Sunday, October 19, 2014

Royals, Giants, and the Randomness of Baseball’s Postseason

Baseball manager Billy Beane was quoted in ‘Moneyball’ as saying ‘My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is [Beane expletive] luck.’ During this October’s entertaining, but somewhat unusual, Major League Baseball postseason I have often thought about that quote.

The teams with the best record in each league, Washington and the LA Angels, could not even make it to the league championship series. LA Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, one of the favourites for the National League Most Valuable Player award, went 0-2 in his only two starts. The St Louis Cardinals, last in the league in home runs, suddenly started smacking them out of the ballpark at a furious rate. And the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants, two teams that made the playoffs on ‘wildcards’, and won 55 per cent of their games during the regular season, are contesting the World Series.

Baseball almost rivals association football/soccer for the extent to which the favourite does not win. (Chris Anderson and David Sally in ‘The Numbers Game’ found that favourites win about 60 per cent of the time in baseball, compared to two-thirds of the time in basketball and American football, and just over half the time in association football.) But in football, the league champion is determined by each team playing 30-40 games, with no playoffs. In baseball, there is a regular season of each team playing 162 games, which determines who qualifies for the playoffs. But then the number of games each team plays to determine the champion is relatively tiny: no team plays more than 20 games, and four teams play no more than six games. With this in mind, you can see where Beane is coming from.

Playoff series are not that good at determining which is the ‘best’ team; if one team has a 55 per cent chance of winning, you would need a 269 game series to ensure that the stronger team won the series 95 per cent of the time. Football, probably unintentionally, has got around that problem by not having playoffs at all. However the World Series is, with the Super Bowl, the biggest playoff institution in American sports, so it is almost certain that Major League Baseball would not abandon it. And plus, the World Series is fun – few baseball fans would be turned off by the prospect of the Royals and Giants slugging it out for seven games. But for those trying their best to succeed, and who then have to weather the criticism following a playoff loss, you could see why the postseason would be a frustrating time indeed.

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