Should MLB Eliminate the Entire Playoffs?

Over at NBC, Joe Posnanski raises this provocative question: Would Major League Baseball be better off if it eliminated the postseason, and just crowned its champion based on regular-season record, the way that England’s Premier League does?

He quickly backs off of that particular recommendation. The column is an enjoyable conversation with Billy Beane, who is both a huge soccer fan and a repeat victim of the playoffs, and Posnanski eventually recommends a dual-tiered structure, where the winner of the most regular-season games is crowned as the “pennant winner,” and then the postseason essentially functions as its own separate tournament.

“The season should be viewed as its own thing, starts around the first of April, ends at the end of September,” Posnanski writes. “Sure, of course, the World Series will still matter a lot more because it has history behind it and because, yes, we love our playoffs. But I’d love to see the 162-game champion recognized in a bigger way.”

This is a fascinating thought experiment, and it deserves to be taken seriously, ignoring for the moment that this would obviously never ever happen. The problem with the playoffs is that they are unfair to good teams. This is a different notion of “fairness” than Bud Selig used when he proposed the most recent playoff expansion. Bud essentially seemed to be saying that putting more teams in the playoffs was fair because more teams would have the chance to win.

Essentially, Selig couched fairness in terms of distributive justice. Posnanski and Beane would couch it in terms of procedural justice, and I would agree. I would argue that it is procedurally unjust for a better team to lose in the playoffs to a worse team just because random chance went against them. So would Beane. “The playoffs are a great thing for our sport – I want to make that clear,” Beane tells Posnanski. “But let’s call it what it is: we allow small sample sizes and random events to determine the champion. That’s how it is in baseball.”

The playoffs are a crapshoot, or, as Billy Beane says to Joe Posnanski, “a gauntlet of randomness.” They have only become more random in recent years, as the playoffs have expanded from one round (the World Series) from 1903 to 1969, then two rounds from 1969 to 1993, then three rounds since 1995, with an added Wild Card play-in game starting in 2012. As I wrote last fall:

Wild Card teams experienced extraordinary success in the first 17 years of the Division Series, from 1995 to 2011. In 17 years, 68 Division Series were played, of which 34 involved a Wild Card team. By my count, the Wild Card team actually won 18 of those 34 series, 53 percent of the time.

Through no fault of the Wild Card planners, it appeared that division winners were if anything disadvantaged by the time they got to the postseason. That extraordinary success is a big reason for the creation of the Wild Card Game, which was meant to make it a little harder for Wild Card teams to march through the playoffs.

The more the playoffs expand, the greater the likelihood that the best team in baseball will not win the World Series. Nowadays, fully one-third of the teams in baseball go to the playoffs, compared to one-eighth in the pre-division era, and one-seventh as recently as 1992.

So the two of them appreciate the purity of the Premier League, where the team that wins the most games is recognized as the best team that year. All regular season, no playoffs. Of course, they recognize that there is a postseason, the UEFA Champions League, in which the best club teams from across Europe play one another for a shot at being crowned the best team in Europe.

(The Premier League has another facet, realignment relegation, that some have occasionally proposed that baseball should adopt. But that is not relevant to the present discussion.)

One problem with the Barclays Premier League is that the same teams always win every year: since 1992, Manchester United has won 13 championships, Arsenal and Chelsea have won three apiece, and Blackburn and Manchester City have won one apiece. There’s no real parity. Manchester United almost certainly was the best team for the majority of the past two decades, so procedural justice was satisfied, but it still feels unfair, like other teams must not have even had a chance to win. That is why, as Billy Beane could tell you, the subtitle to Moneyball is “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.”

That is why Posnanski ends up proposing something that sounds a bit like the best of both worlds: two penannts for the regular season, which go to the teams with the best record in each league; and one champion of the postseason. All would receive glory aplenty, and would help to correct for the role of luck in awarding the pennant: no second-place team could ever again be league champion, even if they could be world’s champion.

This plan is less ambitious than the idea of simply eliminating the playoffs, and is more appealing, receiving endorsements from Craig Calcaterra and David Pinto. I’ll admit, it is a nice thought to think that the best regular-season team would receive at least some recognition for its accomplishment, rather than being regarded as just another division-winner who failed to live up to expectations in the playoffs.

But I just don’t think that sports works that way in America. The point of the regular season is that it leads to the playoffs. The reason to do well in the regular season is so that you will be in a better position in the playoffs. As a rule, Americans have short memories when it comes to also-rans. We have sayings like “Second place is the first loser” and “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” A team that wins the most regular season games should feel proud of its accomplishments, but I don’t think that it is likely to be independently lionized for them.

Ultimately, that’s because we generally agree that the strategic goal in baseball is to win championships. That’s “championships,” plural — so, short-sighted moves that wreck the team in the long term in order for a better chance at a title in the short term may still be ill-advised. But the ultimate strategic goal in baseball is not to win the most games at the end of the season, nor to have the highest run differential, nor to draw the most fans. The ultimate strategic goal is to win championships, and all decisions should be made in order to increase the likelihood of achieving that end.

Giving a special prize to the team that wins the most games is like giving a prize to the team with the highest run differential. The only reason that run differential is important is that it is highly correlated with wins, and a team that confuses near-term goals with ultimate ends is a team that will make very poor strategic choices.

So, while I might agree with Joe and Billy that it is unfair that worse teams often beat better teams in the playoffs, I don’t think that the solution is to redefine the meaning of a pennant, because I just don’t think that the regular season and playoffs can be usefully separated. I’d much prefer to reduce the size of the playoffs, which will never happen, and to eliminate the stupid rule that gives home field advantage to the team from the league that won the All-Star Game.

