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Scott BrosiusI’m very ambivalent about the modern postseason. Having an eight-team, three round playoff has two primary effects from a business perspective. On one hand, it generates tons of cash, both by increasing the supply of a highly demanded product and by keeping more teams (and therefore fans) involved in pennant races longer into the season. From a financial perspective, realignment and the addition of the wild card have been tremendous successes.

On the other hand, this format goes a long way toward killing the significance of the “World Championship.” The goal in sports is to be the best. In an eight-team baseball playoff, the best team rarely comes out on top. This significantly changes the task at hand for baseball operations departments. Whereas teams were once incentivized to try to be the best in their league, it now makes more sense to be in the upper middle class and hope for the best.

The amazing aspect of this is that baseball is having its cake and eating it too. People seem to really believe that the best team in the end will win the World Series, and that teams that don’t have something intrinsically wrong with them. After all, if fans had actually lost confidence in the system, would anybody be watching?

Living in Manhattan, I have more arguments about this issue than any other. Everyone has a theory on why the Yankees haven’t won a World Series in seven years: A-Rod can’t hit in the postseason, Joe Torre lost his touch, they just didn’t have the pitching this year, etc. Nobody wants to believe it could be dumb luck. That’s not how sports work, they inevitably say. The guys who step it up in October are the ones with the cojones, like Scott Brosius.

But as always, data speaks louder than words. Since the start of divisional play, the team with the best record in baseball (if there was a tie, I used the team with the most postseason success, to be generous) has won the World Series nine times (including this year’s Red Sox). If we set up a predictive model where every team in the postseason has the same chance of winning, we would have expected these teams to have won eight times in this span.

There is some evidence, though, that the best teams generally do well in the divisional and league championship rounds. The model would predict that a randomly selected team would have made it to the World Series fifteen times, but the best regular season team actually made it twenty-two times. However, of those twenty-two appearances, the best team actually won only those nine already mentioned.

Before divisional play, sixty-five World Series were held, with the “best” team winning thirty-six times, or just over 55 percent. That seems about right, although I’d bet most baseball fans would bet the over.

In reality, its not a total crapshoot, but it’s much closer than people think. And I hate to say it, but I’m less and less excited about the playoffs every year. It’s nice that a team like the Red Sox, perhaps the best run team in professional sports from ownership on down, can have the success that they’re having. But in the end, most fans won’t try to differentiate between them and the 2006 Cardinals, a far inferior team that just got hot at the right time.

Feedback? Write a comment, or e-mail the author at shawn(AT)squawkingbaseball.com

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  1. on October 29th at 12:31 pm
    robustyoungsoul said:

    I agree with this, but it is hard to argue with the excitement generated by the increase in randomness. Part of the reason I think the NFL is so successful is that you really get the sense that anybody can win in a one game playoff. Under the current baseball system, you have to be really good (by comparison) still to make the playoffs (unlike the NFL where you can be extremely mediocre), but you still have a shot against juggernaut teams that can always spend more money than you. I think it is a great equalizer, which by definition means the BEST team will not always win.

  2. on October 29th at 05:04 pm
    squawkingbaseball said:

    It’s an interesting dynamic, and it goes back to Bill James’s comments on the NBA. What do fans really want? A system where the best team wins, and the outcome is determined earlier, or a system where many teams have a strong chance right until the end? And would baseball still be successful if fans realized the randomness inherent in the playoff structure? Very tough to say.

  3. on October 29th at 08:21 pm
    melissa said:

    Part of what makes sport interesting is the underdog being able to win. Why have a playoff if the team with the best regualr season record is guaranteed the Championship? Generally over a 162 game season the best team has the most wins, there are exceptions when injuries enter into the equation. I would contend that the 2006 Cardinals were better than their 83 regular season record indicated but they played with numerous stars injured throughout the course of the season. Part of why they made their run in the playoffs was because they got star players healthy. The baseball fans outside of New York and Boston do not want to see those teams win the World Series year in and year out even though they may have the most talent or best teams. I don’t know if there is any way to quantify fan interest if in fact the best regular season team won the World Series over 55 percent of the time. Right now under divisional play, baseball is maximizing profits and drew a record number of fans across the country. It would appear that the marketplace has spoken.

