Wishing for Better Playoff Systems

As the Butler Bulldogs and Connecticut Huskies clanged shot after shot in last week’s NCAA title game, pundits raced to explain the ugliest championship in a generation. Both teams played stifling defense. They gameplanned well. They were tired after long seasons and long tournament runs.

There are grains of truth in each of those explanations. But all those justifications ignored the obvious: These were two mediocre teams, brought together by a playoff system that’s exciting, unpredictable…and criminally unfair.

We haven’t seen a World Series quite that bad in recent memory. But Major League Baseball’s playoff system also gives very little advantage to teams who fared best over 162 games. Again, unfairly so.

If sports are meant to be a meritocracy, aren’t we doing this all wrong? What’s the point of sustained greatness if all it gets you is a favorable seed in college basketball that’s relevant for one, maybe two rounds? As the gap between the best teams and Cinderellas narrows, there’s greater potential for more Butlers — as well as ninth-place conference finishers like UConn — to play for championships. Which means there’s also greater potential for ugly title games that produce terribly unsatisfying results, and 19% shooting.

And while NCAA hoops give us 30-plus regular-season games, Major League Baseball offers 162. For all the hand-wringing by Red Sox fans over their team’s 2-9 start, or Albert Pujols hitting below the Mendoza Line, we know those results won’t continue all year long. Baseball’s six-month schedule provides a true test of skill for every team and every player. You might see an occasional fluke season by a ballclub or individual. But we still have a larger sample of evidence to separate great teams from lousy ones than in any other sport.

So why do the best teams then get thrust into the exact type of situation that encourages flukish results? A best-of-five League Division Series with multiple off-days and potential bad weather in open-air East Coast ballparks dramatically boosts the import of any one game, or match-up. A badly outmanned team with a pitching ace and a few lucky bounces can topple the most complete, proven winners. Where college basketball at least gives #1 seeds a break with gimme games in the first (and sometimes second) rounds, you might see a 98-win team face a 93-win team in a short, first-round MLB playoff series, with final-game home-field advantage the only notable advantage — assuming the series even goes that long.

Baseball gets derided for its lack of parity, with popular perception holding that the Yankees and Red Sox are guaranteed winners every year. But MLB has seen 18 different World Series winners since 1984, with just one repeat winner in the past decade. Parity has its place in sports. But how far should we go to foster it? When an 83-win team like the 2006 Cardinals or a flawed Wild Card club like the 2003 Marlins ride a four-week hot streak to a title, other teams’ season-long excellence suddenly becomes irrelevant.

There’s got to be a way to keep hope alive for David-vs.-Goliath clashes, while providing greater rewards for teams that proved their greatness over the long haul. In baseball, the most obvious move should be to turn the League Division Series into a best-of-seven format. If MLB does expand to 12-team playoffs, giving byes to only the top two teams in each league and having the other four playoff teams all play in round one could help. Returning to the old best-of-nine format for the World Series could also tilt the scales a bit toward more deserving clubs.

Whether it’s baseball or college basketball, the pedigree of the team isn’t the issue. If the Pittsburgh Pirates earn the best record in the National League, let them get that edge. If mid-major stalwarts like San Diego State play well enough to earn a higher seed than a big-name Big East or SEC school, they should earn some extra rest as surely as should a Kansas or Ohio State.

Don’t take away our Cinderellas. But don’t use virtual coin flips to decide champions either. We should never have to suffer through 12-for-64 — or its baseball equivalent — again.



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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.


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BK
Guest
BK

I never understood the rationale of playoffs. It’s almost as if we shouldn’t even play the regular season. It is really exciting because teams step up their games and we see the test of character when teams have their backs against the walls. However, the team that does the best through the grind of a full season should be the champion, correct?

drtrix
Member
Member
drtrix

Very true but there is too much money to be made by a playoff system.

Vinnie
Guest

Fairness and revenue are born enemies, and revenue wins every time.

DJG
Guest
DJG

It is about money, but not solely. How boring would the MLB season be for fans if the champion became obvious in mid-August?

With playoffs you trade fairness for excitment and interest. As Jonah points out, it’s a tough balance.

Hglman
Guest
Hglman

I like how European football handles all this. There is a league and its winner and winning the season is a big deal, and there is no league play off. Then there is the champions league, euro tournaments. Which play in parallel with each season. The Key to me is that to play in one of the tournaments you have to finish in the top of your league the year before. So you get both a loose and go home play off and a meaningful regular season.

MikeS
Guest
MikeS

With unbalanced schedules or no interleague play they make some sense. If the AL and NL never met each other in the regular season you wouldn’t really know which team was best without a playoff.

But @drtrix is right. It’s not about who the best team is, it’s about money. More games, more teams, more money. And more chance for fluky results.

Craig
Guest
Craig

Except that we have unbalanced divisions and rotating interleague games and other things that make records not comparable. If the Rangers win 95 games in the AL West does that mean they were better than the Yankees who won only 94 games in the AL East?

Personally I like the system the way it is (plus or minus a few things). Every game is a new day. The league that has first-round byes (NFL) also has a pretty strict salary cap, creating more parity from the beginning. Adding playoff byes to baseball I think exacerbates the inherent inequity in the franchises.

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