American Playoff Systems: Closure or Chaos?
Last week we saw the two #1 seeds in NFL lose in their first (and thus only) playoff game of the season. Just a few weeks ago I wrote a post talking about just how good one of them, the New England Patriots, was compared with history. Am I shocked they lost? Not really given what I know about the NFL playoffs – it’s not uncommon for favorites to lose in the playoffs.
This event though has made a few people start thinking about the system we have and its pros and cons. Joe Posnanski over at SI writes a great thought provoking article on the matter, its implications to the BCS, and on what playoffs mean in general. In one line he asks: ”Is a playoff really MORE FAIR? What does fair even mean?”
Fairness in Competition = Removing Bias while Minimizing Randomness
A few months back I wrote an analysis on that very subject in response to the idea of expanding the baseball playoffs. To summarize in response to Joe’s question: What is fair? Ideal fairness means that we get rid of the unevenness of the regular season schedule without adding too much randomness. If you’ve got a variety of divisions or conferences that hardly play against each other, the idea that you can have a single champion without a playoff tournament of some sort is absurd – but of course playoffs in some sense always mean throwing out a larger sample size for a smaller one, which never entirely good.
In the end, the existence of the playoffs is inherently pragmatic and capitalistic so we cannot expect that the one and only goal of the playoffs is to crown the most deserving team. At the same time, add too much randomness and people will lose interest – though granted from what I see, other people’s tolerance of randomness is much higher than mind, and I’ll speak to that a bit later.
Analyzing Luck in the Regular Season and in the Playoffs
I did an analysis of the 4 major American professional leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) going back to 1995. Why ’95? That was the first year of wild cards in baseball, which was the last major change in the 4 sports. I’m not going to claim this study couldn’t be improved, but I think you’ll find that the major trends are pretty obvious.
I asked the following questions:
-What’s a typical regular season winning percentage for the top 2 teams in the league?
-What’s the likelihood that one of the two best wins the title?
-What are the winning percentages of those teams in each round of the playoffs?
I’m interested primarily in identifying which sports have the most and least lucky champions. I’ll admit that being the best in the regular season doesn’t necessarily mean you are the most deserving of a championship, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that there will be a huge correlation – and again, I think the trends are pretty obvious when you look at them.
-In situations where teams tied for the best or 2nd best record, I went based on the team that did best in the playoffs. Not a perfect system, but we’re doing the quick and dirty here.
-In hockey, the regular season winning percentage is from ’05-06 onward because that’s the point where ties were eliminated, and it’s not as obvious how best to factor in ties in this situation. Note also, that because of hockey’s unusual situation where they award team points based on ties and overtime losses, I didn’t use the same teams to judge winning percentage expectations and playoff performance. To me the former is used to judge the sports tendency toward dominance over luck in the game in general, while the latter is used to judge how regular season success of particular teams translates into championship. Do let me know if you have question.
Okay, here is a table showing regular season dominance by win percentage and post-season success based on regular season success:
So, generally speaking, a given game, football has the least luck involved, baseball has the most luck involved. Come playoff time, where football is the only sport that plays a single elimination tournament, that adds to the luck involved, and gives the crown of “least lucky champion” to basketball. However, the NFL champion in general is still far more predictable from regular season success than the MLB or NHL champions.
Now, generally speaking, the most pragmatic of factors involved in whether to have a single elimination tournament or a series is the money that can be made. More games means more opportunities to earn revenue, but less games means more excitement. Every sport has a different sweet spot, but I think it’s safe to say that the NFL is doing more than fine in this regard. So the question is really: Does the sport get away with it without reducing the Super Bowl champion to a total crapshoot?
Sure looks like it. If you’d personally like to see even less luck involved, I hear ya, but when you’re not too far behind basketball, which gets criticized for being so-predictable-that-they’re boring, hard to complain too much.
On the other hand, baseball and hockey’s randomness, while others don’t seem to mind, bothers me, and it’s part of the reason I’m not as keen a follower of those sports. To be perfectly honest, I don’t actually think others are fine with randomness so much as they are under the delusion that there’s more meaning to the unpredictability than there actually is. People ascribe much to improving as the season goes along and the ability to be clutch. When Barry Bonds has a bad series and his team gets eliminated, they don’t take that to mean that there’s something amiss with the playoff system, no, Bonds must have CHOKED! Or maybe it’s karma, eh? Human beings are pattern recognition machines, who find meaning even where not actually exists, and thus Bud Selig can actually expect that if and when he adds another round of playoffs, and makes the playoffs even less meaningful, there will still be a contingent making morality plays out of the whole thing.
No Reason to Panic in the NFL
Now, Posnanski also talked about the tendency of teams with byes in the playoffs losing after that bye. I’ve got a graph here giving the winning percentage of Top 2 teams in each round of each sport’s playoff. Again I’m going back to 1995. Posnanski talks about how more recent years have seen more upsets after the bye week, but when you see the graph it becomes clear we’re dealing with precariously small sample size. Also, from a perspective of what the ideal playoff system is, if we can’t conclude the system was flawed in the 90s, it’s real hard for me to say that it’s fatally flawed now.
Can you make anything out of the graph? I know, it’s tough. Suffice to say: Precariously small sample size means there’s a lot of noise in the analysis, and football actually look like the most normal among the various sports.
So I’m pretty satisfied with the NFL’s system, even as I’m quite sure that if the Jets and Patriots played 100 more times, the Patriots win more than the Jets.