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Sylver: The Ballad of the “Best Team” - Do Regular Season Wins Translate to Postseason Success?

By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub

The Boston Red Sox are sitting on 107 wins with three games to go in the regular season. They’ve lapped the field to such an extent that previously hyped September matchups with New York and Cleveland have held little intrigue, beyond the Yankees’ quest to hold off the A’s for the right to host the Wild Card game next week.

Even with the defending champion Astros pushing past the 100-win mark, It’s been a foregone conclusion the Sox would finish with the best record in the game since August, when they were on pace for at least 115 victories. They’ve cooled a bit down the stretch, but they’re already guaranteed a tie for the 12th-most successful regular season in MLB history.

Within range: The 1986 Mets and the 1975 Big Red Machine, who each won 108 times. The 1927 Yankees finished with 110 victories.

We’ve learned over the years that regular season success doesn’t always translate to postseason triumph. Perhaps the most popular example is the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who blended then-rookie dynamo Ichiro Suzuki with Hall of Fame pet project Edgar Martinez and a curiously productive Bret Boone to score a major league record 116 wins. The Yankees promptly thumped them 4-1 in the ALCS, and the M’s haven’t sniffed the postseason since.

A look at the data is even more sobering.

Since baseball expanded the playoff format in 1995, only three teams - the 1998 and 2009 Yankees, and 2016 Cubs - have compiled the most regular season wins and took home the World Series trophy. That’s 23 years - which means 20 other teams have posted sterling regular season numbers, only to go home empty-handed.

To their credit, the Red Sox have twice shared the MLB lead for wins during that span: in 2007 and 2013. And each time, they were the last team standing. So that makes two more success stories to run the total to a not-so-encouraging five.

Break it down to the fate of No. 1 seeds, and the numbers hold little more promise. To update 2014 analysis performed by Chris Teeter at BeyondTheBoxScore.com, among American League-leading teams in the Wild Card era, 11 have been eliminated in the first round. A further five teams advanced to the ALCS, but were unable to pull down a pennant. Nine teams appeared in the World Series, with seven winning the whole thing.

So there at least seems to be a solid track record for juggernaut teams if they can get to the Fall Classic.

Sep 21, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora (20) removes starting pitcher Chris Sale (41) from the game during the fourth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

But 44 percent of top seeds have been bounced in the first round. You may recall last year’s Indians, who at one point compiled the longest winning streak in American League history. They got up 2-0 on the Yankees in the LDS before Masahiro Tanaka, of all people, shut them down in Game 3. New York came all the way back for the series win.

The 2016 Rangers rode the league’s best record in one-run games into a first round clash with the Blue Jays, where Toronto promptly sent them home in three straight, including a 7-6 extra inning win in the deciding contest.

The 2014 Angels? Also dispatched in three games, by the Royals.

More teams have won the World Series from a Wild Card position than those who led, or had a share of the MLB lead in wins. Granted, both leagues have Wild Card representatives - while, like The Highlander, there can be only one leader in wins, unless of course the honor is shared. But you’d think a top seed would come with inherent advantages, like home field, matchups against weaker opponents, as well as the psychological implication that the team owning it is some kind of dominant force.

Billy Beane once famously referred to the postseason as a “crapshoot.” For his A’s, the postseason experience has been largely crappy, with seven immediate exits in eight appearances this century. But his teams are rarely juggernauts; the one time they did gain a share of the league lead in victories - a 2002 season memorialized by Brad Pitt in film form - the Wild Card Angels rode that "Rally Monkey" and those infernal "Thunder Stix" to their first World Series win.

Five games, or seven games, are just that. Yes, matchups matter, but you can throw a lot of your analytics out the window: This is where things like “pressure” and “luck” come into play. Dare I say “clutch,” Marshall Hook? No matter how well you stack your rotation, no matter how loaded your lineup appears, you’re subject to the whims of the baseball gods.

Those gods may decree Chris Sale’s shoulder to be toast, or for Dave Dombrowski-led teams to be eternally cursed by bullpen ineptitude.

Alternatively, the sun may finally shine on David Price or Rick Porcello.

They may even decide this joyride stays on track long enough for duck boats to float down the Charles on a perfect autumn day a month from now.

Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.