Sunday, January 13, 2013

Changing the Rules at the Hall of Fame

In the aftermath of the BBWAA pitching a shutout in the 2013 Hall of Fame election, I have immersed myself in the quasi-social media more than ever before (and, I hope, ever after), drinking in the views and opinions drifting in from various participants, historians, enthusiasts, bloggers, and everybody else who has ever watched a ballgame. A lot of people think the HOF election system is flawed and must be replaced. All sorts of blame has been thrown around, and not all of it can be ignored. Observers I respect have expressed seriously varying attitudes toward the varied aspects of the issue, and their expertise nearly cancels itself out. And at least a couple of very smart people I know have come up with specific solutions--presuming, of course, that we can agree on what exactly needs to be fixed. In short, it's a mess.

I have a few random observations about the situation I'll share with you here, along with a history lesson about how the 2013 election fits into the history of the Hall of Fame itself, pointing toward what I think might happen, or at least wouldn't be surprised to see happen.

I've seen this all before and worse, in my research for a pair of articles I wrote about the 1945 election while working at the Hall of Fame. That was the thorniest election between the first one and this year's, especially in terms of a substantial field of very qualified players causing the vote to be spread around just enough to keep any one of them from being elected. In 1945, there were thirty-three (33) future Hall of Famers who received at least 5% of the vote. Seven of them got at least 50%, topped by Frank Chance with 72.3% and Rube Waddell with 62.3.  Even the most conservative observers today who advocate Hall of Fame election only to "no-brainers" would find at least 12-15 worthies on that ballot--Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Three Finger Brown, and Kid Nichols, to name just a few. A whopping 94 players got votes, including 56 future Hall of Famers. No wonder nobody got elected.

Did the Hall of Fame take this statistical defeat lying down? No sirree. Since the 1939 inauguration of the museum, this was only the second election (Rogers Hornsby was elected in 1942), and too many good players had been jammed into a hopeless backlog. The Hall of Fame needed to get more players into their museum to attract more visitors once the war was in the past. A six-man "Committee on Old Timers" met that summer and changed the rules.  The BBWAA would now hold annual elections, initially using a two-tier run-off format that would make it easier to elect players. In addition, the writers' jurisdiction would extend only as far back as 1910, with a separate committee, appointed by the Hall's Board of Trustees, mandated to elect earlier players. Exercising this free privilege, they promptly elected ten people, including the likes of Jim O'Rourke and Roger Bresnahan. In 1946, after another BBWAA shutout, they elected eleven more, including Tinker, Evers and Chance, along with Rube Waddell and the man felt by today's historians to be the worst Hall of Famer ever elected solely as a player: Tommy McCarthy. As Bill James declared in The Politics of Glory, those last eleven choices, made in the same year that the BBWAA declined to elect Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove, forever eliminated any elite, overblown premise of making super-excellence a prerequisite for getting a plaque in Cooperstown.

This year, when the electorate couldn't even find a consensus on a no-brainer like Craig Biggio, it is appropriate that in its desperation to create an excuse for tourists to come root for someone at the July induction ceremony, the Hall of Fame has decided to honor those ten 1945 electees. They didn't have their own ceremony that year, you see, because of the war, and when the Hall of Fame initiated its annual ceremony in 1946, none of them showed up to receive the honor in person. The only electee from 1945-46 who did travel to the ceremony was Ed Walsh. Anyway, if you're a major devotee of players like King Kelly and Ed Delahanty, or that vanished breed, the player-manager, like Fred Clarke and Jimmy Collins, this is your big chance to go to Cooperstown and get as close as you ever will to the stage to hear your favorite's name mentioned at an induction ceremony for the first time since the day they didn't show up.

What is the Hall of Fame going to do about a voting logjam that is not likely to unsnarl on its own? The eligibility of at least a few no-brainers in the next three ballots will make it certain that living players will be inducted every July, but everyone else will stand still, and the time will come again when the Hall--and the merchants of Cooperstown--will depend on the election of some of today's uncertainties. They depended on an election this year, and they were disappointed. The Hall of Fame doesn't have a history of letting other entities dictate its realities. They've redone the remnants of that original Committee on Old Timers many times, tinkering with several versions of the Veterans Committee just in the last decade. In 2012, they even put a couple of independent historians on the committee, which helped result in the election of Deacon White and Hank O'Day.

Clearly, the Hall of Fame has taken the high road so far concerning the "Steroids Era," that is, an extension of Bud Selig's head-in-the-sand avoidance of acknowledging any more than is absolutely inescapable. The Hall does tell the story of steroids in its label for the Barry Bonds "asterisk ball" in the Records Room on the third floor. There are also plenty of files of material on the subject in the library. As a museum, they have adhered to their responsibility to tell the story of what happened. But staff members have been advised not to speculate about which players may have used PEDs and how that affected their performance or their place in history. It has long been a policy to prohibit staff from advocating or rejecting the credentials of any candidate for election, and rightly so. A cruel fate awaits any employee who, acting as a de facto spokesman for the Hall of Fame, tells a visitor that the odds are against Roger Clemens ever being elected because too many people believe he cheated.

