The World Series begins tonight, but given that you’re on FanGraphs this morning, you already knew that. In fact, you’ve probably read one (or more) of the numerous series previews that has been published by any one of the many members of the online baseball community, and are well aware of the fact that this series is a match-up of one of the hardest throwing pitching rotations against an offense that makes an historic amount of contact. This is a clash of styles, a team built around athletes going up against a club that is starting three infielders who probably best fit at third base.
There’s no way around it; the outcome of this series is going to be treated as a referendum on something. If the Mets win, it will be seen as validation that velocity trumps all in October, with a dominating rotation being the key to victory in the postseason. If the Royals win, it will be hailed as evidence that old-school baseball is still viable, and there’s wisdom in loading up on athletes who don’t strike out, since speed never slumps and all that jazz. Because of the significant differences in team construction, and the big stage the World Series is played on, the outcome of the next four to seven games will be required to mean something.
As humans, we like to attach meaning to things, and it’s a more interesting story if the end result has some kind of lesson that everyone can learn from, but just because it’s easy to do and makes for a better narrative doesn’t mean we should fall into that trap.
The World Series is great as a spectacle of two very good teams playing for the right to call themselves champions. We don’t need to dress it up beyond that to enjoy it, and in many ways, trying to force conclusions out of a sample of a week’s worth of games cheapens the entire experience. The Mets and Royals are both very good teams, and realistically, there’s no likely outcome here. The Mets young pitching could dominate, because they’re really good, and throwing hard is one of the reasons why they’re really good. The Royals could use their contact skills to string together a bunch of rallies, because no team in baseball is better at putting the bat on the ball than the Royals.
Or maybe the games will turn on unexpected and unpredictable performances, like what we’ve seen from Daniel Murphy in the first few rounds of this postseason. Maybe Alex Rios will have the week of his life, and carry the Royals offense from the ninth spot in the batting order. Maybe we’ll have a long rain delay tonight, forcing Bartolo Colon to take the hill in relief of Matt Harvey, and throw four or five excellent innings with his 88 mph fastball. The long list of past postseason heroes includes guys like Mark Lemke, Adam Kennedy, David Eckstein, and Edgar Renteria; those guys are part of what makes the postseason so fun, but also make it difficult to try and extrapolate object lessons from the results.
I have no doubt that, with more time and better tools, eventually research will unearth some specific skills and traits that work better in the low run environments and cold temperatures of the postseason, and it’s certainly possible that we’ll be able to look back in some years and see either the Mets or Royals as a data point in a larger trend that helped us understand what types of teams are more slightly more likely to succeed in a tournament format. But if we’re being honest, we’re not there yet. Pretty much every attempt at finding a “secret sauce” has failed when viewed through a longer lens than just the most recent few postseasons, and history has done a very good job of beating back attempts to definitively say that teams with certain characteristics have big advantages over similarly good teams built in different ways.
We should keep looking, of course, and the fact that there hasn’t yet been a proven type of team that continually succeeds in October doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but we should be honest about what we do and don’t know at this moment. And right now, no one really knows how to predict the outcome of a handful of games between evenly matched teams. We can point to potential advantages one team might have over the other, and we can identify the strengths and weaknesses of each club, but whether those things will matter over the next seven days is completely out of our ability to say in advance.
The postseason isn’t about determining hard truths; it’s an entertainment vehicle designed to make every single play as important as possible. We put huge stakes on a handful of events because it makes for great drama, great television, and an exciting few weeks to cap off a season, but when dealing with an outcome that swings on just a few plays here or there, we should hesitate to draw sweeping conclusions from the results. The World Series doesn’t have to mean anything to be enjoyable, and we shouldn’t force narratives onto things that don’t naturally lend themselves to clear understanding of why things happened.
This World Series often proves to be a really fun week, and this year should be no exception, with two enjoyable teams to watch facing off with MLB’s championship trophy on the line. But let’s enjoy it for what it is, and not try to make it something that it isn’t. We’ve got up to seven baseball games left, and hopefully they provide a lot of excitement.
What they won’t provide is a lot of information we can use to make significant claims about the character or abilities of the players involved, and that’s okay; we shouldn’t need the World Series to be an object lesson to find it a worthwhile endeavor.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.