Sox' Chances Better Than You May Think

At press time, the Sox were headed for a wild-card berth, with the worst regular-season record of the four AL contenders. Does this foretell a quick exit from the playoffs?

No. Over the 172 postseason series played in the 20th century, the team with the better record has won only 58% of the time. In other words, underdogs win three out of every seven series.

Best-of-five series have proved toughest for the underdogs, as teams with better records have gone 32-20 (.615). This is entirely due to their superior record in blowout series: they’ve swept 18 times, the underdogs, only four. In four- and five-game series, the underdogs actually enjoy a 16-14 edge.

In seven-game postseason series, teams with the better record have only a .564 winning percentage. They’re 15-10 in seven-game LCS, but only 51-41 in the World Series. Again, the longer the series, the better the underdog’s chances: in six-and seven-game series, they’re 37-36 against their supposed superiors.

But what about the Red Sox? Aren’t they cursed? No.

Believe it or not, in their checkered postseason history the Red Sox have only lost two series to teams with worse regular-season records – the 1946 World Series against the Cardinals and last year’s divisional series with the Indians – while winning three series from better clubs. Let’s take these series in chronological order.

As the elderly, historians, and masochists will recall, the Red Sox won their first five World Series. In 1903, 1912 and 1915, they defeated teams with inferior regular-season records, but 1916 and 1918 saw the Sox upset superior opponents: the 94-60 Dodgers and the 84-45 Cubs. (Call it the Luck of the Bambino?)

Boston’s one true hard-luck loss came in the 1946 Series, where the 104-50 Sox lost to the 98-58 Cardinals. In 1967, 1975 and 1986, the Sox pushed each Series to its seven-game limit before falling to superior opponents. These adversaries, the 1967 Cardinals,1975 Reds and 1986 Mets, each posted the NL’s highest winning percentage for their respective decades.

The Sox deserve major credit for simply reaching the 1975 and 1986 Series. In 1975 they swept the Oakland A’s in the ALCS, even though Oakland had a better regular-season record and was shooting for its fourth consecutive Series win. In 1986 the Sox rallied from the worst odds ever overcome by a playoff winner: down 3-1 in games, down 5-2 entering the ninth inning of Game 5, and down 5-4 with two outs and two strikes on Dave Henderson. One more strike on Henderson, or one loss in the next two must-win games, and Bill Buckner would still be cheered at Fenway.

The Error launched Boston’s record 13-game playoff losing streak, which ended when Pedro Martinez stopped Cleveland in last year’s Game 1. But every one of those losses came at the hands of a better team. In 1988 and 1990 the Sox were swept in the ALCS by superior Oakland teams – in both years, the Sox’ record would have finished no higher than third in the AL West, at least 10 games behind the A’s.

Since then Boston has suffered from Indian trouble. The 1995 Sox were swept by Cleveland’s 100-44 juggernaut, then in 1998 the Tribe clinched its division around Memorial Day, took the summer off, then awoke, rested and refreshed, just in time to scalp the Sox in four.

This year...who knows? That’s why they play the games. Sit back and enjoy.

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the October 1999 issue of Boston Baseball.

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