Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Go Bruins

Sports and statistics. I'm a sucker for it every time. This time around, though, the source for my sports nerdfest isn't the New York Times, or Time magazine, but Deadspin contributor David Roher, who also happens to be a member of the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective (who made their first appearance on my blog here). So he's a bit of a nerd kindred spirit, which probably explains why I was interested in his post to begin with. But I digress.

With the Boston Bruins playing in the Stanley Cup Finals (and with Game 7 coming tonight, and with me doing my damned hardest not to do anything on here to jinx the B's), Roher decided to take a look at one of the more peculiar aspects of the series thus far--despite being outscored 19-8 in 6 games, the Vancouver Canucks find themselves tied up at 3 games apiece, one home win away from hoisting the Cup. If that sounds almost impossible, that's because it is.
To put Vancouver's potential feat in its proper context, we can look at every World Series (starting in 1903), NBA Finals (1950), and Stanley Cup Finals (1915) in history. Instead of using raw differential, we'll use Pythagorean expectation: how well the champion would be expected to do in a seven-game series based on its goals/points/runs scored and allowed. This allows us to translate across the three sports. Here are the 10 least-deserving champions in American sports history based on their in-series expected win total (extrapolated to seven games for shorter series):
1. 1960 World Series: Pirates over Yankees 4-3, -28 differential, 1.33 Expected Ws       2. 1996 World Series: Yankees over Braves 4-2, -8 differential, 2.39 Expected Ws
3. 1958 NBA Finals: Hawks over Celtics 4-3, -28 differential, 2.48 Expected Ws
4. 1972 World Series: Athletics over Reds 4-3, -5 differential, 2.74 Expected Ws
5. 1940 World Series: Reds over Tigers 4-3, -6 differential, 2.76 Expected Ws
6. 1912 World Series: Red Sox over Giants 4-3, -6 differential, 2.82 Expected Ws
7. 2009 Stanley Cup: Penguins over Red Wings 4-3, -3 differential, 2.83 Expected Ws
8. 1928 Stanley Cup: Rangers over Maroons 3-2, -1 differential, 2.87 Expected Ws
9. 1997 World Series: Marlins over Indians 4-3, -7 differential, 2.89 Expected Ws
10. 2003 World Series: Marlins over Yankees 4-2, -4 differential, 2.90 Expected Ws
The '60 World Series is best known for Bill Mazeroski's walk-off homer, but it's also remarkable as an extreme outlier in differential: The Yankees outscored the Pirates 55-27. Over seven games, Pittsburgh would be more likely to win zero games than four based on their runs scored and allowed. Of the 263 champions studied, the Pirates were the only ones to be outscored by such a wide margin.
But if the Canucks win tonight, Pittsburgh will have company. A 1-0 victory would give Vancouver 1.28 Expected Wins over the course of the series, which would make the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals the most bizarre in American championship history by that measure. Even a 4-0 blowout would result in 2.23 Expected Wins, still second all-time. It would be one of the flukiest Finals ever, and Canucks fans wouldn't care one damn bit.
So far in this series, every game in Vancouver has been a tight, nail-biting affair--each one was a one-goal game decided in the 3rd Period or Overtime--whereas every game in Boston has been a Bruins rout, helping to explain the huge goal differential. Hopefully for my Bruins, we'll get Game 3 or Game 6 Roberto Luongo tonight, and not Game 1 or Game 5 Roberto Luongo.

My nerves probably can't take another nail-biter (they're shot as it is after witnessing this game on Monday evening), so I'm hoping that the B's can bring some of their Boston magic out west tonight. Otherwise, we might be looking at some very strange history-making for Vancouver.


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