Thus the Hall itself has refrained from any public statement addressing the issue of whether PED use should disqualify anyone from election. The Hall has preferred to let the so-called "character clause" speak for itself, and this year it spoke to certain writers in a way that gave them an excuse to leave all the "steroid era" nominees off their ballots. That works against the Hall's long-term interest in getting plaques on the walls to get people into the gallery. So it wouldn't surprise me to see the Hall's Board of Trustees do something about it. They might, at some point, decide that they can add by subtracting, that by throwing a few people under the bus, they can keep the bus moving forward.

The Hall of Fame's Rule of Election #5 lists six criteria to be weighed by voters. Half relate to skills on the field; half do not. Voters don't have too much trouble evaluating a player's "record, playing ability. . .and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." To take Barry Bonds as an example, all three areas are no-brainers. He had one of the best careers ever statistically, he was extremely talented in batting, running, and fielding, and his record number of MVP Awards tells us how much he helped his team(s). The other three criteria seem just as clearly in the negative column when applied to the Bonds we have come to know:  integrity, sportsmanship, character.

It is difficult to make the case that any known user of PEDs has displayed basic integrity, a sense of fair play,  or strength of any kind. If they have failed to meet half of the criteria, how can they be honored? Of course the Hall's rules don't describe those criteria in detail or give the voters any guidance on which traits might carry more weight than others. The tendency over decades of voting has been to emphasize the player's ability over everything. It accounts for the election of players like Dizzy Dean, whose enormous talent was blunted by an injury that kept his career totals way below what we regard today as minimally qualified. This year it accounted in part for the failure to elect Craig Biggio, and before him the likes of Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat and Tommy John . The only bad thing some people have said about these careers is that the player didn't have many outstanding individual seasons, seldom led the league in a significant stat, and merely accumulated big numbers by lasting so long. In Biggio's case, more than 30% of the voters decided that he was somewhat lacking in the talent department, preventing his great stats from turning (yet) into immortal stats.

But suppose the Hall of Fame clarified Rule 5. Suppose they issued a statement that players who demonstrably used PEDs had violated key terms of that rule and therefore would not be eligible for the BBWAA ballot. How would you determine that? One simple way would be to say that all players who were named in the Mitchell Report--a process in which the players participated and which has already affected a couple of players' chances of election--would be ineligible for the BBWAA ballot. That would eliminate a lot of the troubling cases in the news this week: Bonds, Clemens, Palmeiro were on the ballot and the report, which also named upcoming hopefuls like Andy Pettitte, Gary Sheffield, and Kevin Brown.

With those players off the ballot, two things would happen. First, the less crowded field would narrow the spreading effect that helped louse things up this year. Second, writers would know where the line had been drawn and would not be able to exclude players who have nothing against them besides guilt by association. That would give Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, among others, a clearer path to the election they deserve. Other players who were not named in that report but have been caught--Manny Ramirez is the best example--could easily be added to that list.

The Hall might decide that this only applied to the BBWAA election, leaving the miscreants open to election by some Veterans Committee to be named at a later date; I can see the 87th version of the VC, patched together in 2113, deciding it was time to go back and find the Deacon White of their perspective, maybe someone like Bonds or Clemens whose record would finally be regarded as strong enough to overcome the negative factors. That was part of the Hall of Fame's approach to Pete Rose, acknowledging that if got reinstated by MLB after his period of eligibility for the BBWAA ballot had expired, he could be considered by the VC. Revising Rule 5 would take the current burden off the BBWAA and its individual members, who have twisted themselves into knots this winter trying to justify their widely varying points of view. It would also send a message to players considering steroids, letting them know of an additional penalty for getting caught. Would having to wait two decades after retirement to be eligible for the Hall of Fame have slowed down Barry Bonds? Maybe.

There is plenty of precedent for the BBWAA making worthy candidates wait for election, as if they exert some kind of group will rather than being the sum of individuals quirks and consciences. Roberto Alomar was the most recent example of a no-brainer talent who wasn't elected the first time because some writers punished him for spitting at an umpire. The umpire forgave him long before some of the writers did, but there is a recurring sentiment in some voters that "I know he's a Hall of Famer, and I don't mind if he's there someday, but I think he ought to wait and I'm not going to be part of the group that ignores his misdeed(s) and elects him the first time." We've heard that this year regarding Bonds and Clemens. Juan Marichal, a gentleman who experienced ten seconds of anger on the field and bopped a player over the head with a bat, didn't get in until his third year on the ballot. Gaylord Perry, an admitted cheater of the rules of play, also waited until his third election to make it. Even Yogi Berra, with his three MVP Awards and all those World Series rings, didn't make it until his second year, though what reason 118 writers found to justify not voting for him the first time is beyond me. My point is that if Juan Marichal could be punished for two years for whacking someone with a bat, Barry Bonds can be punished for awhile for whacking baseball's integrity over the head with his batting.

Incidentally, I used to maintain that Bonds and Clemens should be elected because they had established HOF credentials before the time when they started using steroids. But I no longer feel that way. They shouldn't be let off the hook for that. It would be like saying that Richard Nixon shouldn't have paid any price for authorizing and covering up the Watergate break-in because he was going to win the election anyway. It reveals an even deeper character weakness when a person in a superior position still resorts to dishonest methods to gain an even greater advantage. Nixon paid the price.

