The Red Sox beat the Tigers — but are they better?

Koji Uehara celebrates the Boston Red Sox's 2013 ALCS victory

Editor’s note: with the Boston Red Sox winning Game 1 of the 2013 World Series, we’re a bit behind on this post. We’ve been busy!

The Red Sox won the 2013 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, four games to two. Predictably, this result prompted many fans and journalists to say that the Red Sox were the better team. Here’s what Chris Iott of mlive.com had to say:

The better team won.

Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland repeatedly says that it’s often not a matter of who you play but when you play them. Many Tigers fans will debate that their team is better than the Boston Red Sox. That the Tigers had the starting pitching advantage. That the health issues Miguel Cabrera has battled for months cost them a shot at the World Series. That the bounces — and some close ball-strike calls — all seemed to go Boston’s way.

Most or all of that might be true. But in the seven-game American League Championship Series, the Red Sox proved to be a better team.

Journalists who think a six game baseball series “proves” something do not understand baseball or statistics. If the Red Sox are good enough to beat the Tigers 66% of the time, the ALCS would have to be a best of 23 games series in order to have a statistically significant outcome. And if the Red Sox are only good enough to beat the Tigers 55% of the time, the ACLS would have to be a best of 269 games series.

Given that four of the six games in the series were decided by a single run and that the Red Sox only managed to outscore the Tigers 19-18 across the entire series, I’d say that the Red Sox’s edge on the Tigers is much closer to 55-45 than 66-33. And the above quote is made even worse by the fact that Iott noted both of these facts about scoring margin in his article!

Let’s not forget the quote about momentum, either. There’s no evidence to support the idea that teams maintain any kind of momentum between games. The very concept of momentum is puzzling. Jonathan Weiler of The ESPN Watch recently shared this hilarious back-and-forth, which shows just how ridiculous the concept of momentum is:

[In 1971]…Both the Pirates‘ and Orioles‘ playoff victories were attributed to Momentum, as were the Orioles‘ first two World Series victories.

Q. But wait. I thought you said that it was agreed that the Pirates were also being carried by Momentum coming into the Series.

A. They lost their Momentum in Baltimore.

Q. Did the Orioles have Momentum going for them when they went to Pittsburgh for the third game?

A. Absolutely, everybody agreed.

Q. What was Pittsburgh‘s aim at this point?

A. To regain Momentum.

Q. Did they?

A. Yes. They turned the Momentum around.

Q. But then, what happened to all that well-documented Oriole Momentum?

A. It was sidetracked.

Q. For how long?

A. Not long. In the very first inning of the next game, Baltimore scored three runs and recovered its Momentum.

Q. And Pittsburgh lost its?

A. Temporarily.

Q. I don’t understand. If Baltimore recovered its Momentum and Pittsburgh lost its temporarily, how did the Pirates ever win?

A. Young Bruce Kison came in to check the Oriole Momentum.

Q. Of course. And what happened then?

A. Then the Pirates stole the Oriole Momentum.

Q. The Orioles were glad to return to Baltimore, weren’t they?

A. You bet. They hoped to pick up the same Momentum they had exhibited before.

Q. And the Pirates?

A. Well, of course, everybody knew the big question was whether or not they could retain the Momentum that they had uncovered in Pittsburgh.

Q. Well, what happened?

A. Frank Robinson’s base running picked up the Oriole Momentum.

Q. Then the Orioles obviously had a big edge going into the last game?

A. No, remember that Steve Blass came into the game with Momentum too.

Q. You mean both teams were blessed with Momentum?

A. They were until Roberto Clemente hit a home run and blunted the Oriole Momentum.

And that article by Frank Deford was written in 1971! In over 40 years, little has changed and we’re still dealing with the same insipid analysis.

A better approach

Instead of taking the traditional, cliché-filled approach, Mike Axisa of CBS Sports offered an interesting and thoughtful take on how the final game in the series could have turned out differently. Axisa takes three in-game events — a foul ball in the 3rd inning, a called ball on a full count in the 7th inning, and the subsequent grand slam that provided the game’s final margin — and notes how each event changed the Tigers’ chances of winning the game. He also selected some great GIFs and images to demonstrate how a few inches here and there can make a big difference.

Sports writers and journalists take note: that is how to do game analysis!

- Devin (with links and inspiration from DJ)

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