Expanding the Baseball Playoffs is a BAD Idea
As the 2010 Major League Baseball playoff have come to the close, commissioner Bud Selig has recently made statements indicating he wishes to strongly consider adding more teams to the league’s playoff system.
His statement of the issue: ”Is eight out of 30 enough? Is that fair? And that’s the basic question here, at least for me.”. The ‘eight’ here meaning the 8 teams in the current playoff system.
He was then asked for his opinion of having 10 teams in the playoffs instead of 8: “It’s more fair than eight.”
This just leaves me shaking my head. Talking about fairness sounds lovely, but without context, even the most die hard of baseball fans wouldn’t be sure what he meant, and with context, it appears he’s talking about striking some balance where part of the goal is putting as many teams into the playoffs as possible.
Folks this is just ridiculous. You want to know what’s unfair? Working your tail off for 162 games, and then having that discounted. Sigh – let me take a step back here for a second. I’m not anti-playoffs. I’m not against having quite a few teams in a playoff if it’s suitable for the sport and league in question. It’s fine for football, it’s fine for basketball, but it’s not okay for baseball, and I’m going to show you why.
Why we use Playoffs to determine Champions
The idea of playoffs started as a way to have champions of different leagues battle it out to see who was the greatest of all champions. That proved extremely popular, and lucrative, and so over time in American sports, it’s become normal to have an elaborate playoff system between teams that are in the same league. No matter what the sport, this diminishes the importance of the regular season, but besides the money being made, there are some solid logistical reasons for using playoffs to determine championships.
In football, because the sport is so brutal, teams don’t play many games, and thus don’t play every team in the league. Thus, crowning a champion simply by regular season won-loss records would be terrible. It’s only at the division level that teams really have played their opponents enough for us to really say who was best, and there are 8 divisions. As a result, we need to at least have 3 rounds of single elimination playoffs to have any confidence in picking a champion. (Incidentally, this same logic applies to college football even more strongly, which is why a playoff system there would be so much better than the BCS system in place)
For basketball, some of the same benefits apply. Although every team plays every other in the league, they don’t play them all the same number of times, and thus awarding a champion simply based on record would not be ideal. There’s also the matter that having the best record over the course of a season can be dramatically swayed by injuries. Having promiscuous standards for record when admitting teams into the playoffs maximizes teams’ ability to be at peak strength at a particularly important time – which means we have the best chance of really evaluating who the best teams are, not simply who maintained good luck all year long.
Baseball is Different
Now though, all that seems like it applies to baseball as well, right? Well the key element of difference is that there is way less luck involved in winning a basketball game compared to a baseball game. For comparison, no team in the MLB won 60% of their games this season, and that’s not at all uncommon. In the NBA, if you win only 60% of your games, that means you win 49 games in a year. In the NBA’s Western Conference last year, that wouldn’t have even put you in the top 8, which means you wouldn’t make the playoffs. In the NFL it’s similar: A 10-6 record gives you a winning percentage of 62.5, and is simply considered on the high end of mediocre.
All that randomness in baseball, makes an extensive playoff system counterproductive to meritocracy. When a great baseball team still loses to an average baseball team 4 times out of 10, a big sample size is necessary to have any idea which teams are really better than others. Every round you add to the playoffs is another 162 game sample you throw out in favor of a drastically smaller sample in the form of a 7 game series.
The MLB has touted the many wild card teams that have won the World Series as proof that they deserved a shot in the playoffs, but that’s not the reasonable conclusion at all. The reasonable conclusion is that in a 7 game series in a sport where the better team loses so often simply due randomness, the winner of the series is going to have a huge random component to it. Add more teams, and you add to the crapshoot, and increase the chance that an inferior team (according to the already established large sample) wins the whole shebang.
Meritocracy and Excitement
Now look, I’m not a purist. I’m not against changing things because of tradition. The death of the pennant races? Not necessarily a big deal to me. Interleague play? I like it. However, from the perspective of an unbiased outside observer, there’s really two factors to consider for what makes a good sporting event: 1) Meritocracy, and 2) Excitement. Adding more games between the same number of teams increases the meritocracy, but often decreases the excitement (winner-take-all systems like the Super Bowl or March Madness are very exciting), and so a pragmatic balance must be struck between them to come up with what I’d call a “fair” system. Adding more teams in the mix of a highly random game is nowhere in that compromise. The only reason it’s done is to generate more revenue.
I’m not going to crucify Bud Selig for wanting to make a buck, but him giving the illusion considering more wild card teams is somehow a way of making the system better for the fan and more fair for the teams is either completely dishonest, or shockingly naïve.