Cardinals, Rangers Face Off In World Series

This year's World Series match-up puts the St. Louis Cardinals against the Texas Rangers. If history is any guide, there's only a small chance the series will go to seven games.

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Tonight, the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers meet in game one of the World Series. They're at Busch Stadium in St. Louis for the first two games, then to the Dallas area for three games and back, if necessary, to St. Louis for two more games. And if recent years are any guide, two more games won't be necessary. There hasn't been a seven-game World Series since 2002. Compare that to hockey, where the Stanley Cup finals have gone seven games six times in the last decade. NPR's Mike Pesca has this take on the recent lack of a decisive game seven.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: It's every young ballplayer's dream: coming to bat, bottom of the ninth, game seven, World Series on the line. Of course, that's quite statistically unlikely. First of all, only about one in every 12,000 Little Leaguers go on to play in the majors and then only two of the 30 teams even make the series. But also adding to the unlikeliness is the part of the sentence that you may have just scanned over as a bit of tension building when I set the daydream in a game seven of the World Series.

JORDAN ELLENBERG: The trend looks pretty clear that it's become quite rare over the last 20 years to have a seven-game World Series.

PESCA: Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of math at the University of Wisconsin. He's also a baseball fan who's written about the game, questioning player salaries and attempting to engineer a more perfect postseason. A 100-game series was one idea he entertained. Too long, he concluded. Ellenberg says the lack of game sevens are mathematically notable. If two coins were flipping against each other under a format like the World Series where the first to get to heads or tails four times won, there would be a game seven or flip seven more than 31 percent of the time.

Put another way, the chances of going as long as we have without a game seven is about 5 percent. Put another way, we've been denied 25 potential World Series games over the last eight years. Put another way, blame the wild card.

ELLENBERG: If a lot of undeserving teams were making it to the World Series, there could be a lot of mismatches that would lead to a lot of short series, a lot of blowouts.

PESCA: The structure of baseball's playoffs seems responsible for these shorter World Series. In fact, if heads were facing tails instead of, say, the Cardinals facing the Rangers, there would be a four-game sweep in roughly one out of every eight series. But over the past eight years, there have been three four-game sweeps. This points towards mismatches brought about by teams qualifying for the series after winning a couple of playoff rounds as opposed to finishing in first place after more than 150 games, which is how the World Series selected its participants prior to 1969.

What's even more interesting about the spate of short series is the article that was put forth by the American Institute of Physics right before the 2003 World Series. It noted that seven-game series were at that point much more common than the odds would suggest. Science writer Ben Stein wrote that article.

BEN STEIN: The real imbalance was created between 1952 and 1977 when something like 15 out of 25 or so of the World Series or 60 percent of the World Series went to game seven.

PESCA: Stein suggests that these eight years may be a regression toward the mean, an exception that counteracts the period he just spoke of with all those septa-agonistic events. The Cardinals and Rangers, of course, can't worry about any of this. The old cliche says you could only play the team that's right in front of you today, which might be more apt than ever, as there seems to be a limit on the number of tomorrows. Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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