In 2001, the Seattle Mariners tied a major league record with 116 regular season wins, good for an incredible .716 winning percentage. Backed by Ichiro Suzuki — who won Rookie of the Year and MVP honors — and a deep, stacked lineup, the Mariners were an unstoppable juggernaut destined for a World Series title.
Then the Mariners got clobbered in the American League Championship Series, losing four out of five games to a New York Yankees team that won a (relatively) measly 95 games in the regular season.
Indeed, since the introduction of the Wild Card format in 1995, the team with the best record in baseball has won the World Series just three times — good for a 16 percent success rate. And plenty of postseasons, downright pedestrian teams have won it all.
In 2006, the Cardinals won 83 games — good for only the 13th-best record in baseball— but captured a weak National League Central crown and an automatic playoff berth. (Only one other team in the division finished with a wining record.) Then St. Louis seized on that opportunity and stormed to a World Series title, defeating a Detroit Tigers squad with 12 more regular season wins.
The Cardinals again won the World Series in 2011, this time with baseball's ninth best record. That year, St. Louis knocked off the 102-win Phillies — a team with all the pitching and lineup depth expected of a World Series favorite — in a stunning National League Division Series upset.
Even using more advanced measures than wins to determine the "best" team in baseball — like Pythagorean Win-Loss, which calculates a team's projected strength based on its number of runs scored and allowed — reveals the same pattern, with top teams winning the World Series less than one-fifth of the time.
Part of baseball's allure is that anything can happen. There is no time limit, only outs. And there is no baseball equivalent of LeBron James, one player who can participate in every play on both offense and defense to single-handedly assure his team victory. Barry Bonds, despite being an inhuman terror for his entire career — even when he looked like a normal human being — never won a World Series.
Baseball, more than any other major pro sport, is dependent on the performance of an entire team, and more susceptible to luck playing a decisive role. A single bloop hit or misplayed ball — Bill Buckner in 1986, Nelson Cruz in 2011 — can swing an entire series.
Another key factor: Major League Baseball upended World Series odds by adding a Wild Card team to each league in 1995, both diluting the overall playoff pool and adding the more unpredictable best-of-five first round. As a result, teams with the best regular season records are now roughly as likely to win the World Series as any other randomly-selected playoff qualifier, according to Boston Magazine.
Even before then, though, the winningest teams still faced long odds in the playoffs.
From 1969 to 1994, the playoffs had only two rounds, with the top two teams from each league facing off for a World Series berth. During that time, the team with the best regular season record won the World Series a paltry 28 percent of the time, according to an analysis by SB Nation. To put it another way, of the four playoff teams, the one with the best record won the title barely one-fourth of the time.
The Red Sox and Cardinals finished 2013 tied with the best records in baseball. St. Louis could get bounced Monday by the very team, Pittsburgh, it edged out to win the division title one week earlier.
Baseball is unfair like that, but it's why the playoffs are so fascinating to watch. Truly, anyone can win it all.