Should Bonds, Clemens & Company pay a price now for what they did then? Should exclusion from the Hall of Fame be that price? A lot of things we hear all the time about this issue are irrelevant. Some people say that there are so many cheaters, racists, felons, alcoholics, and all-around bad guys in the Hall of Fame already that nobody today should be judged. Some say that steroids and other PEDs weren't against baseball's rules back then, so it was okay that players used them. Some say that because the people running baseball, starting at the top with Bud Selig and moving don the ladder to team executives, managers, and teammates, condoned the methods of the "Steroid Era," we should condone it too. None of that matters. So what if electors, players and executives have made big mistakes in the past. It doesn't follow that we have to continue along the same path of condonement and glorification. Don't be suckered in by that false logic. It's the same explanation that child abusers give--their parents did it to them and they didn't know any better than to do it to their children. You can't simply point to an illegal spitball pitcher or a cocaine user's current presence in the Hall of Fame and say it permanently excuses any other candidate who used drugs. So yes, everyone should pay a price. We can't go back and change the games themselves or their results. But what we can do is refuse to heap honors on them. So I for one applaud the BBWAA electorate for voicing a strong, albeit belated, objection to glorifying steroids users.

The precedent for today's fiasco is the prevalence of gambling before the "Black Sox scandal" of 1920. There are key similarities:  betting on games was not against baseball's rules in until 1927, and while there was no specific clause in the rules covering punishment for throwing games, it was unwritten policy to sweep it under the carpet. As with steroids, everyone in baseball knew that certain players were throwing games, yet the most celebrated, transparent, and unrepentant game-thrower, Hal Chase, was not barred from the major leagues. Commissioner Landis kicked the Black Sox out, even guilt-only-by-association Buck Weaver, as a way of signaling that such dishonesty would not be tolerated. After more than two decades of letting it go, Landis came along and said that's enough. That's all the BBWAA has done this year. After two decades of nearly everyone involved in baseball turning their heads and letting it go, the BBWAA stood up and said "no, someone has to make them answerable for what they did." The Hall of Fame can make it easy for everybody. Instead of taking the chance that the BBWAA will never elect any of these guys, it can say "these guys aren't eligible, but those guys are," and grease the way for those guys to get in.

Would the Hall of Fame actually do this? There are a lot of factors involved, but I think they might. There certainly is precedent for the Hall telling the BBWAA whom it can and cannot consider on its ballot, and I don't mean just in 1945-46. I'm talking about the so-called "Pete Rose rule" of 1991. Rose had been added to the commissioner's "Ineligible List" in 1989, but he wasn't eligible for the BBWAA ballot until 1992. There was nothing in the election rules prohibiting ineligible players from getting votes on the ballot. In fact, Joe Jackson, banished since 1920, received votes in two elections, 1936 and 1946. There was a genuine fear at the Hall of Fame that the writers might elect Rose, who had been immensely popular with them and was as strong a candidate for unanimous election as there ever was before he screwed it up.

How real was this fear? Here is the text of a memo written on June 5, 1990, by Bill Guilfoile, the Hall of Fame's Associate Director at the time, their #2 man and PR spokesman. It was sent to his two bosses, HOF President Edward Stack and Director Howard Talbot. Here is what was on Guilfoile's mind:

"If we are considering changing the Rules for Election by the BBWAA to include adding the sentence, "No-one who is under suspension (or 'who has been banished') from baseball at the time of the election shall be included on the ballot", a revision which I strongly recommend. I believe there is some urgency about accomplishing this within the month for the following reasons:
  1. Rumors are that Pete Rose will be applying for reinstatement sometime this summer. It would be imperative that this revision be announced prior to his application.
  2. The annoucement should be made before the Hall of Fame ballot is announced for the 1991 election.
  3. We should not wait for the August Board of Directors' meeting. Action taken at that time would naturally result in wide-spread publicity which would detract from the media coverage due the inductees.
"I feel very strongly about the need for the Hall of Fame to clarify the situation regarding Rose. If he is reinstated by the Commissioner prior to the 1992 election, fine. If not, we should not leave the decision on his eligibility up to the baseball writers."

