These aren’t great World Series teams and we don’t care

Yes, the headline is inflammatory!

Welcome to the worst World Series ever

My old friend David Schoenfield wrote the accompanying column, and you’ll be happy to know that it’s really not so bad as all that. But before getting to the part about how we should all enjoy a potentially exciting World Series, he writes this:

You can even make the argument that the Royals and Giants made the playoffs simply because of geography. The Royals won just two more games than the Mariners, who had to play in the tougher division with the Angels and A’s. The Giants had the fifth-best record in the National League and got to play in a division with the two worst teams in baseball. Do they win 88 games if they’re in the NL Central? The Giants had the easiest strength of schedule in the majors.

So these aren’t great teams. So this is arguably the worst World Series matchup ever, as far as quality of teams. Giants fans can disagree, but if this was a great team, why did the Giants put themselves in the dice roll of a wild-card game? Why couldn’t they beat out the Dodgers for the division title? Royals fans can point out that their team has won eight postseason games in a row, but if the Royals are a great team, why did they put themselves in the dice roll of a wild-card game? Why couldn’t they win two more games and beat out the Tigers for the division title?

In the regular season, the Royals were ninth in the AL in runs scored and fourth in runs allowed. The Giants were fifth in runs scored and sixth in runs allowed. There’s a reason neither team won 90 games.

Another friend points out that using Baseball-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), the Royals were just the ninth-best team in the majors, the Giants the fifth-best (while the Cardinals, who didn’t come terribly far from reaching the World Series, actually ranked 16th, slightly below average).

SRS does consider strength of schedule, but otherwise looks just at run differential … and it looks at both primitively (hence the “simple” part).

We might also look at Baseball Prospectus’s third-order wins (3OW), derived from a team’s strength of schedule and (rather than runs) its underlying statistics. Here, the Royals rank 15th in the majors, the Giants seventh. By this measure, the Giants also rank fourth in the National League, which makes them a perfectly legitimate playoff team unless you want to start the clock before 1994.

Finally, there’s FanGraphs’ WAR, which shows the Royals sixth and the Giants 10th; I do not believe those figures are either league- or schedule-adjusted, though.

So does all this mean we’re looking at the worst World Series ever, qualitatively? Relative to their contemporary competition, we’ve seen weak entries before; the ’73 Mets were little better (and perhaps a little worse) than these Giants and Royals, while the ’87 Twins and ’06 Cardinals might actually have been below-average … even though both clubs wound up winning World Championships. What’s weird about this World’s Series is that we’ve got two teams like this. And you can’t even blame it completely on Bud Selig’s second wild card, since the Royals earned home field for their Coin Flip Game.

Relative to their generational competition, though, I suspect the worst World Series teams were those of 1944 and ’45, when so many of America’s best baseball players were in the service. Granted, those four Series teams did have plenty of good players; that’s how they reached the Series. But there was plenty of wartime filler, too, players who lost their jobs when the boys came back.

In recent memory, though, yeah. Let’s assume for a moment that neither the Royals nor the Giants are among Major League Baseball’s five best teams. Is this really something we should care much about at this late date?

I’m not in the business of telling you what to care about. It’s neither appropriate nor any damn fun. I’ll tell you that I don’t care much. Like Schoenfield, I just want to see an exciting World Series. And I certainly don’t consider this World Series any sort of problem. No, I don’t want to see relatively mediocre teams in the World Series every October. Were that to happen, the Series would eventually lose its luster among those of us who do pay attention to things like fundamental excellence.

That’s not going to happen, though. Every couple of seasons, we’re going to get a merely good team in the World Series. Every once in a while, we’ll get two merely good teams or even a good team and an average team. But despite what you might have been reading, what we’re seeing this year won’t suddenly become routine.

Meanwhile, it’s good for Major League Baseball when teams like the Royals win, even if they don’t seem utterly deserving. Because not a single baseball fan in Kansas City, young or old, dedicated or bandwagoneer, cares about the Royals’ run differential or their 3OP. They’re just going to remember these last few months among the most exciting of their lives, just the way I remember September of ’84, and September and October of ’85. Many of these fans will come back for more next year, and the year after that and the year after that. Which is ultimately good for just about everyone.

Nobody in Kansas City or San Francisco cares how they got here. And I don’t know that any of us should, either.