I don’t want my Braves to win the most games this year. I want them to win the World Series.



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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


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danno
Guest
danno

“But let’s call it what it is: we allow small sample sizes and random events to determine the champion. That’s how it is in baseball.”

And that is exactly why I love it.

Bill but not Ted
Member

Yes, in many ways, it emulates life

Vegemitch
Member
Member
Vegemitch

The ultimate small sample size and random chance playoffs that I can think of in American sports is the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Coincidentally, or not, it is the most beloved playoff in sports (other than the one game spectacle of the Super Bowl, as the NFL playoffs as a whole don’t generate the same kind of buzz as the NCAA tourny). From a statistical standpoint, the NCAA men’s basketball schedule is far too short, and the division far too large, to competently determine which teams are actually deserving of a more limited playoff structure, so the grand run off is both necessary and exciting as teams from different sub-leagues in a loose regional format face off.

At least in baseball, due to the long season, we know that the most deserving teams will end up in the playoffs even if the *best* team doesn’t always win.

Cliff
Guest
Cliff

But basketball has much lower variance. The better team will win far more often than in baseball. And the skill disparity is greater early on in the tournament. So the difference is not as great as you imagine.

SoledadY
Member
SoledadY

In the NBA sure where teams enjoy a significant home court advantage and veteran experience. In the NCAA they have neither which is why there are so many upsets. Upsets being one of the main sources of buzz surrounding “March Madness.”

Big Daddy V
Guest
Big Daddy V

Soledad, it’s not so much about the things you mentioned as it is about the sheer number of scoring opportunities. It’s the law of large numbers – the longer the game goes, the more likely it is that the better team will win.

Not to mention that in the tournament, you are playing a lot of games against teams that you’ve never played or even seen before. Just like FGCU this year – there was very little video out there showing what they could do against a tournament-caliber team. No one knew what to expect.

Hawk Heckleson
Guest
Hawk Heckleson

Big Daddy V::

Law of Large Numbers goes both ways here. The more variables you input into a system, the lower the probability the expected outcome will occur.

Consider that these teams are thought of as “better” without ever truly encountering every team that exists, every play, or performance of play types, nor every general strategic scheme.

Expected outcomes are derived from KNOWN assumptions. As Rumsfeld once said: the thing to worry about is not the known-known, unknown-knowns, or even the known unknowns; worry about the unknown-unknowns. A tournament that is the culmination of smaller tournaments that filter hundreds of teams will produce a prodigious amount of variables.

The unknown unknowns are insane. A tournment never had a name so apropos.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar

Cliff, you must be watching a different NCAA Basketball Tournament than the one I have seen. It seems to me that the best team almost never wins, and it is not unusual for teams with 10 or more losses to win the tourney over teams with only a couple of losses.

Mike
Guest
Mike

I would argue that the fan interest in the NFL playoffs as a whole is much closer to the NCAA tournament than you think. And the gulf closes more every year.

Synovia
Guest
Synovia

Agree here. Frankly, in my experience, the interest in the NFL playoff is much higher.

Most of the people I know’s only interaction with March Madness is filling out a bracket and seeing if they won any money a couple weeks later. They all watch the NFL playoffs.

Doug Lampert
Guest
Doug Lampert

The four NFL divisional round games average over 34 million viewers EACH. I can’t find numbers for the wildcard round, but I did find a reference to carryover from the wildcard giving Fox shows that followed over 26 million viewers and an unusual ratings win for Sunday night.

The numbers I can find for March Madness viewers are all less than 10 million. I’m sure the finals do better than that. But I’m not sure they do much better.

Judd
Guest
Judd

March Madness should be changed too. Get rid of the selection committee and reform all NCAA leagues. The NCAA needs to create 16 equall (size of school, tuition cost, academics, TV market, etc.) leagues. Each league’s regular season champion will get an invitation to the NCAA tournament to play for the national title. They will also be excluded from thier own conference tournament. Each conference tournament winner will also be invited to the NCAA tournament.

All schools will profit share based on enrollment numbers.

Judd
Guest
Judd

The amount of teams in THe MLB playoofs is not the issue or the reason why the best team is not winning. The main factor is the schedule. During the regular season, teams play 6 times per week and have to use a 5 pitcher rotation. Recently, because of the playoff games are so spread out, many teams have been using only three starters.

Straw Man
Guest
Straw Man

The amount of teams isn’t the problem, nor is the fact that teams can alter the roster for the games. The fact that those teams play 21 games max to decide the championship is the problem.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar

The 20 games max is small, but what is more relevant is that some teams face a round of only 1 game and all teams face a round of only 5 games max.
Go back to one wildcard and make all the rounds best 4 of 7.

thebamoor
Member
thebamoor

It might be “fun”, but an absolutely horrible way to crown the best team in any given year.

You talk like a fan who never had your team who won well over 100 games in the regular team only to be eliminated in in the first round in a 4-3 series and quickly forgotten.

Ian
Guest
Ian

Well at the very least your team got to play and lose in a historic LDS that featured two extra games.

As a fan of the Blues, I got to watch my team once win the President’s Trophy in the regular season, then promptly lose in the first round once it counted. Winning the President’s Trophy didn’t make it feel any better. It may have even made it feel worse.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar

I agree with you. I can’t think of any reasonable objection to awarding a pennant or whatever to the regular season best teams, and then still have a post-season tournament (playoff).
However, this will probably have no effect whatsoever on the American obsession to have a “best team” crowned, no matter how weak their regular season was.
I am a Giants fan, but I barf whenever some stupid announcer or writer says they were the best team in 2 of the last 3 years when they were demonstrably not the best even once. They were just the tourney winner twice.

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