The 2008 postseason has produced one of the more intriguing World Series matchups in recent years: a pair of "Cinderella" stories. The young upstarts from Tampa Bay, who went from worst to first after beating the defending champion Red Sox and the big-market, big-spending Yankees for the AL East title, facing the Philadelphia Phillies, the franchise that has lost more games than any other.
We previously employed our Diamond Mind simulation software to project the results of the League Division and Championship Series. In the American League, we projected the Rays to easily defeat the White Sox, most likely in four games, and the Angels to defeat the Red Sox, but only if they could win Game 1. In the NLDS, our simulations projected the Phillies to defeat the Brewers, most likely in four games, and the Dodgers to upset the Cubs. The Phillies and Rays easily dispatched their opponents in four games, the Dodgers did indeed upset the favored Cubbies, and the Red Sox won that crucial opening game and went on to eliminate the Angels.
Our ALCS projections for ESPN.com projected the Rays to defeat the Red Sox, though we did not foresee the drama of Tampa Bay blowing a 7-0 lead in an elimination game, as the Rays did in Game 5. Though the simulations nailed the Rays' victory, our NLCS projections showed the Dodgers as favorites over the Phillies thanks to superior pitching. However, the simulations did show that the Phillies needed two wins from Cole Hamels, particularly in Game 1. Interestingly, our simulations also showed a high risk of a meltdown by the Dodgers' bullpen, most likely in Game 4. The Phils did indeed get two gems from Hamels, starting with Game 1, and the Dodgers' bullpen did indeed implode in Game 4, blowing a fine performance by Derek Lowe and pretty much sinking L.A.'s chances.
Before revealing our World Series simulation results, here is a brief recap of our methodology:
" Before the postseason got under way, we updated our projections and ratings for each player based on his 2008 regular-season performance.
" Before running our simulations for each series, based on the information available at the time and using our best judgment, we set the teams' starting rotations, batting orders, bullpen and bench roles. This was particularly difficult in the case of the Phillies, who had not announced their lineups and who would serve as the DH for games in Tampa, so we made our best guess.
" Then we played each series 2,000 times.
As we noted in our previous articles for ESPN.com, luck plays an even greater role in a short series than the regular season, which itself can be rather unpredictable. With that caveat in mind, the results of our simulations project the Tampa Bay Rays to continue their "Cinderella" run and defeat the Phillies. In fact, Tampa Bay won over 71 percent of our 2,000 series simulations, the largest winning margin of any postseason projection we've done for ESPN.com. Here are the simulations results:
When we projected the Red Sox as heavy favorites last year, we gave them a decent chance of a sweep (Boston swept 105 of the 1,000 series simulations). In contrast, Tampa Bay swept 299 of the 2,000 simulations we ran for this year's Series, or 15 percent, and the Rays won the Series in five games or less 626 times (31.3 percent). In other words, the simulations do not bode well for the Phillies, and the odds are against them even making it to a seventh game.
There are, however, a number of features presented by this series capable of confounding any attempt to project or predict the outcome:
" The Designated Hitter: In Philadelphia, there won't be a DH, costing Tampa Bay one of its big offensive producers. But the Phillies don't have a good option to this role for the games at Tampa Bay. For the simulations, we chose to start Pat Burrell at DH when facing the Rays' lone left-handed starting pitcher, Scott Kazmir in Game 1, and Eric Bruntlett in left field. For the other games against the Rays' right-handers, we assumed Greg Dobbs would DH.
" The Layoff: The Phillies will have had a full week off by the time the first pitch is thrown Wednesday. Our simulation does not factor in any effect for such a layoff. When there has been a long layoff, a recent phenomenon, the results have not been good for the team forced to wait, as pointed out by ESPN.com's Jayson Stark. The 2006 Tigers and 2007 Rockies faced similar delays, and both were easily defeated. Given that teams rarely have more than one or two days off during the regular season, waiting several days to get back in action appears to hurt a team's chances.