There you have it. There are four things that stand out to me here:
  1. After the rule change was implemented, some HOF apologists insisted that it wasn't a change but merely a clarification of long-standing policy. It had been an unwritten practice, but since Guilfoile didn't trust the writers, he wanted to put it in writing.
  2. He sure was eager to get that change passed before Rose applied for reinstatement. In other words, he wanted the person deciding Rose's fate--Fay Vincent, who in less than a year had established himself as something other than the knee-jerk owners' puppet like his predecessors--to be sure to realize that by reinstating Rose, he would also make it possible for the man who (in the owners' eyes) killed Vincent's mentor, Bart Giamatti, to be elected to the Hall of Fame, on whose Board of Trustees Vincent sat, as had all of his predecessors. That would stack the deck further against Rose.
  3. He wanted to keep the thing as hush-hush as possible. He said it was because he didn't want to detract from the inductees to announce the change during the Board's meeting that weekend. But they could have made the decision without announcing it right away. No, Guilfoile wanted it done before anybody who cared was anywhere near Cooperstown. He didn't get his wish.
  4. The last thing he wanted was to let the writers decide. He had time on his side, with the relevant election more than 18 months away. But he didn't want to take chances. If the Hall of Fame could put it in black and white that all players who meet this condition can't be on the ballot, the BBWAA wouldn't be able to do anything it. Actually, they could. In the 1992 ballot, 41 writers voted for Pete Rose (9.2%) even though his name was not on the ballot. He finished one vote behind Curt Flood and one ahead of Bobby Bonds. He got 14 and 19 symbolic votes in the next two elections, then vanished from completed ballots. 
Stack and Talbot didn't buy Guilfoile's urgency, but they did like his premise. They waited until the week after the announcement of the results from the 1991 election. At a meeting deep in the off-season, a select committee came up with the language for the new Rule, which was passed by the Board in early February. The rule (3-W) reads: "Any player on Baseball's ineligible list shall not be an eligible candidate." That seems pretty clear-cut, excluding Rose, Joe Jackson, and others on a specific list. Excluding "Steroids Era" players based on the Mitchell Report or some other "official" list would make it easier for all of us. The more extreme remedy would be for the Hall to enact some kind of mechanism for expelling members already elected. More than a few writers this week have voiced the likelihood that there is already an unexposed steroids-user in the Hall of Fame. If it turns out that someone we have already immortalized was as guilty as those we have vilified and punished more recently, it undercuts any premise of giving the whole "Steroids Era" a pass. I hope that isn't true.

If it is true, it would force everyone to reconsider the future and the nature of the Hall of Fame. They might have to seal off the present gallery and start over with a second series of plaques. This second incarnation could emphasize fame--it is the name of the place, after all. Or it could emphasize strength of character. Or just the most elite players as rated by sacred sabermetric formulae. Or all of them. It could have six wings, each emphasizing a different baseball virtue as specified in the current list of criteria. Someone like Lou Gehrig or Stan Musial might be represented in all six. Dizzy Dean and Pete Rose might make two or three. Oh, and a wing for managers, one for executives, and isn't it about time that writers and broadcasters got their own wing? The more the merrier. And they could find a little corner somewhere for one last wing, the Despicable Commissioners Wing, where Bud Selig would be a no-brainer shoo-in for sanctioning the Steroid Era in the first place. Don't get me started on the plaques in that rogues' gallery!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Anomaly, Or Not To Be

This inquiry began when my good friend Dan Heaton sent me an article from the New York Times about the game-winning patterns of World Series winners. The geekish article told us, for instance, that apart from sweeps, the most common pattern is for the winning team to win Games 1, 3, 4, and 5. That has happened ten times, compared to the three times that winner has won all four home games (1, 2, 6, 7). Only once has a team won Games 1, 2, 5, and 7, while no winner (surprisingly) has ever won Games 1, 4, 6 and 7. And so on. More relevant to the discussion here, no team has ever needed six or seven games to capture the title after winning the first three games. The Red Sox may have come back from a 3-0 deficit in the LCS, but in the World Series, no team has won even twice after going down 3-0.

Here's what Dan wrote that started a rather heated e-mail debate: "What I find stunning. . .is that teams that start 3-0 are 21-3 in game 4! Is this statistically significant--can we really say that teams that start 3-0 are typically that much better than their opponents? Clearly not--the best team in baseball isn't enough better than the worst to play .875 against them. So it's an anomaly--but what an anomaly!"

My instinctive response was that there was most likely a strong psychological factor making the trailing teams so hapless in Game 4. The weight of historical precedent would make the losing team realize that they had no chance, and at some level they would be more mentally prepared to get to the golf course a day sooner than to play ball. Dan dismissed this as nonsense, insisting that a team that had come that far already and had fought its way through two previous postseason series would not suddenly succumb to collective despair.

We didn't settle anything on that front, so I turned to the numbers themselves. My feeling was that even though 21-3 looked like an anomaly and sounded like an anomaly, it didn't smell to me like an anomaly. It didn't automatically have to be dumped into the "shit happens" file or dismissed because statistically speaking it is the kind of small sample where any result could occur. Maybe it wasn't inexplicable. Maybe there was a common factor or thread which might explain at least most of those results. In fact, I started thinking, maybe it wasn't even an unexpected result under those circumstances.

I decided to look at the other two professional sports which have a best-of-seven championship series. First I went through NBA final series going back to 1951. That year, the Rochester Royals led the New York Knicks in the finals by a 3-0 margin, but the Knicks fought back to take the next three games before the Royals won Game 7. Since then, there have been nine final series in which one team led, 3-0. In eight of the nine, that team has swept. So it's 8-2 overall in the NBA, not as extreme as baseball but still quite tilted toward sweeps.

Next up was the NHL, a quest that took me back to 1919, when Montreal led Ottawa 3-0 in the finals, lost Game 4, and wrapped up the series in five games. There were no other 3-0 leads until 1941 (in many of the intervening seasons, the finals were not best-of-7), which began a stretch of six straight years when one team took a 3-0 lead in the finals. Those teams split the Game 4 results; in 1942, as hockey nuts can tell you, the Toronto Maple Leafs came back from trailing the Detroit Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup in seven games, while in 1945 the Maple Leafs almost blew a 3-0 lead, needing seven games to defeat the Red Wings.

