MLB Playoffs Don’t Indicate The “Best” Team

Will Leitch on the baseball playoffs:

The fact is, people like me, the ones obsessed with “fairness” and “finding out who the right team is,” are impractical by nature. Deep down, we wouldn’t be satisfied unless the World Series ran 81 games and also somehow factored in farm system depth, stadium beer variety and front office purity of spirit.

Leitch and I are cut from the same mold in this regard. I am on record (on one of our first podcasts) talking about the difference between a “champion” and the “best team”. Playoffs are not designed properly to determine the “best team”. They are there to crown a champion.

It ends up mostly coming down to luck to a certain extent. Who is healthiest, who is hot at the time, who is better in a short series. Often times this doesn’t align with who most people would argue is the “best” team in a given season. The classic example of this is the 2007 New England Patriots. They won their first 18 games, by an average winning margin of 18 (!) points. Only 5 of the 18 wins were by less than 10. Ten of the other 13 wins were by at least three touchdowns. Then a miracle flukey last couple of plays in the Super Bowl cost them the trophy. The team that beat them, the New York Giants, went 10–6. They started the season 0–2, didn’t win their division, and lost to the Pats in the last week of the regular season. But because they won one specific game, they were the “champion”.

As Leitch points out, there is no practical solution. The playoffs can’t be 81 games. College basketball conferences award both a regular season champion and a tournament champion. That is about as close to a compromise as exists. They have the advantage of playing more a round-robin schedule than most sports though. If/until someone comes up with a better alternative though, there will frequently be a difference between the “best team” and the “champion”.