The Most Unlikely Series of the Year

We’ve provided a lot of odds this season. There are current playoff odds, based on projections. There are current playoff odds, based on season-to-date numbers. There are current playoff odds, based on coin flips! There are past playoff odds, from any date in 2014. There are division series odds, and league championship series odds, and World Series odds. We’ve also, more quietly, provided single-game odds during the year. At the start of each day, these are based on the starting pitchers and the team projections. Later on, the odds are updated to take into consideration the respective starting lineups. We haven’t put these numbers to much editorial use, but they’ve been there, and over the course of the year most of the kinks have been worked out.

So, okay, keep that in mind. Those numbers have existed. Something else to keep in mind: the Rangers just swept the A’s in three games in Oakland. The Rangers are terrible. The A’s are just playing terrible. Have you connected the points? Allow me to connect the points. Turns out that was a particularly remarkable sweep.

I had David Appelman send me all the game odds, once the starting lineups were posted. That’s for every game all season long, and I greatly appreciate his help. With the spreadsheet, I went searching for the most unlikely series outcome of the season. I didn’t split them up — I considered two-game series next to three-game series next to four-game series. Obviously, all the numbers are approximations. Obviously, the projections aren’t perfect, and they don’t know when, say, a player might be under the weather, or when a reliever might be unavailable. They don’t know if a team might be pressing. I’m going to report numbers to a few decimal places, and this is false precision. But you already know all this, so let’s have some fun, shall we? I’ll give you the three most unlikely series outcomes.

Third-most unlikely series

  • Braves @ Rangers, 9/12 – 9/14
  • Rangers sweep
  • Odds of outcome: 2.766%

The Rangers haven’t just won three in a row — they’ve won six in a row, having previously swept away the Braves back home. Before the series began, the Braves had a 16% shot at the playoffs. By the end, that was down to 2.5%, the Braves’ season having basically come to a close. The most lopsided game was supposed to be on September 13, with Julio Teheran opposing Lisalverto Bonilla. The Braves were favored at 75%. They lost by a run, the Rangers finishing with three runs and three hits. The next day, the Braves lost by seven.

Second-most unlikely series

  • Orioles @ Mariners, 7/24 – 7/27
  • Orioles win 3 of 4
  • Odds of outcome: 2.090%

The advantage here is that this was a four-game series. That can do a number on the odds, relative to a three-game series, and it’s not at all weird that the Orioles beat the Mariners three out of four times. But, in the first game, the Orioles won despite the Mariners starting Hisashi Iwakuma. In the second game, the Orioles won despite the Mariners starting Felix Hernandez. The Mariners won the third game with Chris Young, who the projections have long hated. The underdog won all four games of the set, with the most lopsided matchup being the Felix start, in which the Mariners were favored at 67%.

First-most unlikely series

  • Rangers @ Athletics, 9/16 – 9/18
  • Rangers sweep
  • Odds of outcome: 2.087%

And here we are. And this is why I reported to the thousandths decimal place. This one beat the last one by three-thousandths of one percentage point. Still, any edge is an edge, and this confirms the widely-felt suspicion that the Rangers’ sweep was highly improbable. That is, at least, if the A’s weren’t choking, which people are accusing them of doing. A 1-in-50 shot doesn’t prove that such a sweep was impossible without someone choking, but this really highlights Oakland’s missed opportunity to turn things around against perhaps the worst roster in baseball.

Now, the second game wasn’t a total mismatch, with the A’s favored at 61%. That one had Jeff Samardzija, but it also had Derek Holland. If the A’s had to lose one game, that was the game they would’ve been most okay with losing, probably. But the A’s were favored at 80% in the first game, with Scott Kazmir opposing Nick Tepesch. They were favored at 73% in the third game, with Sonny Gray opposing Nick Martinez. Did you know that Nick Martinez has been terrible? Based on the single-game odds, Oakland’s loss Wednesday was the 12th-most unlikely loss of the season. Their loss Monday was the first-most unlikely loss of the season. (The second-most unlikely loss of the season: Phillies 9, Nationals 8, September 5, Jerome Williams facing Stephen Strasburg.)

So the A’s didn’t just get swept — the A’s got embarrassed, by a full roster with half the talent. Some will argue that the A’s are really banged up, and the numbers aren’t capturing that, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t really change the main point. Such a sweep is inexcusable. If the A’s don’t want people to think that they’re choking, they’re doing almost literally everything wrong. The first game of the series was lost to Kazmir fatigue and defensive lapses. The second game of the series was lost in the top of the ninth. The third game of the series was lost in the top of the first. I think it’s about time we pull some quotes from the MLB recaps. After the first game:

“It’s disappointing,’ Lowrie said. “Obviously this is a team that isn’t really playing for a whole lot and it’s a bunch of new guys we don’t know a whole lot about. We gotta learn quick. I think that they just played with nothing to lose. They were really, really aggressive, and it worked out in their favor.”


Starter Scott Kazmir did not shy away from expressing his frustration and stood by manager Bob Melvin’s comment that it “didn’t look like we were ready to play tonight for whatever reason defensively.”

“That’s what it looked like,” said Kazmir. “That’s exactly what it looked like.”

After the second game:

A deflated Bob Melvin, who has watched his club morph from World Series favorites to postseason question marks, didn’t bother downplaying this heartbreaker: “We’ve had quite a few low points here recently, but I don’t know any more so than this.”

After the third game:

“When you’re in a race, it’s supposed to be fun. But I don’t see anyone in this clubhouse having any fun,” said Brandon Moss, “because it’s not.”


“We’re pretty frustrated,” said Moss. “We’re disappointed. But it’s not over, and we know that. I think we’re definitely pressing to right the ship. You can see it in our demeanor, in the way things happened.”


“We’re playing well together,” infielder Adam Rosales said. “We have good team chemistry.”

My symbol of the series is J.P. Arencibia’s ninth-inning home run off Sean Doolittle in Game 2. It’s a perfect example of how everything possible is going wrong. For one thing, Arencibia almost didn’t bat in the first place:

Bogar said he considered pinch-hitting Luis Sardinas for Arencibia but decided against it.

“Sardinas is a contact guy, maybe squeeze or hit and run, stay out of the double play,” Bogar said. “But I felt J.P. was a good matchup against Doolittle.”

Then Arencibia fell behind, with two strikes. So what was he thinking?

“When I got down 0-2, I thought, ‘Let’s go, you got to get this run in,'” Arencibia said. “This is an opportunity against a tough pitcher, we worked our way into this chance. I was looking for a ball down because he strikes out a lot of guys like that, and do something with it.”

Arencibia was looking for a strikeout pitch down. From Baseball Savant, here are Doolittle’s strikeout pitches against righties:


Arencibia was looking down. Doolittle gets his strikeouts up. Doolittle tried to throw a fastball, up.


Arencibia was guessing wrong. Doolittle intended to blow him away at the belt. Doolittle’s been able to execute all season. No reason to think this was going to go wrong.


The pitch was down. It’s what Arencibia was looking for. By looking for the wrong pitch, Arencibia wound up with the right pitch, and hit the home run that might’ve broken Oakland’s back. It was an improbable event, within an improbable series, within an improbable collapse. Oakland, still, hasn’t been knocked out of playoff position. Oakland, still, has an 89% shot of advance. Sometimes the numbers are consolation. In this case it feels like they’re lying to you.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Arencibia was looking for a fastball down from Doolittle….

What was Greinke saying about being stupid helping players do well?