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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Freakonomics: Berri: Does the “Best” Team Win the World Series?

And that means teams should be very cautious about responding to what they see in the playoffs.  The Yankees inability to win against the Tigers in the American League Championship doesn’t necessarily mean the Yankees need to make major changes for next season. Every baseball team – not matter how it is constructed – is going to have a bad week once in a while. And if that bad week happens to occur in October, your team will look bad in the playoffs and your fans will be unhappy.

I should add, this was very much the argument Steve Walters (economist at Loyala University and consultant to the Baltimore Orioles) recently made at the Wages of Wins Journal.  The playoffs are simply hard to predict. As Steve noted in the videocast, even winning more than 100 games is no guarantee of a World Series title.  Across the past 25 years, 20 different teams have finished the regular season with more than 100 victories.  And of these, only two managed to win a title.

So the playoffs should be thought of as entertainment.  But if you are not entertained because your team lost (the outcome for 90% of playoff teams), don’t think this “proves” your team isn’t the “best”.  And if your team does win… well, you can think that your team is the “best”; even if the rest of us know this isn’t true. And I am not saying that just because my team lost (okay, that’s probably not true).

Thanks to Barnald the Sore Loser.

Repoz Posted: November 10, 2012 at 09:31 AM | 19 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: sabermetrics

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   1. BDC Posted: November 10, 2012 at 12:59 PM (#4299543)
if you are not entertained because your team lost (the outcome for 90% of playoff teams), don’t think this “proves” your team isn’t the “best”. And if your team does win… well, you can think that your team is the “best”; even if the rest of us know this isn’t true


We discuss this topic a lot around here, and it simply occurs to me that the joy of watching sports is in seeing an equal contest. Some of the greatest joy is in seeing a contest that figured to be unequal and turns out to be more equal than supposed. If every sporting season and event produced a clear winner – if sports were the equivalent of Notre Dame playing Slippery Rock every weekend – even statheads would stop watching. "Best" is for barroom or Internet debates. All anybody knows for sure is that a given competitor actually won.
   2. puck Posted: November 10, 2012 at 02:19 PM (#4299581)
This is coming up on MLS fansites (they do exist) since it's playoff time for the league, and 3 of the last 4 series were won by the lower- seeded team. Plus the context that "real" leagues (e.g., many Euro leagues while ignoring plenty of leagues in the Americas such as Mexico's) decide their champion by regular season record. Lots of complaints that the playoff system doesn't given enough advantage to the higher seeds, and/or that the playoffs make the regular season meaningless.

I don't know what to say but that in general it seems to work out. Lots of American sports fans, even the "serious" rather than "casual" ones, love what the playoffs have to bring while there are still plenty of people who enjoy the regular season and find meaning in it. Personally, it's hard not to think of the playoffs as a crapshoot sometimes. Then again, going on a good run yields plenty of excitement.

I suppose the level of crapshootyness varies by sport? From less of a crapshoot to more: NBA playoffs, NFL playoffs, MLS playoffs, MLB playoffs, NHL playoffs, NCAA basketball playoffs? (I'm totally pulling that out of my butt since I don't follow all those sports closely.)
   3. Juan Uribe Marching and Chowder Society Posted: November 10, 2012 at 02:30 PM (#4299587)
I don't think many people here will be able to accurately place the MLS playoffs on the spectrum.
   4. GregD Posted: November 10, 2012 at 02:56 PM (#4299600)
Can I place the MLS playoffs on automatic delete?

One problem with the exercise is best in what way. Best over the course of the season? Or best at the end of the season? Lots of times teams in all sports struggle in the early season and play lights out toward the end. If you have a team like that this #3 in record but #1 in the last 2 months, say, playing the team with the #1 overall record but, say, #4 record over the last two months, which exactly is the best? How are you supposed to evaluate the outcome?

The other issue is the marginal difference between #1 and #2. If it's huge, then it's fair to ask if the playoffs reward that difference. If it's tiny, then the question of which one was best isn't that interesting and the playoff outcome should be a toss-up.

