Slow Burn or Raging Inferno: Does the hottest team at the end of the season win the World Series?

The matchup is set: the Washington Nationals, representing the National League, and the Houston Astros, representing the American League, will face off in the World Series starting Tuesday. While the Astros all but cruised to a 100-win season, the Nationals rode a roller coaster to the World Series. After a May 23 loss to the Mets, the Nats dropped to 19-31, 12 games under .500. They finished the first half of the season just five games over .500, only to come roaring back after the All-Star break with a second-half record of 46-27, one of the best in the league.

With the Astros’ season-long success and the Nats’ incredible late-season run, we wanted to know: Does a team’s finish to the season have any bearing on whether or not they win the World Series? In other words, does a team with a better finish to the season than their World Series opponent win the series more often?

For reference, the Nationals had a 0.629 winning percentage in the last 35 games and a 0.66 winning percentage in the last 50 games. The Astros had a 0.743 winning percentage in the last 35, and a 0.68 winning percentage in the last 50; so does that mean the Astros are historically more likely to win?

Methodology: Data from each of the last 50 years was used in this analysis, going back to 1968. The first step was to find the records in the last x number of games of the two teams competing for the title in each of those 50 years. The records were converted to a winning percentage (wins/total number of games), and the winning percentages of the two World Series teams were compared year-by-year. In this analysis, we compared the winning percentages of the teams in the last 35 games and the last 50 games in order to ensure a clear separation between all the teams. (We found that looking at 20 or fewer games resulted in too many instances of both teams having the same finishing record.)

Findings: We’ll look at the last-35-game analysis first. The data shows that teams with better finishes to the regular season win about as often as teams with worse finishes to the year. Of the last 50 World Series winners, 25 had better records in the last 35 games than their opponent, 21 had worse finishing records than their opponent, and the other 4 had the same finishing record as their opponent.

The last-50-game analysis yielded similar results. In this case, of the last 50 World Series winners, 24 had better records in the last 50 games than their opponent, 22 had worse finishing records than their opponent, and the other 4 had the same finishing record as their opponent.

We can clearly see that the finish to the season has no bearing on who comes out victorious on the MLB’s biggest stage. And that makes sense, given how far removed the World Series is from the last games of the regular season.

However, the Nationals swept the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, while the Yankees took the Astros to six games. The Nats, therefore, haven’t played since clinching a spot in the Series on October 15, while the Astros played just the other day on the 19th. So how might all this down time affect the Nats coming into the World Series?

Since 1985, which is the first year that the League Championship Series was played with a seven-game format, there have been eight sweeps in the LCS. Teams who sweep in the LCS are just 1-7 in the World Series. The 1995 Atlanta Braves were the only team to overcome the LCS-sweep curse, as they swept the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS and eventually won the World Series in six games over the Cleveland Indians. All seven other teams – the 2015 Mets, the 2014 Royals, the 2012 and 2006 Tigers, the 2007 Rockies, and the 1990 and 1988 A’s – succumbed to the curse of the sweep. So although the Astros’ better finish to the season might not spell doom historically for the Nats, the NLCS sweep of the Cardinals certainly might.

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