At what lower competition level would the top teams in various sports be able to win 99.9% of their games?

To clarify, what I’m asking is at how much lower would. the level of competition have to be for the top teams have to face. in order to be able to win 99.9% or more of their games? Choose whatever team sport you prefer.

I recall that back in the day when the Cleveland Browns were in the midst of their two back to back almost winless seasons, the joke was made here on this board that they would probably lose to the University of Alabama or maybe even Ohio State. The response was that the talent gap was way too wide for that to be plausible. That has me wondering about how large the talent gap needs to be in the various sports for the top professional teams to be facing a team that they could beat easily, say over a 99.9% chance of victory.

My guess is that in some sports, like American football, the difference in talent gap for an easy win might be smaller than in something like baseball or basketball. The reason I assume this is because the best NFL teams will usually go 14-2, 15-1, and the very rare but still plausible 16-0. The best baseball teams, on the other hand, top out at winning roughly 2/3 of their games. Does this mean that say, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would never lose to the Alabama Crimson Tide, but that it might be possible for the Los Angeles Dodgers to lose to a top college baseball team? Maybe they would easily beat a college baseball team, but still take the occasional loss against a AA or AAA minor league team? What about the NBA or other team sports?

It’s absolutely possible for the Dodgers to lose to an elite college team simply because an elite college team might have a starting pitcher who is ready to play in MLB right now. If Whizkid McFastball, a 22-year-old phenom, is throwing 98 with a nasty slider it’s quite possible he could hold the Dodgers to one run or no runs at all, and if his teammates scratch a couple of runs out - quite possible if a few of them are very near MLB ready - they win. I would take the Dodgers at some pretty long odds, but I would not bet my house on them. In baseball, the single biggest variable in a given game is the starting pitcher. It is very, very unlikely the college team would win, but with the right starter it’s possible.

AAA teams have a lot of major league players or close to them; a major league team would have no chance of going undefeated in AAA. The best AAA team, if promoted to the majors, would be very bad but would likely not be the worst team ever. I’d guess 45-117.

Below the level of REALLY good Division 1 teams, the ones that have Whizkid McFastballs, the Dodgers could absolutely go 162-0. They are going to just crush inferior pitching, and their pitchers will rarely give up more than 1 or 2 runs and most games would be shutouts. The Dodgers will be visibly much faster on the basepaths and are insanely better at fielding.

NHL is similar. The worst NHL teams, like the Sabres or Senators, are usually going to squash any AHL or ECHL team. However, it’s the nature of hockey that a hot goalie can steal a game, and many AHL or ECHL goalies are at NHL calibre or close to it. Hell, that’s how the Miracle on Ice happened.

A bad NBA team can absolutely go 82-0 against college teams. Baylor looked great against Gonzaga; the Minnesota Timberwolves would crucify them.

Speaking for baseball, those AA and especially AAA often have Major League players that are either working on something (maybe trying to break out of a slump, or trying to improve an aspect of their game) or they are players who haven’t played in the Majors yet but will when they are deemed ready. To me they are like the practice squad for an NFL team; they are NFL caliber but maybe not quite as good as the players on the roster.

So starters vs practice squad in the NFL might be a real competition, as would a MLB team vs a AAA team. The MLB/NFL starters are going to win most of the time but might lose on a bad day.

College teams (in any sport AFAIK), on the other hand, are filled with players who just wouldn’t make it at the professional level. Only the best of the best in college see the field on the top level of competition. So it would be unlikely for such a team to beat a professional team.

ETA: I’ll defer to RickJay’s knowledge of baseball. I wasn’t aware that you had teams that might have enough talent that young that could plausibly beat a MLB team.

Yes - the Vanderbilt baseball team right now has two MLB ready pitchers who will likely go 1-2 in the draft, and could shut down an MLB team if they’re hot that night.

So having a good pitcher on a good night can make up for a lot of talent differential at other positions? Would this be at least part of the reason why even the best MLB teams win only 2/3 of their games and the worst lose only about 1/3, while other sports tend to have teams that that either win or lose a higher percentage of their games?

That’s a big part of it. You don’t always have your #1 starter going against their #1. Sometimes your #5 is in there, and he’s going to get rocked that night. Or it’s a decent matchup, but one of the pitchers is just dealing that game.

There’s just a lot of variability in a baseball game. When hitting the ball 30% of the time is considered great and hitting it 20% of the time is grounds for demotion, there’s just too many variations of the outcome to count on.

But this is where it depends on the sport. Top college teams in sports where college is a significant talent feeder to the pro leagues are going to have a couple pro-level players, almost by definition, because that’s where the pro-level players come from. Alternatively the minor leagues in sports where college doesn’t play that role. The question then is if a couple pro-level players can carry a team to a victory in a single game. And that’s where hockey and baseball are going to be different from basketball and football.

In hockey, a pro-level goalie can steal one game from a vastly superior team. This is seen on a regular basis in international tournaments, which is were teams at widely disparate levels meet the most often. You do need enough skating talent to score a goal, but even good teams let in lucky goals at times.

