The best storyline of the 2014 MLB playoffs is how (improbably) unstoppable the Royals have been. They won the Wild Card game, they swept the Angels in the ALDS, and they’ve just swept the Orioles in the ALCS. That’s right, the 2014 Royals are now heading to the World Series without a single postseason loss to their name.
In theory, sweeping a team in a division series or a championship series is a great thing, if only because it means a good deal less stress for fans. Yet I can think of several examples in recent history of teams cruising through one series only to end up falling short in the next round, possibly due to having too much downtime before playing again.
Of course, that’s purely anecdotal. Rather than speculating about which approach (if you can even call it that, since teams usually don’t try to lose games) has historically proven more effective, I decided to dig into the numbers and figure it out for myself.
First, let’s define “cruising" and "battling.” For my purposes, “cruising” and “battling” are relative terms, in which:
- “Cruising” = playing fewer games in a series than your next opponent played in their series
- “Battling” = playing more games in a series than your next opponent played in their series.
Now, a little history:
- The first championship series took place in 1969, and it was a best-of-5 series.
- The championship series expanded to be best-of-7 in 1985.
- The first division series (a best-of-5 series) took place in 1981, as a result of that season being shortened by a players’ strike.
- The division series was instated permanently in the 1995 season (still a best-of-5 series).
(Side note: I could’ve also gone back and found all of the three-game-playoff tiebreakers, but I opted not to, as this seemed like a sufficient amount of information.)
First, the conclusion of my research:
In the 44 seasons since the instatement of a multi-series playoff system, I found 55 instances of a “battling” team facing a “cruising” team. 27 of those matchups went to the team that “battled,” while 28 went to the team that “cruised.”
So what does all of this tell us? That there are almost exactly as many instances of teams that “cruised” faring just fine in the next series they played as there are instances of teams that “battled” faring just fine in the next series they played. That one number is very slightly higher than the other is almost certainly pure happenstance.
If anything, this serves to prove that, no matter the situation, if your team is in the playoffs, how your team fares in one series oughtn’t to indicate how they’ll do in the following series. For some teams, “battling” works out great, and for others, “cruising” suits them just fine. Of course, I’m sure no team is trying to “battle,” nor should they; you only have so many opportunities, so of course you try to win when you have the chance. But “battling” is hardly a death sentence—it’s just also not a guarantee of victory-by-grinding.
With all that said, since the beginning of the multi-series postseason, I found a sole instance of a World Series-winning team going through the entire playoffs without losing a single game (the Cincinnati Reds in 1976). So that’s another thing to take heart in, even after your team endures a difficult loss or two.
One final note worth considering: the one time a team has put together a run like the Royals have thus far (sweeping both the DS and CS) was the Colorado Rockies in 2007, who then wound up getting swept in the World Series. But that’s simply one occasion, so don’t necessarily expect the same thing this time around.
(Research below the cut, though I doubt anyone’s going to read it; in fact, I’m only including my research here for others to see my process. I apologize for how disorganized it is, but it made enough sense to me!)