Does the Better Team Win in Baseball's Postseason?

Over the course of the 162 game baseball season of 2014, four teams won 94 or more games. Today as four teams remain in baseball's postseason tournament, only one of those teams is still playing. The Washington Nationals led the NL with 96 wins; the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim led the AL with 98 wins, but neither team made it out of the first round of the playoffs. Both teams were defeated in the LDS by teams that did not muster even 90 wins.

For some this reflects the excitement and dynamism of the postseason, but for others it is in indication that the postseason, as it is now structured, does not reward the best teams. This view was expressed well by Zachary Levine, one of the smarter baseball analysts around, in his recent comments about the legacy of Bud Selig, who will retire as MLB's commissioner in a few weeks. "Selig's tenure saw the expansion to six divisions...subpar division winners, the addition of a wild card, the reintroduction of the five-game series, the unbalancing of the schedule and the invention of interleague play with different opponents. These all serve to create randomness and decrease the chances of better teams advancing."

That there is a disconnect between being the best team in the regular season and the best team in the postseason is difficult to deny, but the implication that the regular season is the prima facie arbiter of what makes one team better than the other should be questioned. To look at a recent example, it is possible that the San Francisco Giants just defeated the Washington Nationals in the NLDS because they got a few lucky breaks and that over the course of say 100 games, Washington would have won more than San Francisco.

The problem with this analysis is that all the teams know the rules before the season starts. Every team know that they not only have to win 90 or more games in the regular season, or in some cases 88 games, but they also have to prevail in series of one five and seven games. Teams know that in the regular season they will usually get one day off a weak, but in the postseason will get much more rest. The teams that win the World Series are those that are able to win in all these different environments. Perhaps that is a better measure of a team.

If a team that is built for a 162 game season, where things like your fifth starter and your backup catcher matter a lot, cannot translate that to winning a five game series, that is a failure of the team's management, not just a quirk of luck. The rules may mean that it takes a different kind of team to win in the postseason than in the regular season, but to interpret that as meaning that the better teams too frequently don't win in the postseason is not accurate. The postseason is like the electoral college. It may not seem fair in some abstract way, but everybody knows the rules in advance and should plan accordingly.

The wild card, and the expanded wild card, are not going away anytime soon. This, as Levine points out, is a financial decision that may be bad for the Platonic ideal of big league baseball, but not a lot can be done about that. There are, however, some minor changes that might eliminate some of the randomness and make postseason baseball look more like regular season baseball.

First, teams could be required to make a postseason roster for the entire postseason, rather than adjust the roster after every series or play-in game. Exceptions could be made for legitimate injuries and structures could be put in place to oversee that. This would make it tougher for teams to create special rosters for the one game play-in or to craft a roster for a specific opponent. It would also mean that teams would almost always decide to play it safe and carry five starters for the whole postseason.

Second, the postseason schedule could be further condensed making fifth starters more relevant in the postseason. For example, both leagues would play the play-in game on the Tuesday after the regular season ends. Additionally, if the LDS was always played in no more than six days it would make it harder to depend on a few top starters. This could be done by changing the format to two home games for one team followed by three by the other, thus eliminating the second travel day necessitated by the current two-two-one format.

These proposals would not eliminate the issue of randomness having a larger impact in a short series, but luck has always been part of the game and part of how champions are made. Baseball history is filled with a lucky bounce here, a mental mistake there, a previously unknown player getting hot at the right time or a star being unable to deliver. Things like that may be a matter of luck but they are also, in many respects, the soul of the game. Baseball will never eliminate randomness; and it would be a much less enjoyable pastime if it did.