Similarly, in baseball you only need a couple players to be at close to pro levels to win an occasional game, because a pitcher tossing a shutout and one of your hitters getting a homerun gives you a win. No further supporting cast is necessary Well, some decent fielding to convert ground balls into outs and catch fly balls is needed, but with a hot pitcher you don’t need a bunch of golden gloves in the outfield.

In basketball, however, a team with just a few pro-level teams is going to lose to a pro team every time. There’s no getting lucky, because the pro team can punish the non-pro-level players on defense, and double-team the pro-level players on offense. Similarly in football, or even worse, because of the complicated strategies employed in the game that actual pro players are much more adept at recognizing than pro-level talent on a college team.

I suppose you could say, in some team sports you’ll can’t be much stronger than your weakest player, and in some other team sports you can at least sometimes be just as strong as your strongest player.

The more a sport involves a steady flow of action, so to speak, the more the dominant team will prevail. RickJay mentioned the Minnesota Timberwolves crushing an NCAA team. That’s absolutely correct because basketball is nonstop action - you get the ball, we get the ball, you get the ball, it’s a nonstop thing. For this reason, a Premier League soccer team would probably also crush any team that’s several tiers below.

Baseball is a lot flukier, hence why an MLB team might lose to a college team. It depends on stop-and-go things, the idiosyncrasies of a ball, a pitcher who might be able to hold down the fort even when his teammates suck, the luck of where a bat places a ball, etc.

Using warfare as an analogy, baseball is like asymmetric warfare - a guerrilla force can beat a superior force sometimes, by hitting only at the upper dog’s weak points. But basketball is like the Persian Gulf War; a straight-up my strength against your strength contest.

When the OP specified 99.9% chance, he’s saying the pro team has to go 1000-0 or at worst 999-1 in competition with the lower-level folks. IMO that’s a silly high bar that renders the question almost uninteresting. Given one thousand opportunities to have a slumpy day, even the Dodgers would drop two to e.g. a Division 2 college team due to boredom and complacency if nothing else. That’s on the order of 4 complete MLB seasons, or 40 years of NFL play.

So to be assured of not having 2 miscues in 1000 we’ve got to stipulate the pros playing an much lower level of team.

I think had the OP specified 99% = one in one hundred loss rate he’d get a more interesting discussion about the actual talent gaps.


And as to those actual talent gaps …

I recall a comment I saw on an interview with an NFL rookie about entering the NFL. His story went something like this:

I thought I was pretty hot shit, college all-star from a big winning team, several team all-time records to my name. Then one of the old guys said “Son, we’re all college all-stars here; every one of us. With a bunch of team all-time records wherever we played in college. And we have NFL-level record players and NFL all-stars here too.” Shut me right up it did.

Pretty much every year a team from League 1 (the 3rd tier of the football pyramid) or lower beats a Premier League team in the English FA Cup. Sometimes it’s because the Premier League team is resting its stars so sends out a weak team, but sometimes it isn’t.

I was trying to do some stats on this too, based on the number of games ever played in the FA Cup proper being around 10,000 (very roughly 100 games every year for 100 years - it’s actually 139 years, but in the early years there weren’t so many games, now there are a few more). But then I realised that is the wrong sample for this question - what we need is just the pool of games in which a higher-tier team plays a lower-tier team (i.e. games between teams in the same tier are irrelevant, and that eliminates a substantial number of them). I would estimate there are about 50 games each year in this sample. Of those, only a handful involve a two-tier gap - say 10. And of those, as you say, about one a season is won by the lower team. So we’re maybe looking at 90% success for the higher team when there is a 2 tier gap. We simply don’t have enough data to make up a figure for bigger gaps than that, but as LSLGuy correctly points out, only losing 1 in 1000 is a very high bar indeed - especially in a low-scoring game like football (soccer). I think you’d have to go about 10 tiers down before you’d feel happy putting a lot of money on the higher team at 1000/1 on.

I started doing that too before I saw your post so you’ve saved me a lot of typing
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FWIW I agree with your assessment and the outcome. Football is well known as a sport that throws giant-killing results with enough regulatory to keep things interesting.

In terms of top team being most likely to win, I’d rank the NA sports with American Football and Basketball tied at the top, Baseball at the bottom, and Hockey in the middle.

Football and Basketball are basically a series of ‘set piece’ plays where plays are specifically designed to take advantage of favorable matchups between individual players. Once you go down a tier, all the matchups favor the top team, and in the unlikely scenario of one matchup being unfavorable, they will select plays that focus on eliminating that disadvantage.

The occasional play where the overmatched player wins out is almost never enough to swing the outcome of the game.

Baseball and hockey are different because single players having a great game, pitchers and goalies, can make it so that a single lucky play can change the outcome. You also cannot shift the team’s focus to make sure the pitcher or goalie doesn’t get a chance to excel.

To a point - using baseball as an example, there is eventually going to be a talent disparity at which the pitcher cannot get the ball over the plate at more than 83 mph, at which point at least 7 out of the 9 players in an MLB lineup will just be hitting batting practice home runs at will. This is how a game between, e.g., the worst MLB team and the best high school team will go. If it’s MLB vs. AAA or the NCAA champions then sure, the lower team has a shot on any given day.