When the Cleveland Indians caught the Houston Astros in the American League standings, I asked three of my Yankee fan friends who they’d rather play. The Yankees, of course, are sitting in pole position for one of the AL’s wildcard spots and have been for a while. For most of that while, their projected Division Series opponent has been the Astros. Houston had been so far ahead of the curve for the best record in the AL, the one lock in an otherwise chaotic playoff picture has been the Astros awaiting whichever team burned an ace to get there.

Then, the Indians reeled off 22 straight wins and became the one-seed in the AL. Uncertainty entered the top of the funnel.

Admittedly (and one friend pointed this out with a hiss), looking forward to an ALDS opponent is getting ahead in a karma-tempting way. But the race for the AL’s second wild card spot has been more of a collective backwards fall off a cliff, with whomever makes the cleanest splat earning a showdown against a very good Yankees team (more on this later).

I asked the question anyway.

One said they’d rather play the Indians, because they hate the Indians. The second said they’d rather play the Astros, because they don’t want to play the hotter team. And the third tried to break it down statistically before being making no decision.

So, using my three friends as the categories, let’s look at this question from a less-than-scientific way. Who would you rather play?

 

Hate Factor

Man, the Red Sox and Yankees these two teams are not. They don’t have the inherent despicability that comes with some combo of city/success/over-saturation/obnoxious-fandom that makes this answer easy. Per FiveThirtyEight, Cleveland and Houston are in the bottom half of the most disliked teams in America. They’re also bottom-sixteen in most-liked, suggesting the national temperature on the Indians and the Astros is lukewarm.

As far as narratives go, the Astros have an MVP-level David and professional sports body-type fetish Goliath up the middle. They’ve been comically bad in recent history, so the redemption arc is in play. And their city has been through a lot in the last few weeks.

The Indians title drought is approaching 70 seasons, so there isn’t much success envy. Their shortstop smiles before and even during home runs. Their manager has been through tough times, and so has their city. Even as the local NBA team became prolific, the Indians countered a lot of potential jealousy by blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series. They escalated the heartbreak by rallying in game 7 at home, only to lose in extras.

You have to go outside of baseball to find hateability. Is James Harden more annoying than LeBron James? Are the Browns more despicable than the Texans? What about signature food? I’m not sure about any of this, but since Cleveland (the city) has a title in recent history, fine, Cleveland (the team) is marginally more hateable.

I’D RATHER PLAY: THE INDIANS FOR BEING MORE HATEABLE, I GUESS?

 

Hotter Team

Yes, the Indians recently set an American League consecutive wins record, in September no less. But the idea of a hot streak leading to October success has been debunked time and again. FiveThirtyEight did a great analysis on individual hot streaks and how some players can and do perform better than their expected output at particular times, but no data suggests this collectively carries over to the postseason. Outperforming your expected production may buoy a team during the playoffs, but regular season peak performance, particularly measured in wins, doesn’t allude to a playoff lock.

Similarly, most wins doesn’t guarantee postseason success. Here’s how the top seed has fared since the wild card era began:

American League National League
Year Best record won ALDS? Best record won ALCS? Best AL record won WS? Best NL record won WS? Best record won NLCS? Best record won NLDS?
1995 Y Y N Y Y Y
1996 N N Y Y
1997 Y N N Y
1998 Y Y Y N Y
1999 Y Y Y N Y Y
2000 N N
2001 Y N N
2002 N N
2003 Y Y N N
2004 Y N N Y Y
2005 Y Y Y N Y
2006 N N Y
2007 Y Y Y N Y
2008 N N
2009 Y Y Y N Y
2010 N N Y
2011 N N
2012 Y N N
2013 Y Y Y N Y Y
2014 N N
2015 Y Y Y N
2016 N Y Y Y
Win pct. (overall) 0.591 0.409 0.318 0.091 0.273 0.591
Win pct. (given opportunity) 0.591 0.692 0.778 0.333 0.462 0.591

Prior to the advent of the wild card game, the winner wouldn’t face the top seed if said top seed was a divisional rival. Now, it’s a straight-up best record versus wild card tilt. In that limited data set (2012-2016), winning percentages are as follows:

American League National League
Year Best record won ALDS? Best record won ALCS? Best AL record won WS? Best NL record won WS? Best record won NLCS? Best record won NLDS?
Since WC Game (given opportunity) 0.600 0.667 1.000 0.500 1.000 0.400

Pretty much the same for the overall wild card era, at least in the American League. Between the two leagues, it’s a toss-up.