Through 1960, teams leading 3-0 in the Stanley Cup finals were only 7-5 in Game 4. That didn't look good at all for my anti-anomaly theory, but a funny thing happened once the NHL doubled in size in 1967-1968 and added preliminary playoff series, as baseball did one year later. Since 1967, NHL teams leading 3-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals have gone 13-2 in Game 4. In the NBA, the figure since that time is 7-1, and in baseball, sports fans, it is 9-1.

If you look at the overall totals for the three sports, the record in Game 4 for teams ahead 3-0 is 49-12, a winning percentage of .803. From 1967 through 2012, however, it is 29-4, a winning percentage of .879. In that light, baseball's overall .875 seems to be right on the money in terms of what you would expect from a professional team. Of course, the three sports have very different formats, and the nature of the sports themselves are different enough that the reasons for each sport's result might be unique. The fact is, however, that when pro teams in a championship series find themselves down 3-0, they almost always lose. The 21-3 record in the World Series is not an anomaly. We should expect a sweep.

I emphasize "championship series" because I also looked at the various preliminary series for these sports, which historically are far more plentiful in hockey, where the deeper playoff field allows more mediocre teams to compete, thereby increasing the odds of a sweep in earlier series. Before I starting my research, I thought about what I might expect the Game 4 result to be between any two teams in any situation when one team has won the first three contests. Figuring that the majority of those winning teams would most likely be superior in talent, I guessed it would be upwards of two-thirds of the time. The numbers from preliminary series confirm that suspicion. In the NHL, the leading teams have gone 89-56 in Game 4 (.618), and in the NBA they are 54-35 (.607). In baseball, which has conducted far fewer best-of-7 playoff series, only nine times has one team in an LCS led, 3-0. They have gone 6-3, including of course the 2004 Yankees, the only baseball team ever to lose a post-season series after being ahead 3-0. Take the three sports together and the record is 149-94, a winning percentage of .613.

There's a very big difference between .613 and .803, especially when you consider (as Dan emphasized) that the team making the finals has already passed difficult tests in earlier series. They are presumably stronger, more talented, and more resilient than the teams that have fallen by the wayside, but that only increases my belief that there must be some rational way of accounting for the extreme results we see in final series. The much higher percentage since the advent of tiered playoffs suggests that playing all those extra games provides that many more chances for catastrophic injuries or cumulative fatigue. A team playing grueling preliminary series might simply run out of gas in the finals, especially if the penultimate series was a tough one.

In recent years, when the major league team with the best record during the regular season has hardly ever won the World Series, it has become clear that simply getting to the Series is an accomplishment, a matter of survival for even the best team. In fact, more than a few times I've heard players from the winning LCS series declare, in effect, that "I'm just happy to be playing in the Series. It's all gravy from here. It doesn't even matter if we win." With that prevailing sense of relief at merely making the Big Show, it doesn't seem inconceivable to me that a team falling behind 3-0 would feel, individually if not collectively, "Oh well, we're toast, but at least we made it this far." This isn't like flipping coins, where each event is an isolated, fresh opportunity. Post-season factors are cumulative, and nearly 20% of all World Series have been sweeps.

Let's take a closer look at the 24 times a team has gone up 3-0 in the World Series. How many times has it truly been a mismatch? Is there a pattern or a persistent factor that accounts for many of the results? I looked at a number of things which might have contributed, notably regular-season record, run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed), pitching matchup, playoff pathways, and Game 3 results. We can get six of the 24 out of the way at the outset.

 There have been three huge World Series upsets that were sweeps. In 1914, the "Miracle Braves" swept Connie Mack's first-dynasty Athletics, who won five more games during the season and had a big advantage in run differential. However, the Braves, after being in last place on the Fourth of July, got as hot as any team ever, going 68-19 after that and winning 25 of their last 30 games to build up huge momentum that not even the Athletics could withstand. In Game 4, the Braves started Dick Rudolph, a 26-game winner, and he won, 3-1.

The second huge upset occurred in 1954, when the New York Giants shocked the Cleveland Indians, whose 111-43 record that season is still the American League record for winning percentage. However, Indians manager Al Lopez overworked his starters during the final week, including letting Mike Garcia pitch 12 innings on the final day in a futile attempt to get him a 20th win. In the Series, Dusty Rhodes burned the Indians in the first two games with clutch pinch-hits, mainly a 10th-inning home run off Bob Lemon to win Game 1. Lopez brought Lemon back on two days' rest to start Game 4, and the Giants countered with a well-rested Don Liddle, whose only Series appearance before that was pitching to one batter in Game 1, inducing Vic Wertz to blast the ball on which Willie Mays made "The Catch." Lemon, clearly out of gas, gave up seven runs in four innings, and the Giants had their sweep.

