I decided to analyze some playoff upsets. Records aren’t always the best way to judge a team as injuries and trades affect a team throughout the season. A team might’ve had a better record had they not had some injuries or if they had particular players all season. I’m using the “modern” period starting with the advent of the playoffs in 1969. I’m also excluding Wild Card playoff games as they’re not series. A series can fit multiple of the below categories. A “better team” is one that might have had a better record or might not have.
1969 WORLD SERIES: NEW YORK METS 4 BALTIMORE ORIOLES 1
Baltimore was heavily favored to win, despite the fact that both teams won over a 100 games. The Mets won two games by 1 run, which is a sign of luck playing a role in the series. The Mets completely dominated Baltimore with their pitching: 1.80 team ERA during the series (2.99 during the season). Baltimore’s team ERA was 2.72, not much different from their 2.82 season ERA. As a result, Baltimore’s batting line was a horrible .146/.220/.210 during the series. It also didn’t help Baltimore that errors cost them 2 runs during the series. The number of runs that errors cost the Mets is 0.
1971 WORLD SERIES: PITTSBURGH PIRATES 4 BALTIMORE ORIOLES 3
What’s with Baltimore losing as the favorites so often? It was close, but Baltimore were the better team and the defending Champions as well. Baltimore actually had a better team ERA (2.66 to 3.50), but Pittsburgh had a better batting line (.235/.313/.353 to .206/.280/.297). Baltimore’s defense cost them an astonishing 5 runs, while Pittsburgh’s cost them 0. That was definitely strange considering Baltimore was significantly better than Pittsburgh defensively during the season: 112 errors by Baltimore and 133 by Pittsburgh; .981 FLD% by Baltimore and a slightly worse .279 by Pittsburgh. 3 games were decided by a single run and 2 were won by Pittsburgh. Add that it was a 7 game series and that Baltimore weren’t significantly better and I have to chalk this one up to luck.
1973 ALCS: OAKLAND ATHLETICS 3 BALTIMORE ORIOLES 2
Despite their real and Pythagorean W-L records, the teams were evenly matched and Oakland might have been better. 2 games were decided by a single run, and the teams split both games. Their batting lines and team ERA’s were nearly identical: Baltimore’s batting line was .211/.286/.304 and Oakland’s batting line was actually a slightly worse .200/.283/.338. Their team ERA’s were 2.74 for Oakland and 2.80 for Baltimore. The series also went the whole 5 games, meaning that luck decided this series. Strangely enough both teams scored 15 runs with 1 of them due to the opposing team’s error. The difference maker in my opinion was Oakland’s ace Catfish Hunter who won both of the games that he started (including the deciding final game) and had a 1.65 ERA.
1973 NLCS: NEW YORK METS 3 CINCINNATI REDS 2
Injuries are a big reason why the Mets had a bad record that year (82-79), they were the 1969 World Champions so they weren’t exactly a fluke. They also were really not worse than Cincinnati, having a significantly better pitching staff according to both ERA and FIP for example. The Mets also managed to outhit Cincinnati during the series: .220/.298/.304 to .186/.247/.311 and outpitched them with a 1.33 team ERA compared to Cincinnati’s 4.50 team ERA. I think that the Mets were simply the better team, but their record due to injuries concealed that. It’s also important to point out that despite the series going the whole 5 games, Cincinnati won their 2 games just barely by a single run, while the Mets won their three by a combined score of 21-4.
