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Friday, October 13, 2023

Creating a better baseball post-season

A break in a bad week for some sports frivolity:

Baseball's LCSs are set--the 90-win Astros against the 90-win against the 90-win Rangers in the AL, the 90-win Phillies against the 84-win Diamondbacks in the NL. Five teams won more than 90 games this year (Braves, Orioles, Dodgers, Rays, Brewers); all are out. The Astros are the sole remaining division winner (they tied with the Rangers and were named division winner based on head-to-head record, baseball having eliminated one-game playoffs). They are the sole remaining team that received a first-round bye. And none of the division series went the full five games; two (Diamondbacks and Rangers) swept teams that won at least ten more games during the regular season.

Since introducing non-division winners into the post-season in 1995, baseball has struggled to calibrate its system to serve multiple needs--create late-season excitement, give multiple teams hope, incentivize and reward regular-season success, and create a a format that identifies the "best" team of a given season. Baseball's uniqueness creates some issues. It has the longest regular season, producing a sufficiently large sample size to separate teams by quality. At the same time, the best teams lose 40 % of their games and probably lose three in a row, or 3-out-of-5 or 4-out-0f-7 at some point (maybe several points) in the six-month season. That means any team can win a short series and upsets become more likely. (A play-off series accurately reflecting the regular season would be best-of-75).  And at least this year, it appears the first-round bye--the sole reward for winning a division and having one of the two best records in the league--cooled good teams off rather than giving them beneficial rest (the Braves, who had one of the best offenses in baseball history, scored 8 runs in four games).* Meanwhile, teams that played in the first round got hot.

We are in the early days of the latest format, so it will take time to see how this system performs over several years. Meanwhile, my baseball research side wants to go through results back to 1903 to see how often the post-season winner reflected the regular season and how much that has changed through various post-season iterations.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 13, 2023 at 07:38 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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