The third big upset was the Reds sweeping the A's in 1990. During the season, the A's won 103 games to the Reds' 91, and Tony LaRussa's team swept the Red Sox in the LCS to head into its third straight World Series as a big favorite. What happened? Five days off after the LCS may have flattened their momentum, but their main fault was a failure to handle three five players: Jose Rijo, Billy Hatcher, and the "Nasty Boys" of the Cincinnati bullpen--Randy Myers, Rob Dibble, and Norm Charlton. Rijo and two of the relievers combined for a shutout in Game 1, while Hatcher went 7-for-7 and scored five runs in the first two games. Game 4 was a rematch between Rijo and Dave Stewart, who surrendered the home run to Eric Davis in Game 1 which seemed to erase the A's invincible aura. Rijo allowed a run on two hits in the first inning of Game 4, then held the A's hitless until leaving in the ninth inning with a 2-1 lead that Myers finished off with no sweat, leaving the Reds bullpen unscored-on in the Series.

Now let's look at the three times that the losing team managed to win Game 4. The first time was in 1910, when the pitching-dominant Athletics and Cubs seemed evenly matched going on until the Athletics stormed ahead by drilling Chicago pitching to win by scores of 4-1, 9-3, and 12-5. The Game 1 winner, Chief Bender, went for the sweep and took a 3-2 lead to the ninth inning before the Cubs tied the game on player-manager Frank Chance's RBI triple.That's how close the Athletics came to a sweep. The Cubs beat Bender in the tenth inning, but in Game 5, Jack Coombs, who won 31 games during the season, added his third Series win to wrap up the title.

The second Game 4 comeback happened in 1937 and was the only game that prevented the Yankees from sweeping three consecutive World Series. The pitching matchup was the key in this one. The desperate Giants started their ace, 22-game winner Carl Hubbell, on two days' while the Yankees went with Bump Hadley, a modest 11-game winner during the season, giving Game 1 winner Lefty Gomez his normal rest. The Giants drilled Hadley for five runs in the second inning, and Hubbell coasted to a 7-3 victory. Gomez took care of business in Game 5, and that was that.

The final Game 4 comeback marked the only time it has happened in the last 16 3-0 situations. It happened in 1970 when the Orioles also came very close to sweeping the Reds. Both teams were juggernauts that year, though the Orioles had a much better run differential. The Orioles won 108 games during the season while the Reds won 102, and both teams swept their LCS battles. In the Series, the Orioles exposed the relative weakness of the Reds' starting pitching, and in Game 4, 20-game winner Jim Palmer took a 5-3 lead to the eighth inning. A walk and a single started the inning and ended Palmer's day, and Lee May blasted an Eddie Watt pitch for a three-run home run that gave the Reds a 6-5 win. The teams returned to form the next day as the Orioles knocked out Reds starter Jim Merritt in the second inning and won, 9-3.

Next up, we have nine teams that swept the World Series against demonstrably outmanned opponents. While you might quibble about whether these were total mismatches, I don't think you can say that any of these sweeps was a surprise. In the interest of conserving space, I'll summarize each of these in a sentence; for each team, I'll give the regular-season games won and run differential in parentheses:

  1. 1907: The Cubs (107,+184) and the Tigers (92,+162) played a 12-inning tie in Game 1, after which the Cubs breezed to four straight wins by using superior starting pitching to limit the Tigers to three runs in the four games.
  2. 1927: The Yankees (110,+376) defeated the Pirates (94,+158) easily to cement the reputation of its formidable "Murderers Row" lineup.
  3. 1932: The Yankees (107,+278) destroyed the Cubs (90,+87) by scoring 37 runs in four games as Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and Earle Combs combined to score 23 runs and drive in 18.
  4. 1938: The Yankees (99,+256) again trounced the Cubs (89,+116), outscoring them 22-9.
  5. 1939: The Yankees (106,+411!) embarrassed the Reds (97,+162) although they trailed by two runs going to the ninth inning of Game 4 and capitalized on Ernie Lombardi's "snooze" to win in the tenth.
  6. 1950: The Yankees (98,+223) had a tough time but still swept the Phillies (91,+98), winning 1-0 in Game 1 and scoring the winning run in their last at-bat in the next two games. 
  7. 1998: The Yankees (114,+309) finished off their winningest season in style against the Padres (98,+114) although the Padres did lead two of the games by three runs after six innings.
  8. 2005: The Yankees--no, wait, the White Sox (99,+96) swept the wild-card Astros (89,+84) even though it took 14 innings to win Game 2, with Game 4 a 1-0 thriller.
  9. 2007: The Red Sox (96,+210) cooled off the torrid Rockies (90,+102), bursting their bubble with a 13-1 drubbing at Fenway Park in Game 1 after the Rockies went from fourth place on September 15 to the World Series by winning 13 of their last 14 games, taking a one-game playoff to win the wild-card spot, then sweeping their first two playoff series. 
That leaves nine more, a lineup of diverse duels with the same outcome. We'll look at them chronologically, starting with the 1922 World Series, which like 1907 included a tie game. The Giants and Yankees were closely matched, winning 93 and 94 games respectively, and all five Series games were low-scoring and close. The key game was the first one, when Bullet Joe Bush blew a 2-0 lead in the eighth inning. Irish Meusel (136 RBI during the season) tied it with a bases-loaded single, and Ross Youngs' sacrifice fly won it. After a tie in the second game, wins of 3-0 and 4-3 put the Giants on the brink of a sweep. The Yankees had the pitching edge in Game 5, a reprise of the Game 1 pairing with the 26-7 Bush facing Art Nehf (19-13). In a case of deja vu, Bush again led in the eighth inning, 3-2, but another three-run rally did him in. The key factor in the sweep was that the Giants pitchers handled Babe Ruth, holding him to a .118 average and one RBI. The Giants had a deeper offense--they scored 95 more runs during the season--and by negating Ruth they gave themselves a better chance for the two come-from-behind victories.

