Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Era of Mediocre Champs

The reigning Stanley Cup Champions are the Los Angeles Kings .  All available evidence suggests they are not a great team, or even a very good one.  

An 8 seed that barely squeezed into the playoffs, the Kings won fewer than half their games.   They fired their head coach during the season.  LA was particularly bad at putting the puck into the net, which I'm told is sort of important in hockey.  There are 30 teams in the NHL, and 28 of them scored more goals than the Kings.

The reigning Super Bowl Champions are the New York Giants.  All available evidence suggests they were not a great team, or even a very good one.

At 9-7, they barely squeezed into the playoffs.  Only 8 teams gave up 400 or more points this year, and the Giants were one of them (the other 7 missed the playoffs).  And while they scored a lot of points, it was still fewer than non-contenders like the Panthers, Chargers, and Eagles.   In one particularly bad late-season stretch they went 1-5, including a 13 point home drubbing at the hands of the woeful Redskins. 

The reigning World Series Champions are the St. Louis Cardinals.  All available evidence suggests they were not a great team - though they were a pretty good team.  Just not as good as the teams they beat in the playoffs.

In the Divisional Series they beat the Phillies, a team with more wins and a better run differential*.    In the Championship series they beat the Brewers, a team with more wins and a better run differential.  In the World Series, they beat the Texas Rangers, a team with more wins and a better run differential.

*  Run differential is a great simple stat to compare teams.  It measures the gap between your average runs per game and your average runs allowed per game - thus it covers EVERYTHING.  Hitting, Pitching, Fielding, Luck.  The Cardinals were 8th in Rdiff last year, which is good but not great.  They were tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  

Sports fans, welcome to the Era of the Mediocre Champion.

Before we move on, though, let's examine whether or not Champions really are more mediocre.  Maybe we're just in a bad stretch these past 10 months.  To the cloud!

Ok, I'm back.  And the answer is yeah, mediocre teams really are being fitted for rings more often. 

This is most obvious in baseball, where the expanded playoffs have changed everything.  4 of the last 10 World Series champs have been Wild Card winners.  Put another way, 40% of the last decade's titles would not have even made the playoffs in other eras.  

But in football, too, the champs' pedigrees have weakened, even though the playoff structure hasn't changed.  In 1979, the NFL went to a 16 game schedule, and from then till 2007 every Super Bowl Champ except the 89 Niners won at least 11 games, and all but three won 12 or more.  In the past 5 years, though, 3 of the Champs won 10 games or less.

And in hockey...well, who cares.  It's hockey.  But the Kings are the first 8 seed to hoist the Cup.*

*  I try to get into hockey, I really do.  It's a fast and furious sport, non-stop action from start to finish.  It has great traditions - there's no better championship celebration than the skating of the Cup.  And I grew up on Long Island in the early 80's when the Islanders were winning all those Cups, right after the Gold Medal win at Lake Placid.  But for some reason, it just won't take.

But the bigger question is:  does it matter?

As a Giants fan, my answer is a Big Blue No.  The past two Giants Super Bowls, coming from teams that struggled throughout the regular season, were far more exhilarating than the first two, won by teams that went 27-5 in the regular season.   The underdog, the Cinderella, the scrappy can-do kids who overcome doubt and failure and put it together for the championship run is the ultimate sports story.

The fact that the Cardinals, Kings, and Giants all beat better regular season teams on their run proves their championship mettle.    The sheer unlikelihood of it all makes for great drama, and a more satisfying win.

But there is a downside*.  Will the average sports fan, 20 years hence, remember the heroics of David Freese the way we remember the heroics of Reggie Jackson?  Will even Kings fans remember the players on this team the way even casual hockey fans can rattle off half the roster of those great Edmonton Oilers teams?  And while Eli Manning has secured his place in the sports pantheon, the rest of these Giants will not be remembered the way Terry Bradshaw's supporting cast is.

*  The other downside is the overuse of the most tired cliche in sports:  "Nobody believed in us, but in this locker room we always believed."  Yeah, as the Giants were getting thumped by the Redskins, when the Kings were being introduced to their new coach, when the Cardinals were losing pretty much every game in August to fall 10 games back, their locker room believed.

Cinderellas are great.  But greatness endures, and it would be nice if every once in a while a team for the ages impresses us with their dominance.

But fear not - we're in the midst of an NBA Finals that will give either Lebron James or Kevin Durant their first of what could be many titles.  This one we'll remember.

Related Content:  If you want a sport whose champions have really gone declined in quality, see this piece on NCAA basketball:  Heaven without the Stars.



Mortimer Ichabod Marker said...

Nice blog. I was actually going to write a similar post to this one (whining about the mediocrity of the current Big 4 champs) but then I did a google search and saw that you beat me to it. Time to think long and hard about another post.

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