Friday, April 8, 2011

Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 5)

After this post, the aliens will question no more. They are exhausted. They are jet lagged. They couldn't get tickets to any opening day games. Someone told them to bet a lot of money on the Red Sox winning at least one of their first 6 games. And they are frustrated that they will have to wait until next week for all of their concerns to be addressed.

Which brings me to my next point: The readers of WPFF will have to wait until next week to read the solutions to the aliens' concerns. In the interest of pleasing all of the people at least once a week, I wanted to stick with my initial commitment NOT to use both of the regularly scheduled WPFF posts on baseball. So next week I will address the concerns--probably using a "bonus post"--thereby solving all of the problems of Major League Baseball as identified by aliens. Then, having achieved intergalactic peace for the foreseeable future, I will take a break from writing about baseball for a while.

So today I will discuss the final of 5 concerns raised by aliens who watch Major League Baseball:
Why is the scheduling of the MLB post-season so goofy?

The aliens are especially concerned about the first round of the playoffs. The current arrangement is this: The 3 divisions winners, plus the remaining team with the best record (the "wild card" team) make the playoffs. The first round of the playoffs is a best-of-five series. In each league, the team with the best record plays the wild card team, unless the wild card team is from their same division. In that case, the team with the best record plays one of the other division winners (the worse one).

The scheduling of this first round is goofy, as the aliens put it, in at least two significant ways: the length of the first round of the playoffs and the scheduling of the first round of the playoffs.

First, the length of the series. 5 games. The first team to 3 wins takes the series. Without any perspective, this length may not be striking. But consider that these 5 game series come on the heals of a 162-game schedule. This is the longest season of the "big four" North American sports, but the first round of playoffs will be over in 5 games (and maybe as few as 3). 5 games is the equivalent to 3% of the regular season.

Here's how the other sports compare:
-NBA: 82 regular season games, 7 game series, equivalent to 8.5%
-NHL: 82, 7, 8.5%
-NFL: 16, 1, 6%
-MLB: 162, 5, 3%

So percentage-wise, baseball's first round of playoffs is LEAST likely to have a result in line with the regular-season records of the teams playing. History backs this up. Since each big 4 sports adopted its current playoff system (disregarding minor tweaks), here are the win/loss records of teams with the best regular season record in their league/conference in their first round of post-season play:
-NBA: 49-3 (.942 winning percentage)
-NFL: 32-10 (.727)
-NHL: 23-9 (.719)
-MLB: 21-11 (.656)

(In addition to making the case that the best team in baseball doesn't win its first round playoff series as much as it should, you could point out that the wild card team in MLB wins its first series MORE than it should, to the tune of a 17-15 record in their first round of playoffs. The sample size is small, but one might expect that a just playoff system has a differential greater than "4" between series wins for the best and worst team of each league over the course of 16 years.)

So the sport with the longest season has the smallest margin of error for the first round of the post season. And the teams with the best record are historically more likely to be upset in their first playoff series than those in other "big 4" sports.

Objectively, the unpredictability of a 5-game series runs counter to the idea of playoff seeding in the first place. The idea behind "seeding" is to give the best team the best chance to prove that they are indeed the best team, and the hope is that the best team from each league will play in the World Series. When this consistently doesn't happen, it undermines the credibility of the World Series.

Subjectively, it's pretty frustrating for fans. You root for your team for 162 games, you pay to see them play, you get excited when they finish with 104 wins--and then they lose 3 out of 5 games to a team that squeaked into the playoffs with a 85-77 record? Yeah, it's frustrating, almost enough to make you not care so much about the regular season.

With the 5-game series being intrinsically poorly-equipped to mirror a team's regular season success (or lack thereof), the least MLB could do is NOT add any other variables that would further disconnect the expected results of the series from the actual results. Which brings me to the aliens' other beef with the first round of the playoffs: the scheduling of them.

Quick quiz: How many days does it take for a MLB team to play 5 games during the regular season?
A. Usually 5
B. Sometimes 6
C. Once in a blue moon, 7
D. Never 8
E. All of the above

Did you guess "E"? Wow. You're good. Here's another one:
Taking into account the answer to the above question, how many days would you take to schedule a 5-game playoff series, assuming you wanted the results of the playoff series to fairly reflect the results of the season?
A. Usually 5
B. Sometimes 6
C. Once in a blue moon, 7
D. Never 8
E. All of the above
F. At LEAST 7, sometimes 8, depending on what the networks want

Did you guess "F"? You could be the commissioner of baseball.

Baseball is 50% pitching, and a good chunk of that is starting pitching, which varies from day-to-day in the regular season of baseball. If you have a dominant starting pitcher, you will be tough to beat about 35 times a year when that pitcher starts. If you're lucky, you have two dominant starters. Teams these days need at least 5 starters to get through the year, and the combined quality of those 5 pitchers will go a long towards determining if you make the playoffs. Teams with 2 dominant starters and 3 guys plucked off the scrap heap probably won't make the playoffs. Part of the beauty of having a 162-game season is seeing how the balance of starting pitchers plays out for each team. A team with 4-5 pretty good starters may do better than a team with 1-2 dominant starters and 2-3 poor ones.

Then come the playoffs. Last year, for example, the Reds faced the Phillies in the NLDS. Their schedule was this:
October 6: Game 1
October 7: rest
October 8: Game 2
October 9: rest
October 10: Game 3
October 11: Game 4
October 12: rest
October 13: Game 5

The Reds were a great example of a team with 4-5 good starters, but no dominant ones. The Phillies were a team with 2-3 dominant starters, then a drop-off. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out! If the Reds can steal a win from one of the Phillies aces, then pick on the weak links in games 4 or 5, this could be very exciting!

Or, we could build enough days off into the scheduling of the series that the Phillies can start just 2 different pitchers in 4 of the 5 games. The regular season, a team MIGHT get to start their top 2 pitchers in about 45% of their teams games. In the first round of the playoffs, the Phillies could have started their 2 aces in a whopping 80% of the games with a normal 4-days of rest. It so happens the series didn't get that far--the Phillies swept in 3--but the point remains that playoff series are often won or lost by the teams that get there.

What the aliens find especially bizarre is that NOT all of the series are scheduled in this way. The other 3 divisional series were somehow crammed into 7 days. Only the Phillies and Reds needed 8 days. The disturbing fact is that of the 8 playoff teams, some would have benefited quite a bit more than others by having 8 days to play instead of 7. The Phillies and the Giants are probably the teams that would have most benefited, due to their top-heavy rotations. The Reds would are probably the team that would have been most harmed by having 8 days to play.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but do you think anyone at any of the networks or MLB offices would have liked to have seen the small-town Reds advance to the next round ahead of the big-market Phillies? Truly I'm just blowing smoke here. I don't know who decides who plays on what schedule. But the fact that some teams benefit more than others from the 8-day schedule SHOULD be enough for players and teams to at LEAST cry foul, if not conspiracy.

Having a 5-game series after a 162-game schedule is like taking the top 8 finishers of a marathon and then lining them up for a 100-yard dash. The contests are only kind of similar, and there is little or no flow from the marathon to the dash.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the 5-game series is that it is the great equalizer to the ridiculous payroll disparity among teams. If you have to live with some teams having 6 times the payroll of others, the least you can do is effectively randomize the results of the playoffs, right? Uh, right?

OK, if we have settle on that, fine. First let me make some suggestions for fixing this whole mess. Next week. :)


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