My gut sense is that the NBA and NFL almost always get their awesome teams into the finals. When there isn't an awesome team in a conference, then it's a crapshoot.

I would guess baseball is less consistent about getting into awesome teams in the series.

The NCAA is remarkably consistent. Lots of #1 seeds get to the Final Four. We remember the amazing upsets (some of which aren't crazy upsets but are lower-ranked teams that floundered early but were lights-out from January on.) Lots of upsets early on, but only a couple of real upsets at the end. If you get into was UK or UNC the better team last year, you can drive yourself nuts about 1 vs 1A (and about Marshall's injury) but most years the team that wins is one of the teams that had a real claim to being the best.

I could give a crap about the NHL or MLS.
   5. Juan Uribe Marching and Chowder Society Posted: November 10, 2012 at 03:08 PM (#4299609)
Really? I couldn't.
   6. Fred Lynn Nolan Ryan Sweeney Agonistes Posted: November 10, 2012 at 03:18 PM (#4299613)
I might have up to about an hour ago, but now I definitely couldn't.
   7. Walt Davis Posted: November 10, 2012 at 05:45 PM (#4299716)
Baseball playoffs are different than basketball, hockey and football (but not soccer) in that baseball is not a substitution game. Although the differences are probably pretty small, the baseball playoff team is not the same as the regular season team. Not just due to trades and late-season callups (is there any equivalent to a K-Rod in the other sports?) but because you're essentially using a trimmed roster. Your bench doesn't play, your 5th starter doesn't start, your 4th starter starts as little as possible, your top 3 relievers (plus LOOGY) get all the high-leverage innings they can stand. The "best" team during the regular season might have been the best of the good teams because they had the best bench, best 5th starter, etc. which is virtually no advantage in the postseason.

I know that's all true to some extent in the other sports -- teams using less rotation, etc. -- but even Jordan came off the floor for 5 minutes in playoff games.
   8. tshipman Posted: November 11, 2012 at 12:23 AM (#4299902)
My gut sense is that the NBA and NFL almost always get their awesome teams into the finals. When there isn't an awesome team in a conference, then it's a crapshoot.


There's a huge difference between the NBA and NFL. In the NBA, one of the four best teams in the league almost always wins. In years where that wasn't true, it was typically due to injuries or a late trade changing teams.

The NFL is muuuuuch less structured. In the NBA, you really are better off tearing your team apart if you don't project to win 55 games in the next three years.
   9. Athletic Supporter can feel the slow rot Posted: November 11, 2012 at 12:32 AM (#4299909)
The NCAA is remarkably consistent. Lots of #1 seeds get to the Final Four. We remember the amazing upsets (some of which aren't crazy upsets but are lower-ranked teams that floundered early but were lights-out from January on.) Lots of upsets early on, but only a couple of real upsets at the end. If you get into was UK or UNC the better team last year, you can drive yourself nuts about 1 vs 1A (and about Marshall's injury) but most years the team that wins is one of the teams that had a real claim to being the best.


Also, a lot of upsets are like a 30-4 team from a lower conference beating a much higher-seeded 23-9 team from a big conference. With all due respect to Pomeroy and other statheads, a lot of times we simply have no idea how good that 30-4 team was going in; this is another category of "crazy upset" that could very well have simply been the better team being underappreciated due to difficulty in figuring out how to rate a massive schedule difference. (The opposite also happens, where a lesser conference 34-2 team gets a high seed and then gets taken out by a major conference team).
   10. SoSHially Unacceptable Posted: November 11, 2012 at 12:38 AM (#4299911)
The NBA is by far the least crapshooty of the NA sports, because the better team wins the typical game far more often than in baseball or hockey (evident in the variance in year-end winnning percentage between the best and worst teams). The typical football game goes to the better team far more often than baseball and hockey as well, but the single-elimination nature of its postseason reduces the chances of the better team emerging. And, as GregD said, despite the upsets and one-and-done nature of the event, the NCAA tournament is pretty good about delivering a champion that was already in the discussion for best team (in part, because of basketball's inherent tilt toward the better team and in part because the frequent upsets more often than not ease the path to the Final 4 for the sport's best teams).

