One often-repeated criticism of the Yankees is their relative inability to beat teams over .500. They are, after all, just 24-29 against those opponents, while they’re 40-13 against their weaker counterparts. Intuitively, this seems like a bad indicator of things to come. Once you get to the playoffs those sub-.500 teams are out of the picture. How can the Yankees expect to win if they can’t beat the better teams?
As it turns out, a team’s ability to beat other winning teams doesn’t mean much, at least so far as World Series titles go. As Darren Everson of The Wall Street Journal notes, of the nine champions this decade only four have had winning records against teams over .500. “The typical profile of a World Series champion in recent times is a club that cleans up on the weak and breaks even against everyone else.” So perhaps this isn’t the problem we’re making it out to be.
As Calcaterra muses, it’s probably a coincidence. I tend to agree. Baseball is like a biathlon, starting with a six-month marathon and concluding with a three-week sprint. Teams that fare well in the marathon might not handle the sprint so well, and vice versa (the Wild Card has allowed more of the latter to get into the playoffs). Combine that with the natural streakiness of baseball and you have a recipe for a postseason which does not necessarily reflect the 162-game season we all live and die through.
Not that it stops Craig from speculating:
The article doesn’t speculate about why this might be. Coincidence is almost always the best answer when one encounters weird and/or counterintuitive stats like this, but chalking stuff up to coincidence is boring, even if accurate. Because of this, let’s concoct an untestable yet moderately-satisfying hypothesis: Due to the 162-game regular season, teams that win the World Series are, by definition, marathon winners, not sprinters, and the mark of a marathon winner is somoene who knows when to conserve energy and when to put the hammer down. This is not to say that teams roll over for good competition. Indeed, as the article notes, the winners play even the toughest competition at something just less than .500 ball, which ain’t too shabby. It’s merely to suggest that on some subconscious level, the best teams know that all wins count for the same amount during the regular season and that it simply takes less energy to beat a bad team than a good one and act accordingly.
Really, though, it’s coincidence.