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.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.