Don’t Bet on a Subway Series Just Yet
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Each fall, America is gripped by the sort of widespread insanity that’s probably better dealt with by novelists, sociologists, and experts in mass propaganda than by sportswriters: Faced with the end of the baseball season, people turn, in the millions, to football. It makes no sense. Leaving aside the sheer tedium of watching men in plastic armor alternately moving several inches at a time and standing around posing while overly caffeinated middle-aged men wearing polo shirts scream at them, football is a dull sport because the better team pretty much always wins. Even careful engineering meant to ensure that no team is much better than any other — ensuring lots of betting action and thus lots of interest in otherwise boring football games — still leaves an NFL where a fan with any knowledge of the game at all can call the winner before more or less every game.
Not so, thankfully, in baseball. If you go out right now and place a bet on the favorite in every game to be played today, you’ll lose money. The same bears out in the playoffs, where the better team, defined however you like, enjoys a vastly smaller advantage than in any of the other major sports. The main reason is obvious: Baseball is entirely built around one-on-one matchups, so that even a vast superiority in talent gives a team only so much advantage at any point in a game. A football defense faced with a strong-armed quarterback, a breakaway threat at halfback, two fast receivers, and a good tight end will be stretched thin, while Bobby Abreu’s batting prowess doesn’t do Robinson Cano much good at all when he’s in the batter’s box.
As a practical matter, this makes the much-touted fact that the Yankees and Mets are demonstrably the best teams in their respective leagues much less important than you might think in judging how likely we are to see a Subway Series. Whether looking at things analytically or anecdotally, being the best team in the league just doesn’t matter all that much when it comes to winning the pennant, as the frequency with which teams that aren’t even the best in their own division win the World Series should show. Factors like good coaching, playoff experience, and even the home field advantage just don’t do baseball teams all that much good. Winning in the postseason is about frontline pitching, defense, and luck; the qualities that make a good team over the course of a season are not only not those that make a postseason champion, in some cases they’re the opposite of those. A well-balanced five-man rotation made the 2001 Seattle Mariners the best regular season team to ever play. When the games really counted, though, they were done in by the fact that rather than one real ace and one Jose Lima-type, they had Paul Abbott and John Halama — exactly what had helped them win 116 regular season games.
This doesn’t bode well for a Subway Series. Both the Mets and Yankees have strong defenses and excellent relief pitching on offer, but the real strength of both teams is a deep, balanced lineup. That’s a good thing to have in October, but having a great no. 8 hitter like Jose Valentin or Jorge Posada isn’t as important as having the true ace neither team really has right now.
Another way to think of it is in terms of plain odds. There are 16 possible World Series matchups. If each team in the playoffs is equally good, there will be a 6.25% chance of the Mets meeting the Yankees. If the Mets and Yankees are each good enough that they should be expected to win their series 54% of the time — something of a dubious assumption, given the vagaries of baseball and the unpredictable nature of individual team matchups — the odds go all the way up to 14.5%.
The Yankees’ long run of playoff success, and the relatively recent 2000 Series, have spoiled us; even great teams usually eventually get whacked by lesser teams in the playoffs. Wild card teams win, teams come back from 3–0 deficits, teams come back against Mariano Rivera without ever getting a solid hit. Anything can happen in baseball, and usually enough does to spoil any idealistic aims about having the two best teams in the game play to find out which is better.
This is truer now than it ever has been because, of course, baseball decided to be more like football and let every other team in the game into the playoffs. This was silly from a sporting perspective (from a business perspective the expanded playoffs are a smash) because it ignored that you could let every team in the NFL into the postseason without much affecting the outcome, while in baseball each crummy team allowed into the tournament vastly increases the odds that one of them will end up spraying champagne on the commissioner’s hairpiece. Fair? Right? Who’s to say? Either way, there’s no point in getting excited about the mutual hatred between the Bronx and Queens — yet.