Explaining the Flyers to Baseball Fans
I recognize that I have an audience of baseball fans for the most part, and that my hockey posts receive minimal traffic. Nonetheless in the middle of the NHL playoffs and only the early part of the baseball season, I am tempted to write more about hockey than about baseball. Today, let me try to combine the two. At the moment, the Philadelphia Flyers are 2 victories away from making the Stanley Cup finals, despite being a 7-seed who only made the playoffs by winning the last game of the regular season in overtime and overcoming a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-7 series and a 3-0 deficit in Game 7 itself. That strange confluence of events make the Flyers look extremely lucky, and that is surely part of their success. However, let me give you a baseball analogue to the Flyers to help explain their success.
In 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series despite having the worst record of any team to win the Series. For the regular season, they went only 83-78, a .515 winning percentage. Compare this to their Pythagorean record, and you will see a team whose year basically lined up with their record. So, were the Cardinals the worst team ever to win the World Series? Were they a total fluke? I think the answer to the first is no, and the second is a qualified yes.
For starters, put 2006 in context. The Cardinals won the NL Central each of the previous two seasons, winning 105 and 100 games respectively. In 2004 they lost the World Series to a freakishly hot Red Sox team, and in 2005 they dropped the NLCS to Houston. In 2006, they win the World Series but only win 83 regular season games. Which is the fluke? The Cardinals are flukish only when judged by their regular season record. The fluke is how few games they won, not their eventual Series win.
Second, the Cardinals were a rare playoff team that got healthier as the playoffs progressed. During the regular season, Albert Pujols played in 143 games, Scott Rolen in 142, and Jim Edmonds in 110. Only Rolen missed a single postseason game, and his was missed in the first round. Certain assumption usually hold, and one of those is that the more games you play in a year, the more injuries accumulate. For the Cardinals, this assumption failed, and woebetide the Padres, Mets, and Tigers who had to face a team with a history of 100-win talent.
What does this have to do with the Flyers? In 2010, the Flyers put up 88 points, and they barely squeezed into the playoffs as a 7-seed. Nonetheless, the team had recorded 95 and 99 points the two previous seasons. In 2008, the team made the Conference Finals, and in 2009 they pushed the eventual Cup-winning Penguins to 6 games. The 88 point regular season appears to be the aberration, not the deep playoff run.
Finally, the Flyers, outside of goalie, are surprisingly healthy. Part of the poor regular season record were key injuries to Simon Gagne and Danny Briere. Briere snuck into 75 regular season games, but he battled injury all year. Gagne only played 58. In the playoffs, though, a healthy Briere has 9 goals and 9 assists in 14 games. Gagne has 6 goals and 3 assists in 10 games, but his healthy return in the second round changed that series. He missed the first three games, which the Flyers lost, and played the last four, all of which they won.
The 2010 Flyers are a team with a flukishly poor regular season that has gotten healthy at the right time. As the 2006 Cardinals showed the world of baseball, that can be a dangerous combination in the playoffs.