The Classical launches in November, but the cruel folks behind it love baseball way too much to let the World Series pass without comment. Throughout the series, its writers will do a daily diary for Deadspin. Keep tabs on us @Classical.
The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series last night. In doing so, they did very little to convince baseball fans that they were the best baseball team of 2011. I don't mean that as a pejorative. The Cardinals went on an amazing run, coming back from a historic deficit just to beat out the Braves for the NL wild-card berth before knocking off three favored squads in the postseason. St. Louis accomplished what everyone else could not, and they are worthy champions.
Yet baseball's coronation process takes place over the course of a maximum of 19 games per team, a far smaller sample size than the 162 games played during the regular season. While the postseason features the best teams in the sport, the number of games played necessarily demands that single events have an extremely large effect on the outcomes of series. Other sports let their postseasons match at least a quarter of their regular seasons—MLB goes with something closer to one-ninth. Teams need lots of good fortune to make the playoffs, but the amount of luck required to win three short playoff series is much higher.
It isn't terribly controversial to claim that the Cardinals received their fair share of good luck over the past few months. From the Braves' epic September collapse to a 1-0 victory in Game 5 against the Phillies to Thursday's random number generator of a Game 6, their biggest successes could have ended up differently with a few bounces. Luck is always an ingredient in winning, but it's especially true of World Series winners in the wild card era. (I freely admit my beloved 2010 Giants are a prime example of this.)
Every front office builds its team with the goal of winning the World Series, but the path towards that end takes on radically different forms every season. It's no mistake that baseball fans speak of curses more often than others—huge wins and crushing losses come unexpectedly as if decided by a group of fickle gods playing around with clay figurines on a scale-model baseball diamond. The playoffs don't determine which team deserves a championship more than the other seven participants. We can only learn which team wins 11 games. In such a small sample, there is no "deserve."
The Cardinals were an unpredictable champion, but they stand out in degree, not kind. Their unlikely run speaks to the capacity for surprise that lies at the heart of the sport today. If the Moneyball era of sabermetrics focused on identifying the outcomes that lead to wins, then more recent innovations have suggested that positive plays themselves don't always indicate top-level performance. Both ERA and FIP attempt to quantify a pitcher's performance, but only the latter tries to isolate his play from defense and luck. These indicator stats suggest future performance better than what skill and luck conspired to produce in the past.
That said, it's important to remember that these stats only suggest what might happen in the future. More often than not, results defy expectations, especially when the sample size is small. No matter what the stats say about Texas reliever Alexi Ogando's ability to get Allen Craig out, the Cardinals pinch-hitter can get two huge RBI singles on consecutive nights; the likelihood of a good team holding a two-run lead can be turned on its head twice; a team can score multiple runs in an inning while never hitting the ball out of the infield; etc. ad infinitum. Binders and regression tables can help, but we just don't know how things will work out.
Given that state of uncertainty, is it any wonder that Tony La Russa has been deemed a genius when he's taken two Cardinals teams to illogical World Series titles in the last six seasons? How else are we supposed to explain their victories with any sense of meaning or maintain a sense of comfort regarding the nation's most historically dependent sports league?
The answer, as frightening as it might be, is to let go of grit-centric cliches and embrace the wonder of baseball entropy. Game 6 was not a particularly well-played contest, but its dozens of twists will ensure that it goes down as one of the best-remembered games in the sport's long history. While most baseball games are nowhere near as crazy, each features its own instances of brain-breaking weirdness. At its best, baseball is worth watching especially because of—not in spite of—its tendency to confound expectations.
This conception of the sport is decentralized, to be sure, but no more nihilistic than atheism. A lack of consistent patterns doesn't render a system meaningless. Instead, it just requires that we trust the value of a single player, skill, or even moment before determining its relation to the larger whole. Taken together, all these free radicals add up to much more than the sum of their parts. For the Cardinals, they produced one of the most consistently thrilling championships in the sport's history. Your mileage may vary.
Eric Freeman is a writer from San Francisco. He contributes daily to Yahoo!'s Ball Don't Lie NBA blog. In his spare time, he reads long novels, watches weird movies, and yells at his television. Follow him on Twitter @freemaneric.