1975 ALCS: BOSTON RED SOX 3 OAKLAND ATHLETICS 0
Despite having a better record and being the defending 3 time World Champions, Boston destroyed them with a combined score of 18-7. They batted .316/.333/.469, which was better than their .275/.344/.417 season batting line. They also had a 1.67 team ERA during the series, which was significantly better than their 3.98 team ERA during the season. Oakland’s team ERA during the series was 4.32 compared to 3.27 during the season. An astounding 6 runs that Boston scored was due to Oakland’s errors. Oakland scored 2 runs because of Boston’s errors. It probably didn’t help Oakland to start Ken Holtzman in 2 of the 3 games. Holtzman’s 3.14 ERA during the season was deceptive, as his FIP was 3.75 and and his ERA was 4.09 during the series. Perhaps giving an overachieving mid-rotation arm starts against the best offense in the AL that year was a major mistake. Should the blame fall on their manager Art Dark? He did give his ace Vida Blue a start in game 2, and he blew up with a 9.00 ERA in 3 innings. This is a bizarre series as I don’t understand how Boston could so easily dominate Oakland. It seems as if they were very motivated to win this series, and combined with Oakland’s bad luck with errors and shaky managing, they obliterated them. I also suspect that Boston were very motivated to win, which explains their surprising success.
1980 ALCS: KANSAS CITY ROYALS 3 NEW YORK YANKEES 0
After getting eliminated by New York in 1976, 1977 and 1978, Kansas City were out for revenge. Their batting line was a surprisingly outstanding .289/.355/.464, compared to New York’s batting line of .255/.296/.431. Kansas City had a team ERA of 1.67 (3.83 during the season) and New York had 4.32 (3.58 during the season). The Yankees gave up 2 runs on errors, Kansas City only gave up 1. Game 2 was won by a run and game 3 by 2. A managerial blunder happened here as strangely New York’s manager Dick Howser didn’t go with Tommy John to start game 2. CP Goose Gossage uncharacteristically gave up what turned out to be a series winning home run to George Brett. A fastball inside to a lefty in a stadium with a short right field porch was a horrible and uncharacteristic idea. So what happened here? Individual player mistakes (Gossage’s pitch), Kansas City being more motivated and better luck (one run game) decided this series. I suspect that Kansas City were more motivated, as they wanted to avenge their previous playoff losses to New York.
1983 ALCS: BALTIMORE ORIOLES 3 CHICAGO WHITE SOX 1
The two teams were evenly matched, and they even had identical Pythagorean records. Chicago had the better lineup, but Baltimore had the better bullpen. The teams were almost identical during the course of the season: 4.94 runs per game for Chicago and 4.93 for Baltimore, 3.63 team ERA for Baltimore and 3.67 team ERA for Chicago, Baltimore had 120 errors and Chicago had 121 and they had an identical .981 FLD%. The series cane down to the pitching, with Baltimore having a 0.49 team ERA and Chicago a 4.00 team ERA. Errors cost Chicago 3 runs and Baltimore only 1. Bad luck definitely went Chicago’s way, as they had 10 hits in the final game and didn’t score any runs, while Baltimore had 9 and scored 3. Baltimore batted .217/.307/.357 compared to Chicago’s batting line of .211/.291/.241. In other words, Baltimore only had a slightly better batting line and outhit them 28 to 24, but outscored them 19 to 3. The teams were evenly matched, but Baltimore might have been a little bit better and was definitely a lot luckier.
1985 ALCS: KANSAS CITY ROYALS 4 TORONTO BLUE JAYS 3
Kansas City benefitted from luck (7 game series), and mostly from Toronto’s manager Bobby Cox blowing his team’s 3-1 lead with bad managing. He repeatedly blew series as Atlanta’s manager later on so this wasn’t an isolated incident.
1985 WORLD SERIES: KANSAS CITY ROYALS 4 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS 3
St. Louis had the best team in the Majors, but despite their record Kansas City weren’t that much worse, especially allowing their two best starting pitchers to get 4 starts, in which they delivered a combined 1.63 ERA. The aces being Bret Saberhagen and Charlie Leibrandt. St. Louis hit a shockingly bad .185/.248/.269 and Kansas City hit a surprisingly much more impressive .288/.366/.381. Add to that Kansas City’s 1.89 team ERA compared to St. Louis’s 3.96 ERA and Kansas City were uncharestically better during the series. An umpire‘s bad call and a foul ball that should’ve been caught decided a one run game 6, that St. Louis had won, which would’ve given them a 4-2 World Series win.
