (9 for 14). Nine of 14 was the most likely outcome. Well, actually, applying my assumptions, eight and nine were equally likely. Assuming 14 events with a .6 likelihood of success in each, there is exactly the same probability of winning 8 or 9.
From there they won the one World Series they were expected to win. That may have been disappointing to you if you were a Braves fan, but it was exactly as ordained by the universe. Assuming a 22% chance each post-season, as described above, and six post-seasons to work from, they had less than a 40% chance of winning two or more. One was the most likely outcome. (They had an 23% chance of winning none at all, a 38% chance of winning one, a 27% chance of winning two.)
Everything in those years proceeded according to the laws of the universe and turned up with the most likely outcome. The Braves' talent did not let them down, as many believed, but simply produced the expected result, because great starting pitching, like everything else of great value, while it just about guarantees a spot in the playoffs, can only give a team less than 1 chance in 4 to win it all.
The current structure of baseball has a lot to do with the small likelihood of ultimate success. In the old days, with two eight-team leagues and no playoffs, the theoretical .600 team had a 90% chance to make the World Series, and a 50+% chance of winning it.
Look at the 1949-64 Yankees. The universe was again in order:
They made the World Series 14 times in those 16 years. That was pretty much as expected. They missed two times because: (1) in 1954 they played .600 ball, but it was not good enough to win; (2) in 1959 they failed to play .600 ball.
Their record of 9-5 in those 14 Series was also as expected. Winning 9 out of 14 post-season series is exactly the same thing the 1993-99 Braves did. (To repeat, eight and nine wins are equally likely outcomes for 14 events, assuming a .6 likelihood of winning each event).
There was, however, a real fluke inside that period, in that the Yanks won five WS in a row from 1949-53. Even if we grant them a 60% likelihood to win each Series, the odds were about 12-1 against doing that, but that 60% assumption may be a stretch because they were not playing weak opponents. They won, for example, against the '53 Dodgers, one of the best teams in National League history. There was some luck involved in that five-peat.
Lucky or not, the Yanks crushed the opposition in that stretch. In those five World Series, they won twenty games and lost only eight (.714) against the best the NL had to offer, with only one Series going the distance.