In Defense of Expanding the Playoffs

This morning, Craig Calcaterra pointed me to an article by Jeff Passan, who argues against expanding MLB’s playoffs to include two more teams.

Passan seems most upset that the Commissioner, owners, and players are united in support of the expansion due to their financial interests. More playoffs mean more dollars, which will be spread amongst them. I have trouble finding fault with this motivation. After all, I’m an economist, I’ve been repeating Adam Smith’s famous words to students for years.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

Of course, Selig and friends want more money. The way they get it is by making fans happy by giving fans the baseball they want. If more playoffs result in more happiness, then revenue will go up. I think this is a good thing. Now, some fans may be made less happy, but overall we’re happier with more baseball. It’s not baseball versus the dollar.

Passan is also concerned that expanding the playoffs will dilute the sanctity of the regular season. (I’ve also heard this argument used to support the BCS format in college football, and I can’t help but point out that Passan co-wrote the book Death to the BCS.) For example, it could affect the playoff races in new ways.

Imagine the following: The Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees enter the season’s last week with 95 wins apiece. The Boston Red Sox, with 90 wins, hold a comfortable lead for the second wild-card spot, and Minnesota and Texas, each with 90 wins, have wrapped up their divisions. Suddenly, the only teams playing for something in that last week are the two best in the league. They will do everything they can to avoid a wild-card spot despite having clinched playoff spots already. Empty their rotations. Play full bore. A five-game series in the first round is already a crapshoot. A three-game series would be a complete toss-up.

Let’s say the Yankees win the AL East. The Rays exhausted their pitching staff while a team they were five games better than during the regular season – the six-month-long, 162-game regular season – was able to set up its rotation and rest its players.

And that’s fair how, exactly?

But, the situation is not just one-sided. What if all the division titles have been decided? Then potential Wild Card teams have little to play for. I know that the last two weeks of Braves baseball this year would have been quite dull after falling out of contention for the NL East. Picking my daughter up from school to drive her straight to Turner Field to watch a de facto exhibition game wouldn’t have been as exciting joining the cheers of a playoff race that we got to see. I’m actually more intrigued by the fact that already clinching teams will be playing real baseball down the stretch, as they should.

I also like having more playoffs. It’s more baseball for me to watch, and it provides additional opportunities for more teams to get a taste of the playoffs. For all the concern over the financial determinism of the big-market teams holding an unfair advantage, lowering the bar for entrance into the playoffs allows small-market teams an opportunity to feel the excitement of playoff baseball, and compete on a level where they can rise up over high-payroll Goliaths. The regular season tells us whom the best teams are, the playoffs are about something else, something else that is good. Here is an excerpt on the playoffs from my new book.

While it is common to judge teams by their post-season success, the performance over five-game and two seven-game series tells us less about the quality of a team than a 162-game season. The laws of probability allow plenty of room for the best not to rise to the top in the current playoff format. For example, assume there is a series between two unevenly-talented teams, and the superior team has a 55-percent probability of winning any game against the inferior opponent. In a best-of-seven contest the inferior team would still be expected to emerge as the champion 40 percent of the time. It would take 23 games for the inferior team to have less than a 5-percent chance of winning more games than the superior team.1 Statisticians Jim Albert and Jay Bennett estimate that the best team in the league has a 75-percent chance of making the playoffs, but only a 21-percent chance of wining the World Series.

The short-series playoff format is an institution that fuels the uncertainty of competition, which breeds interest and excitement in the sport. High-payroll clubs like the Yankees do have an advantage over those with low budgets, but the disparity is one that is frequently overcome with the help good management and chance. You have to be good enough to get to the playoffs, but once you get there, the playoff format gives every team a decent chance of winning. Even though the Yankees can build the best team in baseball, it does not guarantee a World Series victory. Despite wining an average of 96.5 games per season from 2000 to 2010, the team captured only two World Series.

