Merits of Championships Part 3: MLB

One of many traits that make Major League Baseball unique among major sports in the U.S. is its unparalleled focus on the regular season. Only eight teams out of 30 make the postseason, namely 26.7% of the league. The NFL allows 37.5% of teams to go to the postseason, while the NBA and NHL allow over 50% of teams to go to the postseason. College football allows 57.1% of teams to go to the postseason, although only two teams get to play for the championship. Of course, in college football, what happens during the regular season doesn’t determine the championship game as much as a bunch of idiots, partisans, and a few analysts who have to compare teams with wildly imbalanced schedules think. College basketball, baseball, and hockey actually invite comparable percentages of teams to their tournaments, but in all three cases, many teams have virtually zero chance of making the NCAA tournament without winning their conference regardless of their record. So, basically, in baseball, the regular season is paramount.

Another important trait of Major League Baseball (unlike collegiate baseball) is the parity in the sport. Ignoring the MLS and other leagues that nobody cares about, MLB is arguably the league with the greatest parity in American sports. A top team will often win 60% of its games. A bottom team will win 40% of the time. Contrast this with the NFL, where we’ve seen teams go both undefeated and winless this year, or the NBA, where we have the Cavaliers and the Nets this year. Hockey at least has comparable parity, although statistically, baseball teams are more even.

Now, as Major League Baseball has a low percentage of teams making the postseason and a high degree of parity, three things are necessary to make a good championship system. The first is a large number of games in the regular season to differentiate teams. As each team plays 162 games, this criteria is met. The other is to ensure that the system for selecting playoff teams will take only the best teams. This is not the case by a long shot. The third is to make sure that the playoffs themselves are fair and award the most deserving team, while being entertaining. This is probably accomplished as best as is possible.

To start with the actual playoffs, the system is to have two best-of-five series for each league, then a best-of-seven series for the league championship, then the best-of-seven World Series between the American League and National League. This format is pretty good, as only playing a best-of-five in the division series keeps the playoffs shorter, which is important as overdrawn playoffs make attention from fans fall off. Meanwhile, a best-of-seven is probably the longest you can make a series in which fans will follow each game, so having best-of-seven series are acceptable for the later series. The only real criticism I have for how MLB runs the playoffs themselves is that the scheduling is irritating, as there are too many days off which draws out the playoffs unnecessarily and screws over teams that win in a sweep, as they sometimes have to wait a full week to play again. Even so, the playoffs themselves are generally as exciting as one can hope while working to fairly award a championship.

The problem with baseball is that undeserving teams often make it to the playoffs. This decade, in 2003 (Twins over Mariners), 2005 (Padres over Phillies, Mets, and Marlins), 2006 (Cardinals over Phillies), 2007 (Cubs over Mets), 2008 (Dodgers over Mets), and 2009 (Twins over Rangers), a division winner has gotten into the playoffs over a team or teams with better records. This is completely ridiculous. The whole point of the regular season is to separate teams from each other and then reward the best teams with postseason berths. Instead, we get a system where more deserving teams are routinely passed over for other teams based on little more than geography. The reason for this system is to try to get a nationwide audience for the MLB playoffs, rather than determine a legitimate champion.

Overall, the MLB playoffs aren’t that bad. Part of its problems is that it goes on at the same time as the NFL and college football seasons, and thus tries to schedule around major football games, in order to boost ratings. On the other hand, you can also say that the MLB playoffs value ratings disproportionately to crowning a champion fairly. Of course, most leagues do this, but MLB is arguably the most blatant offender in professional sports. These complaints are rather small, however, when you look at the BCS (and possibly the NCAA Basketball Tournament, should those who hate America expand it to 96 teams).

Part 1 and Part 2 for those interested.

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