There is still a lot of baseball to be played in the NLCS, but the Dodgers 2-1 lead over the Cubs — with Clayton Kershaw guaranteed another appearance — is causing some people to scratch their heads and wonder if it’s possible for the best team in baseball to actually lose this series.
If they do lose it, some people will claim it as the doing of a curse of some sort. Others will claim the Cubs choked or that the Dodgers had a greater Will to Win or that This Brand New Baseball Philosophy or Strategy Has Now Been Proven To Be Best. Go back and look at any number of stories at the end of a playoff series and you’ll see people attempting to tie it all together in some grand unifying theory, ranging from one manager’s superior temperament, one club’s superior chemistry or another club’s strategic approach which allegedly upends all we thought we knew about baseball before that point. Happens every year.
Any explanation that reduces a playoff series loss to something other than “in this particular set of seven games the winning club did baseball things better than the other club did baseball things,” however, is silly. It’s silly because great baseball teams lose four out of seven games fairly often. Indeed, even the best team in baseball in 2016 — the 103-win Chicago Cubs — did it seven times this season:
- May 11-17: Lost four of six games to the Padres, Pirates and Brewers with five of the six games being at home;
- May 19-23: Lost four of five to the Brewers, Giants and Cardinals;
- June 20-23: Lost four in a row to the Cardinals and Marlins, with three of four at home;
- June 30-July 3: Lost four in a row to the Mets;
- July 5-July 9: Lost five in a row to the Reds, Braves and Pirates, three of five at home;
- September 3-September 10: Lost four of seven to the Giants, Brewers and Astros;
- September 13-September 18: Lost four of six to the Cardinals and Brewers, four of six at home.
Yep. The most dominant team in the league was beaten in a seven game “series” more often than once a month. Three times when they had the home field advantage in that swath of seven games. Often those loses were at the hands of some pretty pedestrian teams. No one drew deep meaning from any of those individual “series” losses. At most they were chalked up to cold bats, hot opponents, mistakes, injuries or just generally bad nights. You know, the tangible things that directly impact baseball games as they wash over us during a long baseball season.
The reason why a team loses any one game is pretty straightforward: they didn’t hit enough or they didn’t pitch well enough or they committed too many errors. Stuff like that. The reason why a team loses any best-of-seven series is often attributable to multiple failures on the part of the losing team and successes on the part of the winners, but it’s still basically the same deal: one team played better than the other, more often, over the course of 5-9 days.
I don’t know what will happen in the rest of the NLCS. But I do know this much: if the Cubs rally from being down 2-1 to win it, their victory will be attributed to something other than “they played better baseball than the Dodgers four out of [six or seven] times.” Likewise, if they lose it, the loss will be chalked up to some other overarching factor. In either case, that explanation will, by shocking coincidence, fit into a tidy 800-word narrative. When that happens, enjoy the narrative if the prose is good. Someone skilled at writing it put a lot of hard work into it and good prose is its own reward.
But know that the inherent and, at this time of year, only slightly-weighted randomness of baseball is the real factor behind any series win or loss. And that that is exacerbated by the fact that, at best, a seven-game sample of randomness is being run. Everything else is just words.