As a side note, the post-season performance column of Table 6.1 reveals another fact about the recent competitiveness in the league. 23 different teams made the playoffs during these seasons—that’s three-fourths of the league! That so many teams have played beyond the regular season over such a short period of time indicates that the league is meeting the competitive balance standard laid out by Commissioner Bud Selig’s Blue Ribbon Panel: “every well-run club has a regularly recurring reasonable hope of reaching postseason play.” (p. 125, Hot Stove Economics)

And though I favor expanding the playoffs, I don’t think we should expand them forever. There are diminishing returns to adding teams. If we let everyone in, the regular season will lose it’s luster. Going from eight to ten teams doesn’t bother me. Some playoff races may disappear, but others will rise up. Only good teams will make the playoffs, but teams at a financial disadvantage have more opportunities to experience playoff baseball. In the end, it’s a subjective argument. If you want to go back to NL and AL champions determined solely by records, I have no problem with that. But, I disagree with you, and I think there is a good argument to be made for expanding the playoffs.

9 Responses “In Defense of Expanding the Playoffs”

  1. Ken Houghton says:

    Welcome to hockey. Looking at “1/3 of the teams make the playoffs” and you better have fan loyalty or there will be a lot of empty seats in midsummer. (Which doesn’t matter, since both leagues report tickets sold and the networks make most of their revenue from playoffs–do the players really want to play five or seven more games, every year, in colder weather? Not so much as the networks want to broadcast those games–revealed preference for money doesn’t mean its the primary motivator, just relatively better.)

    It will make the stadia emptier on balance, with some owners blaming the facility instead of the decreased marginal value of the product. As a fan–and especially as a fan currently paying for two or three stadia–I should oppose expanding the playoffs on economic grounds, since the most likely endgame is more money going into Jeff Luria’s pocket and being taken from our Florida relatives.

    The specific argument that “going from eight to ten teams” leads to NBA/NHL reasoning. And no one will study the decline in actual attendance because it was hidden as soon as the American League stopped using gate receipts to measure actual interest, or at least when the National League followed.

    They should just move to smaller stadia and admit that they are a television product, like WWE or the NFL, but with lower-quality announcers. Then live attendance becomes the Luxury Good they are trying to promote it as.

  2. Greg says:

    Of course, expanding the playoffs only works to a point. The NBA has had 16 teams in the playoffs since 1984, and I’ve often heard people cite this as a reason why they ignore the regular season. There’s not much chance, for instance, that the Lakers will miss the playoffs.

    Anxiously awaiting the Kindle version of your book,


  3. Charles from Macon says:

    As a result of this post (and Pinto at baseballmusings)Dr. B got me to read his column for the first time in years.
    It seems that the gist of the Passan arguement is, “Selig wants to expand the playoffs to get rich(er) therefore expanded playoffs are not a good idea.”

    The Yankees-Rays-Red Sox example is an interesting issue but I can’t imagine it detracting from the regular season. In fact it might make those last few days of the regular season even more interesting in seeing how the managers decide to play them out.

    I think Passan makes a very poor case here. Maybe he should try this:

    Jeff Passan doesn’t like Bud Selig therefore Division I-A football should have a playoff.

  4. John Wright says:

    I think I agree with JC here.

    From a competition/fairness standpoint, I like the incentives that five playoff teams would offer:

    1. There is a reward for winning the division, because you don’t have to play an extra series that is essentially a toss-up. (Effectively, the 4th place team has its WS-winning chances cut in half, compared to the current system, if all teams are equal). Thus, series like the Yanks-Rays series at the end of 2010 become far more important, and that just intuitively makes sense.

    2. If the scheduling is right, there is a playoff reward for finishing with the best league record, because you face the presumably depleted winner of the WC series, rather than a team that has had a few extra days off. (I actually prefer a one-game WC series for this reason, but I realize there’s probably not much support for that.)

