World Series by the numbers

From sports-show pros to bloggers, baseball aficionados are chewing over possible Fall Classic outcomes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Red Sox, taken to the brink by the Cleveland Indians, reprised their 2004 heroics to win three games of the American League Championship Series by a sum total of 30-5.

For their last 22 games, the Colorado Rockies have torn through the National League like a circular saw, winning 21 of those games and transforming what was a humdrum season.

Now, both teams have a shot at the Major League crown – for the Rockies, it's their first shot ever – as Game 1 of the World Series begins Wednesday evening at Fenway Park in Boston.

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For the managers, the stakes have been obvious all along. "Everybody knows it's the postseason. Everybody knows what's on the line," said Eric Wedge, the Indians' manager, before Game 6 of the ALCS Saturday night. "It's not something that needs to be talked about."

But for baseball fans, of course, the talking has just begun. All that can now be said with assurance: World Series, 0-0. Yet once the Red Sox won the pennant Sunday, speculators – from sports-show pros to bloggers – started chewing over possible Fall Classic outcomes like a cheek full of sunflower seeds.

Most pull up databanks of supporting statistics. It's an approach that's generally fun – but could be folly.

"Statistics tell you what happened; They don't necessarily tell you what will happen; that's why we watch," says Alan Schwarz, author of "The Numbers Game," the 2005 book that chronicled the rise of a national obsession with the arcane study of Sabermetrics (a deep form of statistical analysis).

Stat chat, along with strong opinions, date back to 1850s New York, a time and place Mr. Schwarz calls "baseball's primordial Petri dish" in his book.

For the matchup about to get under way, expert consensus tilts toward the Sox. In fact, plenty of observers call the just-concluded ALCS the "real" championship series.

For their part, the Rockies are young, in terms of players and team (the expansion franchise is just 14 years old). They are also rested – for better or worse – having been idle since they wrapped up the NL series Oct. 15.

Matchup during regular season

Then again, the two teams have met already this season – and the Rockies took two games out of three. The aggregate score for that series, held in June at Fenway Park, was 20-5.

No doubt in the World Series, the ballparks themselves will come into play. In an ESPN ranking of ball fields favoring hitters, Fenway recently came in at No. 1, with Denver's Coors at No. 3.

But parks, like players, can throw wild pitches. On Oct. 5 in an Indians game against the Yankees in Cleveland, swarms of little bugs poured in from Lake Erie, lured by the lights of Jacobs Field. And just this past Sunday, Fenway Park felt summerlike. The same night at Coors Field, a snowstorm forced the Rockies indoors for batting practice.

The unexpected from players

But the real variables, of course, are the ones in uniform.

"How did the '54 Giants beat the Indians? The Miracle Mets beat the Orioles? The 1990 Reds beat the A's?" asks John Zajc, executive director of the Society for American Baseball Research.

Others offer similar perspectives. "In small 'sample sizes' in baseball, strange things happen," says Peter Bendix, an undergraduate at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who is active in a group called BAT, Baseball Analysis at Tufts. "Bad teams beat good teams. Bad players make great plays. Great players struggle. That's the nature of the game, and that's why it's fun."

Mr. Bendix, a lifelong Indians fan, can't resist adding that Cleveland's pitchers might actually have matched up better with Colorado's than will the Red Sox'. "The Red Sox have several homer-prone pitchers," he says, citing Curt Schilling. Still, he likes Boston's Josh Beckett – "easily the best pitcher in the series," he says – and believes Boston will "beat up on the Rockies' starters."

That kind of detailed analysis is also reflected in the soaring popularity of fantasy baseball. Longtime players are legion. "More students come in with a background in fantasy league," says Erin McNelis, an assistant professor in the department of mathematics and computer science at Western Carolina University. Professor McNelis – who says she is preparing some test questions this week using on-base percentages – finds baseball stats unmatched as a way of capturing students' attention, even if she sees its limitations as a predictor of player performance.

Like Bendix, she's hedging about the World Series. "You can get a more intelligent, better founded background [using stats]," she says. "But then there's just the human."

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