When They Were Kings


Let's start back in with baseball, since it's where I'm having the easiest time catching up. Here's Joe Sheehan, explaining why Yankee fans shouldn't be disheartened to see their team turning into this decade's answer to the late-'90s Atlanta Braves, a good team bounced again and again in the first round of the playoffs:

A more concrete problem is that postseason series, best-of-five or best-of-seven sprints, are poor tools for separating the evenly matched teams that play them. The gaps between even the best and the worst playoff teams are small when reduced to a week’s worth of games.

Last year, the Mets (97-65) met the Cardinals (83-78) in the National League Championship Series. That 14-victory gap made it seem as if the Mets should be a big favorite. In fact, that difference amounted to one victory every two weeks or so during the season. That is inconsequential over the course of a postseason series. The Cardinals went on to win the pennant and the World Series.

If a 14-victory advantage can be negated in a playoff series, how does one make meaningful distinctions when four contenders finish with 94 to 96 victories, as in the American League this year?

This is a crucial question for the Yankees. They were 12-1 in postseason series from 1996 to 2000 on their way to four World Series championships; they have since gone 5-7, with two World Series appearances and no titles. The Yankees have been eliminated in the first round the last three seasons.

When looking at the big picture, though, the Yankees’ recent futility does not stand out. What is notable and unusual is their four championships in five years. The correlation between regular-season quality and postseason success is weak, and the Yankees’ achievements from 1996 to 2000 are a statistical anomaly.

Like most wonky baseball fans of my generation, I'm much more likely to call some highly unlikely development - like, for instance, the play of the Colorado Rockies over the last four weeks - a statistical anomaly and leave it at that than to wax eloquent about how the anomalous team or player has more "heart," or somehow just "knows how to win." In the case of those all-conquering late-'90s Yankees teams, though, I turn into a grizzled old scout, shaking my head and muttering about intangibles. With the exception of the 114-win '98 team, none of those Yankee squads were obviously head and shoulders above the competition as far as regular-season stats were concerned; Sheehan notes that they "featured power pitching, good defense and a great closer," all of which "correlate well with postseason success," but you could say the same of other ninety-win teams, in that era and others, that didn't come close to pulling off what the Yankees pulled off. Which would ordinarily lead me to call their run a fluke - except that I was there, I saw them play, and against all my pro-stathead instincts, I'd bet a not-insubstantial sum of money that if you replayed the postseasons of 1998, 1999 and 2000 a hundred or a thousand times over, those Yankee teams would win through many more times than the statistics suggest they would. It makes me cringe to say it, but I really do think that particular combination of players just, well, knew how to win, like no team I've seen before or since.

And God, I hated them for it.

Photo by Flickr user Dennis used under a Creative Commons license.