The 1928 Yankees won six more games than their World Series opponents, the Cardinals, and had the same "Murderers Row" lineup that had swept the Pirates in 1927. So this was a borderline mismatch, and the first three games weren't close--4-1, 9-3, and 7-3. Game 4, at St. Louis, was a repeat of the Waite Hoyt-Bill Sherdel matchup of aces from Game 1. This brings up an interesting pattern in the 24 games studied here. In 15 of them, the team down 3-0 was at home in Game 4. In other words, after losing the first two games on the road, a team still returns home with high hopes, looking at three games with the home advantage. After all, ten times a team has gone down 2-0 in the World Series and come back to take the title. But when they lose Game 3, it seems to shatter what is left of their fragile confidence, and they have gone 2-13 in Game 4. So it was here, as the Cards led 2-1 after six innings before the roof caved in. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig homered in the seventh (Ruth's second of three in the game), and the final score was 5-2.

Jump ahead to 1963, when the Yankees had better credentials (104 wins,+167) than the Dodgers (99,+90). But the Dodgers had the big equalizer, Sandy Koufax, coming off his first Cy Young Award season and the pitching Triple Crown (25-5, 1.88 ERA, 306 Ks). He proved it was no fluke in Game 1, completely intimidating the Yankees by retiring the first 14 batters with nine strikeouts and only one fair ball. The Yankees didn't score a run before the seventh inning in any of the four games, and after Don Drysdale won Game 3, 1-0, it was Koufax again in Game 4, facing Whitey Ford, no slouch with a 24-7 record that season.  Ford outpitched Koufax the second time around, surrendering two hits to Koufax's six. One was a Frank Howard which was matched by Mickey Mantle in the seventh inning. In the home half, Yankees first baseman Joe Pepitone lost a throw from third base in the white-shirted crowd at Dodger Stadium, and the Dodgers cashed in an unearned run to gain the sweep. Chalk this one up to Hall of Famers Koufax and Drysdale logging 27 innings compared to two-thirds of an inning of work by the L.A. bullpen, and it isn't that surprising that the Yankees offense suffered, scoring just four runs in the Series.

The shoe was on the other foot in 1966, when the Dodgers' offense literally vanished after the third inning of Game 1. The Dodgers were still built around pitching and speed, and their hitters became so discombobulated by Moe Drabowsky that they never recovered. Drabowsky relieved Dave McNally in the third inning at Dodger Stadium with the Orioles leading, 4-1, and the bases loaded with one out. He walked in a run but held the Dodgers to one hit the rest of the way, striking out 11, including six in a row. Game 2 was the sad finale of Koufax's career, as the Dodgers committed five errors behind him, but it didn't matter because Jim Palmer pitched the first of three consecutive shutouts by the Orioles. The last two were identical 1-0 thrillers won by home runs, Paul Blair supporting Wally Bunker in Game 3 and Frank Robinson's fourth-inning blast off  Don Drysdale providing all the help McNally needed to polish off the sweep. I'm going to go out on a limb here and surmise that heading into Game 4, the Dodgers were not overconfident about scoring, much less winning.

The 1976 Reds are the only team in the playoff era to sweep all their post-season games. In retrospect, this one was a clear mismatch, as the Reds led the major leagues in runs, batting average, home runs, hit, walks, and fielding percentage, and were second in stolen bases. The "Big Red Machine" acted invincible, too, though Yankees manager Billy Martin refused to concede their superiority even after being swept in the World Series and outscored 22-8. The Reds ran wild on the weak arms of the Yankees outfield, and their bullpen stifled the Yankees for nine shutout innings, allowing only two hits. After an easy 6-2 win in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, Gary Nolan took on Yankees ace Ed Figueroa in Game 4. The Yankees took their only lead of the Series with a first-inning run, but Johnny Bench's two-run home run in the fourth inning gave the Reds the lead for good, and his three-run blast in the ninth inning capped the 7-2 finale.

What can you say about the "Earthquake Series" of 1989 except that both Bay Area teams were glad to survive it? On paper it was a borderline mismatch between the 99-63 A's and the 92-70 Giants. Dave Stewart and Mike Moore held the Giants to one run in two games at Oakland, and after eleven days off because of earthquake damage, the Giants were still as shaken as the Candlestick Park infrastructure. The final two games were blowouts, with the A's leading 8-3 and 7-0 after five innings. The aggregate score for the Series was 32-14, but it wasn't that close, and there wasn't much suspense about Game 4.

