A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Expanding the Baseball Playoffs is a BAD Idea

with 4 comments

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.

Written by Matt Johnson

November 2, 2010 at 1:54 am

4 Responses

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  1. I have a similar problem with baseball’s playoffs. This year especially proved to me. On paper I’d say these things are true

    – The Yankees are better than the Rangers
    – The Phillies are CLEARLY better than the Giants
    – The Giants and Rangers are almost dead even

    Still the Rangers beat the Yankees, the Giants beat the Phillies, and the Giants crushed the Rangers. I don’t feel the Giants are the best team in the baseball. I feel if you re-ran the playoffs they could’ve lost to either the Braves, Phillies, Rangers easily. The Giants simply played the best. In most sports over a 7 game series if a team is clearly better they prove they are. Sometimes the most talented team doesn’t fit together well and loses, but then they aren’t the best team. Sometimes teams are close enough that luck can swing a close Game 7, but if you’re not good enough to be clearly better than your opponent, that’s on you.

    I do feel the AL and NL #1 seeds advancing straight to the World Series was the “fair” way. However for business reasons it’s obvious why this can’t be the case nowadays. One interesting idea not often brought up is extending the playoff series. Since the regular season is twice as long with games nearly every day, would it be far fetched to play a best of 14? Seems the meriotcracy benefits, the owners and tv networks REALLY benefit, the fans get to watch more playoff baseball. The players have to play more but other than pitchers, it’s not like these guys are under the physical pressure of football or hockey players. The first round should definitely be 7 games though

    But I’ll defend creating more wild card teams for this reason – I feel it could actually benefit the better regular season teams. Assuming no byes will be introduced as you can’t make the pitchers sit that long, I assume the new system would introduce yearly wildcard playoffs.

    Let’s say the 3 division winners automatically get in the playoffs and then either the best 2 wildcards have a 1 or 3 game playoff to get in. Or you have 4 wild cards, 1 plays 4 and 2 plays 3, winners play, and then the winner of ‘Wild Card Weekend’ gets in the playoffs. Or even make it 3 wild cards with 2 and 3 playing the first day and the winner playing 1, thus giving incentive to be the ‘top wild card’. This achieves the following

    – Winning the division becomes MUCH more valuable than getting a wild card spot. You don’t have to play the sudden death games and if you’re a top seed and are playing a wild card team, when the playoffs start your opponent can’t play its best pitchers. This creates incentive to have a better record than the other division winners in the league

    – The meritocracy is relatively unaffected. In the American League the top 4 wild card teams would’ve been the 95 win Yankees, 89 win Red Sox, 88 win White Sox, and 85 win Blue Jays. Depending on how many teams would enter, there’d still be a high level of play needed to get in. Once they’re in the playoffs are the same, but the best teams have the advantage of a full pitching staff. Over the years the teams who consistently win divisions have a better shot at winning the World Series

    – Business wise it’s huge for middle level teams. The true impact is not the teams who make it in the wild card playoff, it’s that for many teams games will take importance late into the season. Especially in baseball when you can look at an upcoming series and say “We’re 5 games out and play them 7 more times, including 4 this weekend… hey we have a shot!” Series between potential wild card teams would be much more intense. Fans would feel much more confident about their teams’ chances going into the year. Fans would draw more interest in games between teams they don’t cheer for because the playoff race expands. Teams wouldn’t sell off players as much as the deadline. And the wild card weekend would have huge ratings

    If it’s adding an extra round, I agree, that’s a massive mistake

    Dr Mufasa

    November 2, 2010 at 11:06 am

  2. That was a great post Doc. My thoughts:

    -Agree with you about the general premise of a series 7 game series being fine for most sports. I will say that it opens up the door for teams to advanced because of matchup specific advantages, but I’ve yet to see that really be terribly destructive.

    -Re: 14 game series, meritocracy and excitement. I don’t buy the excitement aspect. I think the longer you make a playoff series, the more interest in the series will approach regular season levels. And if you’ve got a series where a team is up 7 games to none, the ratings will be terrible. Because of the issues with determinism that baseball has, I personally wouldn’t object to experimenting with series longer than Best-of-7, but I don’t have high hopes for it.

    -I particularly like your nuanced thoughts on the wild card system. Regarding the initial introduction of the wild card that happened, it was a net positive imho assuming that a split into 3 divisions was necessary. There’s no point in having an extended break for the best team, so better to add a 4th team in via wild card. I object to the additional wild cards being considered because it doesn’t have that benefit (in fact, more like the opposite).

    Your argument though about the runoff-style playoff for wild card teams has merit. I wouldn’t balk at adding in a 1 game runoff between two wild card teams to get into the “real” playoffs. That would add excitement, while not really diminishing the advantage of dominating the regular season. I would be worried however, about opening that door and seeing a gradual increase in the length of the runoff happening.

    -What you say about more teams in the wild card leading to more teams staying relevant later into the season. However I think the net excitement advantage is dubious because it means the very best teams can afford to coast – and as mentioned, it’s simply a bad thing for meritocracy.


    November 2, 2010 at 2:03 pm

  3. […] few  months back I wrote an analysis on that very subject in response to the idea of expanding the baseball playoffs.  To summarize in […]

  4. […] makers were completely sold on the argument. Last fall, I wrote a piece on why I think it’s a bad idea to expand the MLB playoffs, because I know it will only make the playoffs less likely to crown the best team as champion. […]

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