The Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals finished up their season this weekend. The Cardinals won three of four games in Los Angeles, after winning two of three in St. Louis the previous weekend. Naturally, with the Cardinals having knocked the Dodgers out of the postseason each of the past two seasons — in the 2013 NLCS and the 2014 NLDS — there is concern among Dodger fans that the Cardinals “have their number,” and that even if the Dodgers can overcome their recent slump to make the playoffs, they will not be able to get past the Cardinals buzzsaw.
The point has been made, though — and it’s a good one — that the Dodgers actually won the season series with the Cardinals each of the past two seasons, going 4-3 against St. Louis each year. Dodger fans have learned all too painfully the past two seasons that beating the Cardinals in the regular season does not spell victory in the postseason. For that matter, they won the season series with the San Francisco Giants last season and won the division by six games, but they watched from home while the Wild Card Giants celebrated another World Series title.
In fact, the Dodgers have not been knocked out of the playoffs by a team to whom they also lost the season series since 2006, when they got swept by the New York Mets after losing the season series, 4-3. Since then, three times the Dodgers have gone 2-5 against a team in the regular season and then beat them in the postseason: the Chicago Cubs in 2008, the Cardinals in 2009, and the Atlanta Braves in 2013.
It was also the Mets who went 10-1 against the Dodgers in 1988, only to lose the NLCS in seven games to the eventual World Series champs.
My point here is that regular season head-to-head records don’t mean a lot once you get to October. Sure, they are important in the sense that every regular season game matters in getting you into the playoffs, but once you’re there, they don’t mean much of anything.
Baseball is a different sport than basketball or football. When two teams meet in the NFL playoffs after playing twice in the regular season, it is generally the third matchup of the same two quarterbacks, throwing to the same receivers, handing off to the same running backs, trying to score on the same defenses. Every time the Spurs play the Mavericks, the same five guys are going head-to-head. But in baseball, things are different. In a seven-game postseason series, you can expect to face your opponents’ top two starters four or five times in the seven games, but that number is often two or three in a regular-season slate. For example, in the seven games the Cardinals and Dodgers have played in the past ten days, they have faced Carlos Frias twice, Brett Anderson twice, and Mike Bolsinger, Clayton Kershaw, and Zack Greinke once each.
The best teams in baseball generally lose 60-70 games in a season. Some of those losses are because they are facing a better team. Some of them are because their number-five starter is facing the other team’s ace. Sometimes they have a few starters getting a day off and their bench gets outplayed.
And sometimes it’s just a fluke. On May 17, 1968, the first-place, 19-12 Cardinals faced the fourth-place, 14-16 Phillies, with ace pitcher Bob Gibson battling the unremarkable future journeyman Woodie Fryman. Gibson pitched 9.2 innings and allowed just one run, lowering his season ERA to 1.36 on his way to an amazing 1.12 ERA for the season. Unfortunately, Fryman pitched ten innings and allowed zero runs, earning the right to forever tell his grandkids that he outdueled the great Bob Gibson in 1968, of all seasons.
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My point is that anything can happen in a single baseball game, and by extension, in a short series. The Kansas City Royals swept the Giants in a three-game series last August, then lost to them in the World Series. The Detroit Tigers went 5-1 against the Baltimore Orioles last season, then got swept by them in the ALDS.
In the 2013 postseason, the winning teams in the nine series went 26-12 in those series, a .684 winning percentage. Against those same opponents in the regular season, they went 47-44, a .516 winning percentage. The 2014 postseason was even more surprising: the nine winning teams went 26-6 in the postseason series — a winning percentage of .813 — after going 24-32 (.429) against those same opponents in the regular season.
It would be overly simplistic to say that regular season results never mean anything, but it is at least as misguided to assign too much meaning to them. In 2013, the Boston Red Sox were probably better than the Tampa Bay Rays — they beat them 12 of 19 times in the regular season, beat them out for the AL East title, and then beat them 3-1 in the ALDS. But just as often, you can find surprising results where a team that seemed to be inferior got hot at the right time and beat out a better team. And while 1988 was a long time ago, Dodger fans should know that better than anyone after beating the Mets and the Oakland A’s in winning their last World Series.