Playoff Variance and Cleveland Baseball

Over the past month, the Cleveland Indians have carried an air of invincibility; a combination of elite talent, mediocre opponents, and a roster receiving peak performances from award-caliber players culminated in an historic 22-game win streak.

When it comes to human observers, there is a proclivity to be prisoners of the moment, this proclivity is magnified when the moment lasts for 22 wins over 22 days. In many ways the performance was reflective of the notion that the Indians are one of the two or three best teams in Major League Baseball, in fact by many peripheral or second-level statistics the Indians are the best team in baseball.

Baseball Prospectus, Fivethirtyeight, and Fangraphs, all operate their own unique projection systems. One of the outputs is odds on the World Series which the Indians are either first or second on each site. The Indians are baseball’s favorite, a dominant team with a rotation, bullpen, and offense well-suited for playoff baseball. Unfortunately, unlike in leagues like the NBA, NFL, or college football, being the overwhelming favorite creates a higher expectation than probability of winning the leagues biggest prize.

A bit over a year ago, Paul Hoynes wrote a negligent article about the Cleveland Indians following the Carlos Carrasco injury, which explicitly stated that the Indians were dead on arrival in the playoffs. The negligent part of this article was the fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of Major League Baseball’s postseason.

The postseason is most easily understood in the context of the length of the regular season. Beyond the financial implications of playing 162 games, Major League Baseball teams play that many games in order to diminish the influence variance plays in overall outcomes. This season’s Indians team is a fantastic example of the value of the 162 game season as a tool to filter out the good teams. Over the first half of the season, the Indians “underperformed” and staggered into the All-Star break. Over the past month, the Indians were without exaggeration, historically great. The questions raised is which team is really the Indians? The answer is, of course, both. The purpose of the 162 games is that the extreme stretches are driven by luck or variance. In totality, the Indians are an elite team projected for 100 wins.

Unfortunately for the Indians, the playoffs are a limited sample where luck or variance are as influential as the teams themselves. Flash back a moment to the 2016 playoffs, the Indians backup catcher had two home runs game in the World Series. The Indians leaned on a rookie left-handed starting pitcher who tops out at 87 miles per hour in the American League Championship Series and won. The Indians relied on their fifth starter topping out at 89 miles per hour and rode him to a 2-0 Record with a sub 3.00 ERA in the first two playoff rounds. The 2016 Indians were very good but they also won two series where they likely did not have the most talent. That is the nature of the playoffs. Small samples drive strange outcomes wherein the best team infrequently wins the World Series. The Indians are likely the best team in Major League Baseball, they have at best a 1-in-4 chance of winning the World Series.

On Fangraphs the Indians are at 18.2%, 23.2% on Baseball Prospectus, and 26% on Fivethirtyeight. This is not to be pessimistic, this has been one of the best seasons of Indians baseball ever, but the end goal is all but certain.