For this “would you rather” debate, perhaps a better filter combines a “hot streak” with the best record. No one in modern baseball history has been on a streak like the Indians, so instead, let’s isolate teams that meet other, wider criteria: teams that finished with the best record when that team wasn’t the sole league leader on August 31st. The logic here is you’d have to do some winning to make up ground. Again, this is isolated for the wild card era:

Best Record After Trailing on Aug 31 (WC Era)
Team Games behind end of Aug 31 Sep Win Pct. Longest Sep Streak Won DS?
1999 NYY Even 0.548 5 Y
2000 SF 2.5 0.700 7 N
2002 NYY 1 0.704 5 (2x) N
2006 NYY 3 0.600 6 Y
2008 LAA 1.5 0.654 5 (2x) N
2010 PHI 3 0.767 11 Y
2010 TB 1 0.500 4 N
2011 NYY 1.5 0.571 6 N
2012 NYY 3 0.645 6 N
2013 STL 5 0.704 6 Y

In all, there have been 10 instances where the ultimate top seed started September outside that spot. These are mostly differences of one to three games, and some teams weren’t exceptionally hot when making up ground. In this data set, only the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies had a double-digit win streak. This can be a bit misleading: some teams had win streaks interrupted by the occasional loss, but their performance over a stretch was still effectively a win/hot streak. Take the 2008 Angels, for example, who played .800 ball in a 15-game stretch in September of that year. That’s not 1.000, but it’s phenomenal. And also, equally inconsequential.

Here’s how these teams performed in the Division Series broken down by win percentage after August 31st and longest September win streak:

Team Performance by Win Pct.
Win Pct. Teams Won DS? (pct.) Won WS (pct.)
.700+ 4 0.500 0.000
.600-.699 3 0.333 0.000
.500-.599 3 0.333 0.333

 

Team Performance by Win Streak
Streak Teams Won DS? Won WS (Pct.)
6+ 6 0.500 0.167
4-5 4 0.250 0.000

The teams that played .700 ball or better and the teams that had win streaks of six (6) or more games performed slightly worse than overall one seeds in the wild card era. Of course, the data set is so small, what this year’s Indians do will skew the percentages in either direction.

Also, no one in the era reviewed has ever been as successful as the Indians. At the time of writing, Cleveland has a .917 winning percentage in September. They could lose their last six games and still finish above .600.

Which is all to say the data doesn’t reflect a discernible advantage to being best-team-in-your-league hot at the end of the year, and the data doesn’t carry a doppelgänger for the 2017 Indians. There’s no real advantage to be pulled from this one. It’s mostly mental.

And the Yankees are playing better than .700 ball in September themselves, so they shouldn’t be worried.

Because it probably doesn’t matter either way.

I’D RATHER PLAY: NO PREFERENCE, HOT STREAKS DON’T PREDICT THE TOUGHER OUT (BASED ON WHAT WE KNOW TODAY), AND NEITHER DO RECORDS

 

Better Overall Squad

The historical data above doesn’t matter much over a best-of-five series for many reasons. Mostly, what the, say, 2010 Rays did—or who they were, really—means little when you have to line up across from the 2017 Astros or the 2017 Indians. History precedes this impending matchup, but it doesn’t take priority above it.

Both the Astros and the Indians are loaded. The Indians have two position players (Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor) ranked top-10 in FanGraphs WAR, while the Astros are tied for the league lead with four in the top-50, including league leader Jose Altuve.

Both teams have strong pitching groups, ranking in the top 10 for FanGraphs starting WAR. The Indians get to start Corey Kluber every fifth day, while the Astros just added Justin Verlander to a rotation that’s deep enough for the playoffs, give or take Lance McCullers’ health. Both teams are getting to full strength in seismic ways: DL stints of key contributors like Andrew Miller, Jason Kipnis, McCullers, and Carlos Correa have either ended or will end soon. Cleveland may still yet add Michael Brantley for the postseason.

Per FanGraphs, the Astros offense leads the league in win probability added, while the Indians lead the league in WPA by pitchers. Houston has scored the most runs; the Indians have given up the least. For the record, they both generally rank high in stats the other team leads in.

This might come down to what you find more threatening. Run creation is important to winning a baseball game, and run prevention has a strong influence on baseball games. What both teams don’t do best, they do pretty well, and what they do best, they really do best.

As a whole package, though, the Indians might be better than what their record says they are. Their Pythagorean expectation identifies them as a 100+ win team with a week left in the season. The Astros, meanwhile, are roughly what their record says they are (about -2 wins depending on the source), which on Pythagorean expectation, is worse than the Yankees.

The Indians are the better, more complete team. Does that matter over three-to-five games? I’m not sure, and if you’re the Yankees, you like your chances either way. New York has produced at a rate reflective of the second-best team in the AL. They can hit, they have effective starting pitching, and their bullpen is league-best level. It has 2015 Royals potential. They’re really good on their own merits.

Anyway, on this one, the answer is the Astros.

I’D RATHER PLAY: THE ASTROS, BECAUSE THE INDIANS ARE GREAT ALL-AROUND

 

So, Who Would You Rather?

This thing ended 1-1-1, which is exactly what I wanted to avoid by choosing an odd number of categories. But that assumes that all three are weighted equally, and while hate is strong, the other team being “great” versus “really good” is much stronger.

If you’re the Yankees, I think you’d rather play the Astros. Simply, the Indians are the better team on the year.

But if you’re the 2017 Yankees, you should like your chances against anybody.

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