1987 ALCS: MINNESOTA TWINS 4 DETROIT TIGERS 1
Darrell Evans was caught drifting off a base with the bases loaded in game 4, that kept Detroit from tying the series at 2. It looks to me as if this series had to be driven by Minnesota being more motivated to win. Minnesota also hit 3 home runs in the first two games at home, while Detroit hit 0. It’s interesting because Detroit hit 7 in the next three games at home, while Minnesota hit 5. Minnesota cheated at home which helps explain their first 2 wins in the series. Had those two games were played without cheating, it’s likely that Detroit wins at least one of them. Add to that Evans not making that mistake in game 4 and Detroit end up leading the series 3-1. Cheating and luck definitely decided this series.
1987 WORLD SERIES: MINNESOTA TWINS 4 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS 3
The above cheating played a key role as Minnesota went undefeated at home and lost every game on the road. St. Louis were the better team and it was cheating and luck (7 game series) that decided this World Series.
1990 WORLD SERIES: CINCINNATI REDS 4 OAKLAND ATHLETICS 0
Cincinnati won 2 games by a single run, which indicates luck as a factor. Cincinnati’s bats were also remarkably hot, going .317/.382/.472 compared to Oakland’s .207/.270/.304. Cincinnati’s ERA was also 1.70 compared to Oakland’s 4.08. Errors also cost Oakland s staggering 6 runs. 3 of These rrrors happened in the two one-run games. This series was definitely decided by luck: Cincinnati’s bats got hot at the right time, and Oakland’s unlucky defense and two one-run games that went Cincinnati’s way did the rest.
1993 NLCS: PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES 4 ATLANTA BRAVES 2
Philadelphia won a staggering 3 games by a single run, while Atlanta won their 2 games by a combined score of 23-7. Atlanta outhit Philly with a batting line of .274/.342/.414 to Philly’s batting line of .227/.311/.425. Atlanta’s team ERA was also 3.15 compared to Philly’s 4.75. Errors cost both teams 4 runs each. Once again the blame has to go to Atlanta’s manager Bobby Cox, his team outhit and outpitched Philly, but went 0-3 in each of the 3 games decided by a single run, which is statistically a pretty significant fluke. Bad luck and Cox decided this series.
1997 ALDS: CLEVELAND INDIANS 3 NEW YORK YANKEES 2
Luck usually is the difference maker in a series decided by just one game, in this case Cldvelsnd also won 2 of the final games by a run, which is also a sign of luck. Finally, New York outhit Cleveland with a .259/.346/.410 batting line compared to Cleveland’s .257/.302/.377 and outpitched then with a 4.36 team ERA compared to their 4.50. New York even outscored Cleveland 24-21 with an identical 43 hits for each side. Luck definitely decided this series.
1998 NLCS: SAN DIEGO PADRES 4 ATLANTA BRAVES 2
Errors cost Atlanta 3 runs and San Diego 1, though Atlanta was the better defensive team during the season. Atlanta In fact made 3 errors in game 1, that San Diego won by 1 run. Atlanta loaded up the bases twice in game 3 but failed to score and their defense was atrocious in the final game, with errors costing them the game.
2000 ALDS: NEW YORK YANKEES 3 OAKLAND ATHLETICS 2
First of all, the Bronx Bombers were the defending 2 time World Champions, who actually won 3 World Series in the preceding 4 years prior to 2000, in other words their record was very misleading. Oakland’s defense cost them 2 runs and the series went 5 games, so there was still an element of luck in there. Oakland actually outhit and outpitched New York during the series, as well as outscored them 23-19, but in the end New York prevailed. I think that New York were the better team to begin with, but it was close and in the end luck played a role as well.
2000 ALDS: SEATTLE MARINERS 3 CHICAGO WHITE SOX 0
This series is pretty simple, Seattle we’re the better team and their Pythagorean records were identical.
