The Point of Baseball

Baseball Prospectus takes every stat that there is about baseball, puts it into a simulation of the upcoming baseball season. The results say that the Pirates have a 17% chance of winning their division. In other words, if the season were played 100 times, assuming everything to be identical at the start—same players with the same talent on every team—the outcome would always be unique from every other time the season was played.

Fans tend to think the point of a baseball season is to determine the best team, and crown them the champions. The majority of play—the regular season—is actually just a means of weeding out the lesser teams. We quickly eliminate the rest during the playoffs, all so we can get it down to one team. The best team.

Only, it is extremely rare that the team that wins the World Series is actually the best team.

Consider this: The New York Yankees and a local college team decide to play each other. The Yankees are the “better team.” Always. When you consider the past performance of every player on both teams in every sporting event, they are never equal. It may be close, but one is always the favorite to win. One of the two teams is always “better” than the other.

Because so many factors go into determining who will win, almost any team will be able to beat any other team if given enough chances. But a win by the lesser team does not mean that they become the better team. It simply means that they won on that particular day. After all, if the two teams were to play again tomorrow the Yankees would again be considered the favorite to win, and they would remain the better team until the college team had won enough games so that their stats surpassed those of the players on the Yankees.

To say, “Since this college team beat the Yankees yesterday, we expect them to win again today,” would be silly because it ignores years of data about both teams’ playing abilities. Statistics are strengthened with the more data you have; a team’s true ability is more likely to be found in their stats over the whole season than in their stats for any given week. But the team that wins the championship is the team that happened to win their elimination games: their performance over the 162 game regular season is irrelevant.

If two MLB teams were to play in the final game of the World Series, sometimes the weaker teams wins. And when all is said and done the team who comes out on top of the World Series is said to be the “best team,” even if they had won significantly fewer games over the regular season than another team. Yet we know that if they were to play any number of teams the next day, they would be the underdog. So obviously they are not the “best team.” It might seem that the more accurate way to determine the best team is to name the team with the best record after 162 games champion and be done with it.

That would not work either though. First, because that team would not mathematically be proven to be the best team either. But more importantly because the point of a baseball season is not to find the best team. The point of having structured baseball seasons rather than random unconnected public exhibitions is to increase the level of fun.

To create the multi-month illusion that your team has a shot at winning makes being a fan very fun. Even more, there is nothing more fun than an elimination game in the playoffs, because we know that the best team does not always win. As long as you are in the game, you have a shot to win. What seed you are is irrelevant.

Therefore we must accept the possibility that the better team could, and will likely, not win the World Series. The majority of the people will actually root for that to happen because it is more fun when the underdog wins. Perhaps you can take some solace in that, your team may not actually be the worst in the league when they lose ten games in a row and fall out of the playoffs this year. They are just very unlucky.

Knowing that the point of the whole exercise is not to find the best team, the games every night of the season are made more exciting. Because the real reason they are being played in the first place is not to find who is better, but for the simple sake of the players, coaches, and fans to have as much fun as possible, which is exactly why baseball should be played in the first place.

Fun Fact: According to this interesting book, two teams would have to play a Best-of-269 game series to determine which one was truly “the best team.”


The Incredible Story of Edward Doheny

Over a hundred years later, you would still be hard pressed to find a sports tale as depressing as this one…

The Pirates finished with the best record in the National League in 1900.

The World Series had not started yet, but a newspaper decided to give the Chronicle-Telegraph Cup to the winner of a best-of-5-game AL-NL championship. The Pirates lost the Cup, but you have probably heard of the Chronicle-Telegraph, which was eventually bought by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Midway through the next year, in 1901, the Bucs traded for a 27-year old pitcher with a good curveball named Edward Doheny. The southpaw’s hook was apparently so good he led the league in hit batsmen and wild pitches a few years earlier. Basically the kind of guy you would expect the Bucs to sign today. He had at least managed to keep his ERA under 6.66 since his rookie season though.

Doheny pitched well for the rest of the summer and into the next. He managed a 2.53 ERA over 188.1 innings in 1902, making him one of the top pitchers on the team. Unfortunately, the Chronicle-Telegraph Cup was not held in 1901 or 1902 because teams from a third league—the Western League—had started buying off players from American League teams. The WL was so successful that it essentially put the AL out of business, and then promptly changed its name from the Western League to the American League. If they were trying to confuse everyone, it worked, but it created enough of a mess to end any hopes of a real championship.

(After the Bucs finished with the best record in 1902, their owner Barney Dreyfuss challenged a group of AL All-Stars to a series of exhibition games. Doheny hurt his ankle and never got to pitch, but the Pirates won.)

The (new) AL and NL worked out some issues before the 1903 season, but in July something happened: Doheny developed a ‘dead arm.’ His curveball stopped working, and he stopped being such a nice guy. He started drinking. He argued with teammates. “Convinced he was being followed by detectives” he up and left the team in the middle of the season without a word to anyone.

Even without his curveball, Doheny was good enough to make a comeback. But when told he would not be pitching in the World Series, Doheny instantly became erratic and started punching his teammates. The police were called and they took Doheny directly to an Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

It seems strange now, but insane asylums and spending time in them were much more common during that period. Doheny rejoined the team after a few weeks off, but his paranoia eventually drove him back home to Massachusetts where he was put under constant care of a doctor.

A few weeks later, Doheny received a package in the mail containing his jersey. He took it as a sign that he was being welcomed back to pitch. Unfortunately the jersey was misinterpreted, as a few teammates had sent it merely thinking it would cheer Doheny up to see it.

Soon after Cy Young defeated the Pirates in the seventh game of the best-of-9-game World Series, bringing the Bucs within one game of elimination. Upon learning of the loss, Doheny informed his doctor that his services would no longer be needed. The doctor thought he was joking—until Doheny whacked his nurse upside the head with a fire iron. After the nurse had lost consciousness, Doheny destroyed much of his house and threatened to kill the next man who tried to stop him. Armed with the fire iron, he held the police at bay for an hour.

Doheny was immediately taken back to the Asylum, where he died 13 years later.