   11. Walt Davis Posted: November 11, 2012 at 12:59 AM (#4299918)
Also whenever an #7 seed makes the final four, you can just blame it on the selection committee being idiots.

I don't get really get to pay attention to college b-ball over here but it seems to me that as the NCAA has gotten more competitive (across conferences) the committee has generally done a better job. They really did use to have a boner for the name conferences and it used to be quite easy to identify the #11 or #12 seed that was gonna go on a run -- in part because the #12 shouldn't have been any worse than a #7 seed and because the major conference they were playing shouldn't have been higher than a #8. Now the mini-majors get a good bit of respect from the selection committee and, if anything, are likely to over-seed Gonzaga these days.
   12. Jack Carter, calling Beleaguered Castle Posted: November 11, 2012 at 01:16 AM (#4299922)
@7: that's right, and it's one reason I thought the Mets were smart to snag Frank Viola back in '89 in that 5 (?) for 1 deal. I thought it was a fair chance Viola, Cone, and Gooden would pitch 0 for the playoffs. Not that leaving Ojeda, Fernandez, and Darling on the bench or moving them into the pen was necessarily the best use of resources....

Yikes. Ojeda, Fernandez, and Darling would have been a fair front three for a playoff team. Good lord, but that team was stocked.
   13. Dr. Vaux Posted: November 11, 2012 at 03:29 AM (#4299944)
Yes, when discussing Davey Johnson's career, it has to be mentioned that the Mets not winning the division in 1989 and 1990 is one of the most inexplicable failures of that era. 1987, too.
   14. Flynn Posted: November 11, 2012 at 09:26 AM (#4299965)
The Mets didn't pitch very well in 87 and 89. They got unlucky in 1990, if you trust Pythag.
   15. Jack Carter, calling Beleaguered Castle Posted: November 12, 2012 at 12:49 AM (#4300404)
Gooden had his drug issues in 1987, iirc. Viola was injured in 1989 and Gooden only started 15 games. Darling never became as good as he looked (which was pretty obvious by then--he was traded in 1991 and wandered in the desert for several paychecks before hanging it up), and the previous offseason was when Ojeda lost part of a pitching finger(s). His control in 89 was horrible. And credit where it's due to those tough Cardinal teams.
   16. OsunaSakata Posted: November 12, 2012 at 02:19 PM (#4300649)
If people want it to be more likely for the team with the best record to win the World Series, there's a simple fix in that direction. Just have fewer off days in the post-season. That will emphasize depth which is supposedly a reason a team has the best regular season record.

But of course, that would mean, more playoff games could be played without going into November. Which would be too much of a temptation for the owners. So, hello 3-game wild card series and 7-game LDS.
   17. BDC Posted: November 12, 2012 at 03:10 PM (#4300684)
One dynamic here is the ratio of regular season to playoffs. In the NFL, NBA, NHL and NCAA men's basketball, the ratio is about five full-regular-season games to each playoff win a team needs to win the postseason (assuming the winner of the Super Bowl to have held a first-round bye; otherwise 4-1 there). In major-league baseball, the ratio is about 15 to 1. You'd expect the 15-1 sport to feature more random champions.

Unfortunately I've just made an implicit argument for MLB expanding all three current playoff rounds to best 11-of-21 series, so I hope no ML owners are lurkers here. But the other implication was that BITGOD, with a ratio around 40-1, the single-division MLB and World Series was as dicey as things can get.
   18. jack the seal clubber (on the sidelines of life) Posted: November 12, 2012 at 05:09 PM (#4300802)
No one should root for a longer playoff season in MLB, in my opinion. The playoff structure in the NHL and NBA, in particular, is such that the playoffs are endless and lose whatever meaning the regular season once had. Then again, I am not the best person to ask; if it was up to me, we would go back to the 1955 format where there was an AL pennant winner and a NL pennant winner, and they played each other in the World Series.
   19. The Chronicles of Reddick Posted: November 12, 2012 at 07:07 PM (#4300888)
The NBA playoff format is simple. Unless you are a "name" franchise, you don't have success in the playoffs.

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