2002 ALDS: ANAHEIM ANGELS 3 NEW YORK YANKEES 1
Anaheim had a better Pythagorean record, Anahim also slashed an unreal .376/.406/.624 during the series, which was significantly higher than their .282/.341/.433 batting line during the season. New York had a solid batting line of .281/.367/.467 but Anaheim’s was just unreal. The series was a slugfest, but Anaheim clearly got a bit luckier in the hitting department. To be fair, they also won the whole thing that year, so they were either better than New York to begin with or the teams were evenly matched.
2002 ALDS: MINNESOTA TWINS 3 OAKLAND ATHLETICS 2
A 5 game series where the final game was decided by a run. That by itself indicates that luck played a role in the result. That is generally the case in a series that goes the entire length and when a game is decided by a single run. The interesting thing here is how evenly the teams performed during the series: Oakland slashed .288/.333/.500 and Minnesota slashed .291/.341/.480. They both had a team ERS of 4.50. Oakland’s errors cost them 5 runs, while Minnesota’s cost them 4. Ultimately, Minnesota was slightly luckier and that won them the series against the better team.
2002 NLDS: SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS 3 ATLANTA BRAVES
This one’s pretty obvious: San Francisco was actually better (they even had a better Pythagorean record) and the series went the whole 5 games. Bobby Cox played a role too, giving Kevin Millwood 2 starts (including in the final game) and the better Greg Maddux only one.
2003 NLDS: CHICAGO CUBS 3 ATLANTA BRAVES 2
Despite the record, the Cubs were better and since this series went 5 games, they also had luck on their side.
2003 ALDS: BOSTON RED SOX 3 OAKLAND ATHLETICS 2
Boston were better and the series went 5 games.
2003 WORLD SERIES: FLORIDA MARLINS 4 NEW YORK YANKEES 2
New York had a 2-1 lead, when they just barely lost by a run in the 12’th inning and then game 5 because starting pitcher David Wells got injured and had to be replaced by long reliever Jose Contreras in the first inning, who was significantly worse. Contreras proceeded to give up 4 runs in 3 innings, getting a loss and costing New York the game. Down 3-2 New York lost the deciding game 6 due to Florida’s ace Josh Beckett pitching a gem. Had Wells not gotten injured and luck go New York’s way in game 4, the Bronx Bombers could’ve won the series 4-1 or had a 3-2 lead. They outplayed Florida during the series, outhitting them by batting .261/.338/.406 compared to Florida’s batting line of .232/.282/.300 and outpitched them with a 2.13 team ERA, compared to Florida’s 3.21. A staggering 4 runs were also allowed by New York due to errors (compared to 1 by Florida).
2006 NLCS: ST. LOUIS CARDINALS 4 NEW YORK METS 3
St. Louis won the pennant in 2004 and were 2 wins away from another one the previous year. Injuries skewed their record during the season, but they were relatively healthy for this series. I also suspect that they were motivated due to coming so close to winning it all the previous 2 years and having their window about to close.
2011 NLDS: ST. LOUIS CARDINALS 3 PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES 2
This was a 5 game series, where 3 games were decided by a single run (with St. Louis winning two of them). St. Louis may have actually been the best team in the game in the second half of the season to top it all off. Chalk this one up to bad luck for Philadelphia and St. Louis being better than many assumed. I also think that St. Louis were more motivated due to their manager Tony La Russa retiring and their best player Albert Pujols about to hit free agency.
2012 NLDS: SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS 3 CINCINNATI REDS
This was a 5 game series where Cincinnati lost ace Johnny Cueto in game 1 to injury for the rest of the series. They were also unlucky losing game 3 in extra innings, with 2B Brandon Phillips getting caught stealing to ruin a big inning. Cincinnati’s manager Dusty Baker was no stranger to blowing seemingly definite series wins and so naturally mismanaged the team the rest of the series: starting Mike Leake in game 4 and not pulling starting pitcher Mat Latos from facing San Francisco’s catcher Buster Posey, who was typically hitting home runs off of him. Baker also made a major error of judgment, by telling Jay Bruce to steal a base (something that he was always bad at) during a rally in game 5.
2014 NLDS: SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS 3 WASHINGTON NATIONALS 1
San Francisco won every game by a run as their pitching shut down Washington.