Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why Expand Playoffs, If We've Already Got Parity?

Finally caught up with a Tyler Kepner piece in the NYT that compares baseball playoffs to football playoffs, and concludes that baseball's playoffs reflect the league's superior parity:

I love the NFL, and especially the playoffs. Every game is an elimination game, and every game starts at a reasonable hour on the East Coast. Of the 11 NFL postseason games every year, only two begin after 8 p.m. Baseball playoff games tend to start later, and of the last 43 postseason series, stretching back to the 2004 World Series, only five have produced a winner-take-all game.

But (and you knew that was coming), it’s in baseball, not the NFL, that teams have a better chance to compete for the championship.

Consider the eight NFL teams still alive, and compare them to the eight teams in the 2010 baseball postseason. The season of the team’s previous appearance in a conference championship game or league championship series is in parentheses.

NFL: New England (2007), Jets (2009), Pittsburgh (2008), Baltimore (2008), Atlanta (1998), Green Bay (2007), Chicago (2006), Seattle (2005).

MLB: Tampa Bay (2008), Texas (never), Yankees (2009), Minnesota (2002), Philadelphia (2010), Cincinnati (1995), San Francisco (2002), Atlanta (2001).

So in the NFL, only one of the eight teams has gone more than five years since its last appearance in a conference title game. In baseball, five of the eight had waited at least that long. And the World Series featured the Rangers, who had never been there before, against the Giants, who had not been in eight years.

In the N.F.L., 24 of 32 teams have made the playoffs over the past five seasons. That’s 75 percent. In baseball, 22 of 30 have made the playoffs in the same time span. That’s 73.3 percent, despite the fact that the NFL awards 12 playoff spots each season, and baseball – for now, anyway – awards only eight.

Jayson Stark over at ESPN has some other factoids implying the MLB playoffs should not be expanded in the name of "parity", which already exists (link insider only):

Let's start by reminding you that 50 percent more teams make the playoffs in football than make it in baseball (12, versus eight). So this deck is already stacked.

And one more thing: It's amazing how competitively balanced you can make yourself look if you start letting sub-.500 teams into your playoff party.

OK, now that we've got that out of the way, a few facts you should know:

  • Seven of the 12 teams that made the NFL playoffs this year also got to the playoffs last year. That's 58 percent of the field. Last time more than half of baseball's playoff teams repeated? All the way back in 2005.
  • And one of those five new NFL playoff juggernauts this year was a team with a 7-9 record (i.e., the Seahawks). Let the record show that in baseball, a sport that has been through 106 postseasons, no team with a losing record has ever been allowed to play a postseason game.
  • Over the last five postseasons, only 15 of baseball's 40 playoff teams repeated. That's 37.5 percent. In the NFL, 29 of the 60 playoff teams repeated. That's 48.3 percent.
  • Want to take this back farther? Let's go back to 2004, the year baseball's current revenue-sharing system began to seriously kick in. Over the last seven postseasons, just 25 of 56 playoff teams repeated in MLB. That's 44.6 percent. In the NFL, 41 of 84 repeated. That's 48.8 percent.
  • Or we could go back through the entire wild-card era, even though baseball was working on a totally different economic model for half of that period. Over the last 15 postseasons, 61 of baseball's 120 playoff teams repeated. That's 50.8 percent.

And how does that compare with the NFL, through this stretch it's touting so ecstatically? Exactly half (90 of 180) of the NFL playoff teams repeated during that same period. In other words, it's almost identical.

Doug Mittler at also concurs that expanding the playoffs would lower MLB's bar too far (link insider only):

Most speculation suggests that the new format will be the following: Add one wild-card team per league, with the two wild cards playing either a one-game, winner-take-all or a best-of-three format. Proponents say it will legitimize the regular season, forcing potential playoff teams from the same division to actually compete instead of coasting in September when at least a wild-card berth looks secure.

We propose that Bud look back at the past few years and to see some unintended consequences. He would notice things like a play-in to the play-in and a 95-win team playing an 87-win team. Maybe this isn't so perfectly symmetrical after all.

I'm a purist when it comes to baseball. But even though I didn't like the idea of a three-division realignment and a wild card, the concept has really grown on me and I admit now that it's good for baseball, perhaps even the finest highlight of Bud Selig's shrug-filled tenure as MLB Commissioner. But adding yet another playoff team to the mix seems like a bad idea, again. We'll see if Bud Selig makes me try this on for size anyway.


Fernie V said...

I agree with you saxy, you sound like Bob Costas
Even though adding a team would give us more hope for the playoffs. I did not like the one year we were the wild card team, even though I had game 6 playoff tickets. I refused to purchase wild card playoff t-shirts or sweaters. Wild card please, win your division

Eric Karros said...

I've given the playoff formats of the various leagues some thought.

I think 8 works well for MLB and 12 for NFL. More teams works for the NFL in part because they only play best-of-1. You get 4 games the 1st weekend and 4 the 2nd weekend, and a pretty comprehensive distribution of incentives for teams that've locked up a playoff spot to keep playing hard late in the season.

The Seahawks-making-the-playoffs-travesty (FYI just because they won doesn't mean it wasn't a travesty) was caused not by having 4 WC's, but rather by having 8 divisions. With only four teams per division, I feel we haven't seen the last of unworthy division winners.

Sixteen teams in the NBA playoffs is almost a joke. Say each series averages 5,5 games. That's 15 x 5.5 = 82 games, a team's full season's worth. Unbearable.

Eric Karros said...

So to sum up my diatribe: pls don't expand the MLB playoffs.

Eric Karros said...

Actually, is the 1st round of NBA playoffs best of 5? If so, the re-done math is (8 x 4) + (7 x 5.5) = 70 games, still way too many.

Steve Sax said...

EK, I'm with you (though I'm catching up with the math).

Adding a fifth NL and AL team gets us closer to the Seahawks scenario, having mediocre teams make the postseason.

Thirty years ago, only two made it per league. Now, it's four. If it jumps to five or six per league, I have to think this trophy generation shot has gone too far. Maybe we keep it at four but give the fifth and sixth teams a medal and the rest of the teams a laminated certificate of appreciation.

Eric Karros said...

Dude don't even laminate it