Why this year’s Cubs are an anomaly for more reason than one.
Editor’s note: Brendan and Tim are currently revamping the title podcast of the website, and “Season 2” of the Chin Music Podcast is due to return next week. For this Friday, enjoy a quick blog from our resident stat boy, Matt Tardiff.
The Chicago Cubs are champions of the baseball world.
That’s not entirely what this article is about; I just figured you only get so many chances to write that statement while true.
Since 1995, there have been 87 champions in the NBA, NHL, MLB, and NFL, and 87 teams who have lost to a champion. They have endured regular seasons ranging from 16 to 162 games, and postseasons ranging from 3 to 26 games. Many were the best team in their league or conference; many were far from the best. What’s important is that they had the opportunity to play for a championship. You can find the data on these teams here.
Of the past 22 NBA champions, 13 were the top seed in their conference. Another eight were the 2- or 3-seed. The Houston Rockets won the 1995 championship as a 6-seed, leaving the average seed of an NBA champion at 1.77 in the past 22 years. That’s the most top-heavy set of champions across the four sports, and when you combine seeds with the finalists, the NBA remains atop the list with an average seed pairing of 3.77 in their championship round.
The NHL features the highest seed pairing in any championship round, when the 8th-seeded Los Angeles Kings won the 2012 Stanley Cup over the 6th-seeded New Jersey Devils. Another 8-seed, the Edmonton Oilers, reached the Stanley Cup in 2006. Hockey is the league subject to the most variation, where a streaky team or hot goaltender can propel a team to the championship.
MLB’s wild card system occasionally leaves a team that missed out on its division crown with a lower seed than a team with fewer wins who played in a weaker division. This was most prevalent in the 2015 season, when the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cubs finished with 98 and 97 wins, respectively, only to earn the 4th and 5th seeds in the National League (thanks to the St. Louis Cardinals’ 100 victories to clinch the NL Central). This was also the impetus for choosing 1995 as our starting point for the data, as it was the first year of MLB’s Wild Card Era.
The past three Super Bowls have featured the best team from the AFC and the best team from the NFC. The NFL comes in second with 10 top-seed champions since 1995, although their Super Bowl losers outperform any other set of champions or finalists (average seed of 1.68). All but four Super Bowls since 1995 have featured at least one team that was the best in their conference.
What does all this mean? Probably nothing. One can talk about tendencies all one wants, but at the end of the day any given postseason is largely unpredictable.
The best team in the regular season may not be the best team in the postseason, but when it comes time to look back, fans won’t argue over regular-season records. You play to win the last game of the year, no matter how you get there.
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