The Baseball Playoffs and the Randomness of it All
There’s not a dog day in summer that goes by in which somebody does not mention the fact that baseball is the only sport that deems going 3 for 10, or 30%, a success. That propensity for failure is what makes the sport so random, so unpredictable, and sometimes, so unfair.
But let’s take it beyond the .300 average that is deemed great. Let’s look at the end result. This past season, one of the best regular season teams of the past several years, was this year’s 2011 Philadelphia Phillies. They won 102 games, had a run differential 100 runs higher than any other team in the National League, and because of their league low ERA, they were the best road team in the Majors.
What did all of that buy them? A 63-point winning percentage.
Now, I don’t know where you went to school, but in most parts of the baseball viewing world, 63% is about as close to failing as you can get without actually flunking out. When you think about it, 63% really isn’t that far away from 50%. Who doesn’t like their chances of flipping a coin and getting 6 heads on 10 flips? Well, that’s essentially the equivalent of what the best baseball team in the majors did this season. In some schools, the grade-point average derived from a 63% success rate would get you suspended from the baseball team—kind of ironic, no?
Now let’s take a look at the other side of the coin—no pun intended.
The worst baseball team in the majors this year was Houston. The Astros won a paltry 56 games, which is historically bad. So, for both the sake of statistical relevancy and my argument, let’s take a look at the second worst team in baseball, the Minnesota Twins.
Destroyed by injuries and a catcher that just didn’t play up to his expectations, the Twins managed to win just 63 games in 2011. They were as horrible at home as they were on the road, and according to run differential, they actually were worse than the aforementioned Astros.
However, those 63 wins translate into a 39% winning percentage. That’s 24-percentage points less than that of the Philadelphia Phillies. While a 24-percentage point difference is considerable in many realms, it’s a weird differentiation in the vacuum of winning sports games, and even in winning baseball games.
In the NFL, if the Detroit Lions go on to win just 24% more of there games than the worst team in the league, an way too kind, hypothetical, undefeated Lions team would have 16 wins to the hypothetically worse Miami Dolphins, which would have a record of 12-4.
In the NBA, the Chicago Bulls won 62 games. If the worst team in the NBA were only 24-percentage points worse, they would win 42 games, which is typically good enough to make the playoffs—although, not in a scenario where they are the worst team in the league, obviously.
In baseball though, that’s the difference. A mere 24 percentage points separates the best team in baseball from the worst team in baseball, when defined by run differential. Based on those winning percentages, the Twins have 25% chance of winning a single game against the Phillies. While 1 in 4 isn’t great, it’s certainly worth a “gamble,” and far more likely to happen than the improbable or unbelievable scenarios we sometimes see in sports.
Let’s take that to the playoffs. In a five-game series, the Astros chances of winning are 30%. That means that nearly 1 in 3 times, the worst team in baseball could be expected to knock out the best team in baseball. And it’s stats like that which just make this whole damn sport a random crapshoot—excuse the redundancy.
So if the Twins have a 30% chance of winning a series against the Phillies, one can imagine what the chances were that the Cardinals would win this series before it started. Then you can surmise how likely it was that the Texas Rangers would beat the Tampa Bay Rays, or that the heavily favored New York Yankees would lose to the Detroit Tigers.
In a sport where the difference between the best team and worst team is a mere 24 percentage points thought, that’s what you get. You get randomness. Teams we think are really good, aren’t really that good in comparison, because the teams that are bad, aren’t that far behind them. If baseball were to let bad teams like the Twins, Pirates and Orioles in the playoffs, who knows how many upsets we would see? The damn randomness of it all could put the postseason in a tailspin, which is why opening MLB playoffs to more teams is a tad bit ridiculous.
Don’t confuse randomness for parity though. Parity is when the tables turn, teams get better, other teams get worse, and the odds of winning change. Because of its lack of a salary cap, baseball doesn’t have parity. Baseball clubs don’t bubble up all that often, and the best teams, the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Phillies and the Angels, are usually good year after year.
The reason baseball has had so many different champions in comparison to the other sports is that when a team gets into the playoffs; its chances of winning a single series are much higher than we inherently give that team credit for. Nobody should be surprised by the Twins beating the Phillies in the first round of the postseason, because as I mentioned, there’s a 30% chance of that happening. Being surprised by that is like dropping your draw when Michael Jordan makes a three-pointer—it’s really not all that surprising!
The randomness of the baseball postseason is what it is. It makes for great television, and we can shoot down the big dogs an awful lot. Fact is that when it comes to baseball, there are no guarantees. For a sport full of stats, analysis and projections, all it really amounts to in strategy is calling a bluff or not calling a bluff in poker. It’s random, managers are guessing, and the whole damn thing can change with a whim. It’s why we love it, and it’s probably why purists don’t want teams like the Twins getting an extra shot at making the playoffs.
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