MLB Playoffs: May the Luckiest Team Win


Author: Ian Boehme

The MLB playoffs are over. It is time for the “best” teams to battle it out to see who is crowned the world champion of baseball. It is unfortunate that the baseball season needs to come to this. After a 162-game season spanning seven months, a champion will be crowned after a maximum of 19 games.

More than anything else, the playoffs are about having a lot of luck and not necessarily a lot of skill. The manager of the Oakland Athletics Billy Beane was quoted in the book “Moneyball” as saying, “My job is getting us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.”

In the playoffs, all a team has to do in order to win a series is win three out of five games in the first round, and four out of seven thereafter. In a five or even seven game series, anything can happen.

Teams are prone to winning and losing streaks, that’s just part of the game. Though unlikely, the Kansas City Royals, baseball’s worst team by run differential standards, could beat the Dodgers, baseball’s best team by run differential standards, three times out of five.The Royals could start Zach Grienke, the best pitcher in baseball, two to three times, and the five-game series can easily shift in Kansas City’s favor.

However, over the course of a long season, talent separates the weak teams from the strong teams. Over a 162-game season, starting Zach Grienke two to three times a series is not sustainable, and the lack of bench talent on the Royals team keeps them out of the running. A five-game series is not enough to conclude that the best team won, and yet fans still believe that since a team won the World Series, it was clearly the best team in baseball that year.

Since the year 2000, there have been a total of 63 playoff series. If one were to define the team with the better win-loss record as the better team in any given series, one would find that since 2000, the “better” team has gone 29-34 in the playoffs.

If talent truly separates the strong from the weak, then the team with the best record should win every series. But because baseball relies on a five and seven game series to separate the winners from the losers, that is far from the case.

A better indicator of who is the stronger team overall is the team’s run differential. That is because a team that scores more and allows fewer runs will, on average, win more games than a team that scores fewer runs and allows more runs, but this does not always happen.

For example, in the 2009 regular season, the Yankees ended up with 103 wins, while the Dodgers ended up with 95. However, the difference between runs scored per game and runs allowed per game was the exact same: one. If one was to look at the 63 playoff series since 2000 and use run differential as the deciding factor of which team was better, one would find that the “better” team went 32-31 in the playoffs.

This is slightly better than going by simple wins and losses, but there is still no evidence that the playoffs are based on anything more than luck. Teams experience streaks, both good and bad, and their success in the playoffs is based on those streaks.

Billy Beane knows all about streaks. After all, his Oakland Athletics team won 20 straight games in 2002, a modern-day record. Billy Beane also knows all about playoff disappointments. His team lost in the opening round of the playoffs four straight times from 2000-2003. In every one of those series, the A’s had won more games in the regular season than their opponent.

In 2001, the A’s lost because Derek Jeter decided to be way out of position and save the series for the Yankees, who defeated the A’s in five games.

For four straight years the A’s were the better team, and lost in the playoffs. The talent was there, and more prevalent than in the opponents. They had home field advantage and probably a lot of steroids, thanks to Jason Giambi, and yet they still lost. They lost because of a combination of bad luck for them and good luck for their opponents.

Over a large enough sample size, the A’s would more than likely be proven to be the superior team in each of those series, but instead, they were defeated in the first round of the playoffs.

I do not know how to fix the playoffs, that is not the message I am trying to convey. I simply want people to understand that deciding who the best team in baseball is, or any sport for that matter, based on who comes out victorious in the playoffs, is stupid.

The luck factor just so happens to occur more in baseball because teams tend to go on miniature streaks more often than in other sports. Joe Girardi apologizes if his offense suddenly decides to go cold and the Yankees are defeated by the Angels, but it isn’t his fault, and it is just sad that managers can lose their job because their teams perform poorly in the playoffs.

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