One sweep that is tough to explain occurred in 1999. The Braves (103 wins,+179) had a better season than the Yankees (98,+169), they had plenty of offense (five players with 20+ home runs, led by Chipper Jones with 45, and a starting rotation featuring three future Hall of Famers plus Kevin Millwood, who outpitched them all with an 18-7 record and a 2.68 ERA. The Yankees were deep and balanced, of course, and had lost only one game in two preliminary series in their quest for a third title in four years. It figured to be a close Series, and in fact the Braves led after seven innings in two of the first three games (the Yankees drilled Millwood in Game 2). But Greg Maddux let a 1-0 lead get away in the eighth inning of Game 1, and in Game 3 Glavine blew a 5-2 lead, allowing three home runs, and Chad Curtis won it in the tenth inning with his second homer of the game. In Game 4, Joe Torre played his ace in the hole, Roger Clemens, who held the Braves scoreless through seven innings, and the Yankees won easily, 4-1. Pitching turned out to be the key to this sweep, as the Braves scored only nine runs and, apart from Bret Boone and Chipper Jones, batted .154 as a team. Let's face it--when you trot Clemens out there against a team whose offense has already gone south for three games, is the resulting sweep a surprise?

Next up is another Series in which the team with the better regular season, the Cardinals (105 wins,+196) got swept. I doubt that Dan would accept karma as a tangible factor in a sports competition, but from this vantage point it's hard to argue that the Red Sox (98,+181) were not destined to win their first World Series since 1918 after their unprecedented, emotionally charged comeback from being down 3-0 to the Yankees in the LCS. But that in itself does not account for the sweep, especially since both teams had to go seven tough games to win the LCS. However, only the first game of the Series was close, a slugfest in which the Red Sox blew an early 7-2 lead by the sixth inning, lost another lead in the eighth, and prevailed, 11-9, on Mark Bellhorn's late home run. After that, they cruised thanks to terrific starting pitching, holding the Cardinals to 13 hits over the final three games. Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez didn't allow an earned run in Games 2 and 3, and suddenly the Cardinals were facing a sweep. Tony LaRussa gave the ball to Jason Marquis, 15-7 during the season but sporting a 7.36 ERA in two previous post-season starts. When Johnny Damon led off the game with a home run, it was all the support needed by Derek Lowe, whose charmed life already included clinching victories in the two earlier series. Trot Nixon doubled in two runs in the third inning, and Lowe duplicated Pedro's performance by scattering three hits in seven shutout innings. As with so many of the sweeps described here, this was a case of dominant starting pitching completely smothering the losing team's offense. After Game 1, the Cardinals batted a miserable .143. Game, set, and match.

Finally we come to 2012, when the Giants swept the Tigers. After the Giants dispatched Tigers ace Justin Verlander in four innings in Game 1 thanks to the first two of Pablo Sandoval's three home runs, the Tigers knew they were in trouble. They managed two hits off Madison Bumgarner in Game 2 and improved to five hits in Game 3, but couldn't score a run. So there they were, another team helpless at home and ready to put their offense on a milk carton. The pitching matchup looked close, with Matt Cain (16-5) facing Max Scherzer (16-7). The game was close, too, tied 3-3 in the seventh inning when both starters departed and still 3-3 into extra innings. This one could have gone either way, but Marco Scutaro singled in a run in the top of the tenth inning and Sergio Romo capped an outstanding post-season by striking out the side.

So there's your answer, Dan. Given where these World Series stood after three games, you might make a strong case for a handful of different results for Game 4, but not more. Even if we let a few teams avoid a sweep, that only brings the overall record to 18-6, still a fair distance from the 15-9 it would take to approach the .613 winning percentage I calculated for all teams up 3-0 in any post-season series in the three big pro team sports.

Is there a common denominator? Yes:  great starting pitching. In the 21 sweeps studied here, the winning teams' starting pitchers in Game 3 averaged 7 1/3 innings per start with a cumulative ERA of 2.26 (2.01 without Andy Pettitte's start in 1999). They allowed no runs five times, and more than three earned runs only three times. By proving to the losing team that the first two wins were no fluke, by further frustrating their offense, and by putting them in a position from which no World Series contender has ever extricated itself, they set the stage for even greater domination in Game 4. In those 21 games, the starters also averaged 7 1/3 innings pitched, with a cumulative ERA of 1.40. Seven allowed no earned runs, and seven others allowed only one earned run. Some combination of talented pitchers and demoralized hitters gave the trailing team virtually no chance of winning Game 4. (The three times the trailing team won Game 4, the opposing starters posted a 3.04 ERA in Game 3 and 7.00 in Game 4.)

There you have it. Thank you for bearing with me through this lengthy dissection. I hope I've convinced you that you ought to be shocked the next time a team down 3-0 in the World Series wins Game 4, something that hasn't happened in the last eight opportunities. Good. I'm glad you're with me, because I've been thinking about Dan's assertion that "the best team in baseball isn't enough better than the worst to play .875 against them." Somehow, I still can't detect the bittersweet stench of an anomaly. I wonder if he believes that if they couldn't play .875 ball against the worst team, we ought to give them credit for playing .875 ball against any other (presumably better-than-the-last-place-) team. For instance, the 1927 Yankees were a mere 18-4 against the last-place Red Sox (.818), but went 21-1 (.955) against the seventh-place St. Louis. Let's see. . .