  4. on October 30th at 11:29 am
    jvwalt said:

    The ironic thing about this is that, even as the multilayered playoff system has greatly increased the random factor, the whole “winner” meme has become much stronger. If Ernie Banks were playing today, there’d be a lot of people ranting about how he wasn’t a “winner” and couldn’t lead his team to a World Series title. (This is even more true in football, where members of Super Bowl teams are absurdly overvalued.)

    The old system worked reasonably well when there were only eight teams in each league. Today, if only one team per league made the playoffs, there’d be way too many markets that wouldn’t stand a chance. Especially with the game’s economic disparities: the major-market teams would have a virtual lock on the postseason. With the divisional system and wild card, you get surprises almost every year. While that may result in “unworthy” champions, it’s necessary to maintain the sport’s popularity and economic success.

    Probably the best solution would be a multileague setup like in English soccer. You’d have a small number of teams in the “championship league”; the top two could play a World Series. Membership in the “championship league” would change every year, with the bottom teams relegated to a lower division, and the best lower-division teams moving up. But it’ll never happen.

  5. on October 30th at 08:03 pm
    melissa said:

    The “championship league” set up would be difficult in baseball because a team can be horrible one year due to injury or young players developing and then turn around and win their division the next. One year’s performance does not dictate the results of the next whether it be failure or success. In 2006 the Cubs and Rockies finished last in their divisions and the D-backs finished next to last, they comprised 3/4 of the NL playoffs this year. Under a “championship league” format they wouldn’t have even been able to compete in the top division this season. When spring training begins fans of almost every franchise can hold out hope that their team has a chance to end up in the World Series, regardless of what occurred during the previous season.

  6. on October 31st at 12:05 am
    LAprGuy said:

    This could be a more interesting study: My hypothesis is that above all, with all the days off, and the shorter series where the fourth-place team (the so-called Wild Card) starts on equal footing with the best team, it comes down to the team with the best 11 players — 7 regulars, top 2 starters, top 2 relievers — winning it more often than the winningest team each year. Helps account for how the Wild Card teams with two hot starting pitchers and two hot relievers have made, what, 8 out of the last 10 Series? I think it’s less about them being “hot,” and more about those four pitchers simply being better than those on the winningest team.

  7. on December 31st at 07:58 am
    David Chase said:

    What about a 9-9-9 playoff format to replace the current 5-7-7?

  8. […] consider baseball’s playoff format, which is inherently random. When the playoffs begin, the best regular season team has about a twenty percent shot at winning […]

  9. on February 21st at 12:16 pm
    Steve said:

    This is interesting, because I was thinking about this very topic after the Super Bowl. In fact, Super Bowl XLII may be the *ultimate* example of the phenomenon you describe: Clearly the New England Patriots were the best football team on the planet in 2007, there’s really no argument about it. Conversely, the New York Giants spent the majority of 2007 as a very mediocre team, before getting “hot” at precisely the right time. And we all know what happened — the 18-0 Pats lost to the 12-7 G-Men. Putting all bias against the Patriots aside (if that’s even possible at this point), the majority of fans now believe, on the basis of one 2:42 drive, that the 2007 Giants were in fact a better football team than the Patriots, despite 18 or 19 other games of evidence that suggest otherwise. But because the Giants’ win over NE happened to come in February, this somehow invalidates that entire 5-month body of evidence. So, really, what’s the point in even crowning a “champion” at all? In the past few years, we’ve seen these undeserving champions invalidate the playoffs in MLB (Cardinals), NFL (too many to count, but the 07 Giants take the cake), and NHL (it seems like some underdog wins the Cup every year). In fact, the NBA is probably the only major US pro sport where the correct outcome occurs more often than not.

    On the other hand, if we accept the random nature of sports (and life, for that matter), would they even have meaning anymore? I mean, if it’s all a crapshoot, why should we even care? So perhaps those who still buy into the “clutch” phenomenon are happier and more fulfilled in the end, because they actually believe the superior team always wins (if not superior in talent, then at least superior in grit). It’s a necessary coping mechanism to avoid facing the reality of life’s randomness, because accepting that reality would deprive existence of all meaning.