" The Weather: Our Diamond Mind simulation software includes weather effects, so seasonably chilly weather in Philadelphia did affect the results of our series simulations, while there were no weather effects for the games in the dome at Tropicana Field. Nevertheless, unseasonably cold (or warm) weather, including rain, gusty wind and snow, could affect the series in a number of ways, such as causing postponements that might allow Cole Hamels to start three series games on full rest, which would be a big help to the Phillies.
As good as Philadelphia's pitching has been in its run to the World Series, our simulations suggest that the Rays' young guns will easily outduel the Phils' pitching, with the exception of Hamels, who projects as the only Philadelphia starter to perform well. Hamels turned in an ERA of 3.65 and averaged one win for the 2,000 series simulations, while no other Phillies starter posted an ERA less than 4.70.
The young Tampa starters, on the other hand, put in strong performances, particularly James Shields (3.18 ERA) and Matt Garza (3.38), the winner of Game 7 against Boston. Kazmir (4.09) and Andy Sonnanstine (4.26) did not project as well but still were better than the Philly rotation beyond Hamels. The bullpens both project to do well, though the Rays' bullpen did a bit better in the simulations. So it appears that it will come down to the starting pitching; unless the Phillies' starters can step up and outshine the Rays' rotation and perform like they did against the Dodgers, Tampa Bay will be claiming its first World Series trophy.
While the Rays generally hit better than the Phillies in the simulations, posting a .263 team batting average compared to the Phillies' paltry .201, the key difference was walks -- Tampa hitters reached base far more often than Philly hitters, and that translated into many more runs. Home runs did not appear to be a major factor for either team, quite a difference from the ALCS, where the Rays hit 16 home runs in the seven games against the Red Sox.
B.J. Upton is projected to stay hot and spark the Tampa Bay offense in our simulations, reaching base (.385 OBP) and scoring more often than anyone in either lineup, while Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena drove in the most runs. The simulations showed Longoria as most likely to have a big home run total in the series, and he had the highest slugging percentage and OPS (.798) in the series simulations, followed closely by Pena (.789 OPS) and Carl Crawford (.788).
In contrast, none of the Phillies had a particularly good series in the 2,000 simulations, as the Tampa Bay pitchers usually kept them in check. In fact, the Phils averaged a very poor .269 on-base percentage for the 2,000 sim runs. If the Phillies are to have a serious shot at winning the Series, they'll need to get on base more often than they did in the simulations. When the Phillies did come through, the biggest contributions were most likely to come from Jayson Werth or Burrell, while the Phillies' big names -- Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard -- typically came up short. In fact, they each hit .217 or worse for the Series. But when Utley, Rollins and Howard came up big in the simulation runs, the Phillies typically won. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, it didn't happen very often.
A short series often will produce standout performances, sometimes from unlikely sources (like David Eckstein in the 2006 World Series). Imagine if a series actually were replayed 2,000 times, which is more postseason series than have been played throughout the entire history of Major League Baseball; the odds of something extraordinary occurring would increase significantly. The simulations show that Tampa Bay's defensive star, shortstop Jason Bartlett, just might be that guy -- he came up with a big hit in a surprisingly high number of simulations. Looking for a stand-out game? Garza threw a no-hitter in simulation No. 1,493, while Shields had three one-hitters in the 2,000 simulations.
Winning Game 1 of a short series is such an advantage that it will frequently shift the odds in favor of an underdog. In fact, when the favorite in our simulations last year lost the opening game, they lost the series. In the 2008 World Series, however, the odds favor the Rays so heavily that we believe they can overcome a Game 1 loss. All bets are off, of course, if the Rays drop the second game as well. If the Phillies lose the opening game, however, the simulations give them less than a 10 percent chance of taking the Series.
If the Phillies are to overcome the odds and deny the Rays a World Series championship in their first attempt, the key appears to be getting great pitching from their starting pitchers that follow Hamels in the rotation -- Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, and Joe Blanton -- while also trying to overcome the rust of a seven-day layoff to win Game 1. The bottom line, however, is that Imagine Sports projects a championship for those "Cinderella" Rays, who will go from worst all the way to the top. Victory is most likely coming in six games or less, with a good chance that Tampa Bay takes it in four or five.