Talking heads will tell you that the Detroit Tigers are done for. That in the long, long history of the World Series (which is part of why we all love baseball) no team has ever come back to take the series after being down 3 games to none. That the only team in the history of the playoffs to come back from three games down was the famous Red Sox miracle in 2004. Don’t believe it.
Oct 27, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder (28) waits in the on deck circle during game three of the 2012 World Series against the San Francisco Giants at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
When Prince Fielder comes up to the plate, what are you waiting to see happen? Probably not a ground out or a pop out – though there is always a great chance of that. You’re waiting to see him drive one a mile and you know that with a guy like that at the plate a home run is always a possibility. Down by 1 in the 9th with 2 outs and a man on first? Our odds don’t seem too bad if Prince Fielder comes to the plate. But what are his odds of actually hitting that home run? 5.3%. That chance isn’t that big, but it’s plenty big enough for Tigers fans to hold out hope.
It is true that come-from-behind series wins in the playoffs have been rare, but there are a couple of good reasons for that. The first is that it is fairly rare for teams to take 3-0 series leads to begin with – which is obviously a prerequisite for any team to come back from 3 games down. The second is that playoff series – especially World Series matchups between teams of different leagues – sometimes have extreme talent differentials. Those 3-0 leads would be, logically, most likely to happen when one of the two is just a vastly better team. But we don’t believe that is the case here, do we?
Statistically speaking, suppose that these two teams are precisely equal in raw ability. Each should have a 50% chance to win any given game, right? That is simply based on – not luck – but how the good things that they do and bad things they do get randomly distributed between games and within games. If the Tigers and Giants are equal, there was a 12.5% chance that we would randomly wind up where we are right now (with the Tigers in an 0-3 hole). The Giants had a 50% chance to win game 1, a 50% chance to also win game 2 given that they won game 1 and another 50% chance that they would win game 3 given that they already won games 1 and 2. So… the Tigers have a 50% chance of winning game 4, right? And given that they win game 4, they’ll have a 50% chance of winning game 5 and a 50% chance of winning game 6 and a 50% chance of winning game 7. Multiply those percentages through and you get 50% of 50% of 50% of 50% or 6.25%. You want odds? Those are your odds. The Giants now have a 50% chance of a sweep, a 25% chance of winning in 5, a 12.5% chance of winning in 6 and a 6.25% chance of winning in 7 for a combined 93.75% chance of being crowned World Champions. Obviously you like the Giants odds a whole heck of a lot better than the Tigers odds – but it certainly isn’t impossible.
If you believe in home field advantage (like I do), you’d probably say that the Tigers have a 60% chance of winning at home but only a 40% chance of beating San Francisco on the road. In that case, the odds look slightly worse. There was a 14.4% chance that the series would wind up where it is right now, but given that it has the Tigers would have only a 5.76% chance of squeaking out a game 7 victory. But, hey, 5.76% is a whole heck of a lot better than a zero percent chance, right? And as we wait for game 4, we can at least console ourselves with the knowledge that the Yankees have a precisely zero percent chance of winning this year’s World Series.
One last statistical tidbit: the World Series has gone 3-0 23 times already – and the vast majority of those have ended up as sweeps, so it’s safe to assume that the “talent disparity” effect has been a factor. If we use that crude statistical technique above and assume that each team actually is equal in terms of talent and actually does have a 50/50 shot of winning any given game, how unlikely is it that we would never have seen a team come back from an 0-3 hole in World Series history? Well… each 3-0 team has an assumed 93.75% chance of winning the World Series, so the odds that they would win all 23 of those series is 0.9375 raised to the 23rd power. Tiny number? Not really, there is a 22.66% chance that – even if all of those teams were evenly matched – we still wouldn’t have seen a single miracle comeback in 23 tries. So don’t listen when they tell you that history is against the Tigers. History is just accumulated random chance. If they tell you the odds are against the Tigers, well that is obviously true.
And don’t lose hope. The Tigers are down 1 with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th. But that 3-2 pitch to Miggy just sailed high and Prince is stretching in the on deck circle.