    Otherwise, the incentives are basically the same for teams from a competition standpoint. Sure, you get the cherry-picked scenario Passan mentions, where the 2nd best non-division-winner has a big lead over 3rd, and thus not much to play for down the stretch. But, you’d still rather win the division and not have one extra chance to get eliminated in a very short series. To me, the benefits (again just from a competition standpoint) outweigh the costs.

    Maybe there’s a legitimate worry that this is a slippery slope to becoming more like the NBA/NHL (I don’t mind the NFL so much). I don’t know, but I think five sounds about right. You still have to be good to be the second-best WC team.

    I also like the idea that the regular season and playoffs are somewhat independent and can be appreciated separately. The Yankees and Rays were clearly the best AL teams this year, and probably the best in baseball, and the fact that the Rangers won the AL and the Giants won the World Series shouldn’t take away from that.

  5. Paul says:

    I’m not sure why the professional leagues continue to seed division winners higher against non-division winners with better records. I think winning your division should guarantee you nothing more than a spot in the playoffs. No home games, no homes series, nada. Reward the better teams in more competitive divisions. It won’t be long before you have an NFL team with 8 or 9 losses hosting a 3 or 4 loss team in the wildcard…and for some reason we reward the team in the weaker division? Under the new format it will get worse in baseball as your hypothetical situation shows…which is not that hypothetical. It takes many more wins to win the AL East every year than the AL Central. Speaking of which, I’d like to see some analysis on the average wins it takes to win a division since we went to 6 divisions and 30 teams (1998?).

  6. David says:

    Really this expansion reminds me more of the a lot more of the 64th and 65th teams in the NCAA tourney, who ultimately play for the chance to be a 16 seed and lose in the first round to a Goliath team, except that there is less dominance in baseball than basketball Look at how the (then Vancouver) Grizzlies went 29-135 in 1995-1996 and 1996-1997, when the Bulls in in the same period went 141-23. The worst 2 year run was the Dallas Mavericks, who went 21-143 for the 1992-1993 and 1993-1994 seasons combined. By comparison, the worst MLB season of the 162 game season era was the 1962 Mets who went 40-120, and the worst of teams that actually played 162 games was the Detroit Tigers at 43-119, and the best 162 game record in MLB history was the Mariners in 2001 going 116-46. No MLB team has won 120 games out of 162, but more than 40 NBA teams have won more than 60 games out of 82, and I’ll leave it to others to determine how many times a team has won 120 games over 2 consecutive seasons.

    The biggest problem with MLB’s current playoff system is that being in a weaker division helps too much. In the NL in the last decade, these teams with these win totals have gotten playoff spots:
    2008: Dodgers 84
    2007: Cubs 85
    2006: Cards 83
    2005: Padres 82

    What I see as the logical result of this, though is that after it is implemented, there will be two more teams added so that the weakest division winner has to play a 3 game round, giving a bye to the top 2 division winners, and that might be optimal. If you give a bye only to the best record in the league, though, you’re probably more likely (with 7 teams from each league) to be adding a worse team to the playoffs, where as expanding to 10 or even 12 teams can add teams that are better than the worst division winner.

  7. Ron says:

    Why do 2nd place non-wild card teams get playoff shares? I figured if anyone would know, it’d be you.

    Also I support the second wild card in each league for many of the reasons you outline and one of the arguments I’ve made is precisely that we already pay second place teams that don’t make the post-season, so why not have two of them play for it anyway while increasing the pot for everyone?

    We’re not in the 1940s anymore and baseball can’t ignore the reality. Two more teams is good business and good for baseball.

  8. Marc Schneider says:

    I agree with Paul entirely. IN a lot of cases, the wild card teams are better than the division champions. Why should a team with 95 wins (baseball) be seeded lower than and 83 win division “champion”?

    Baseball is a lot different than the other sports, as David points out. Weak teams in basketball are highly unlikely to get far in the playoffs so it doesn’t really make much difference how many teams there are in the playoffs–there are, at best, 3 or 4 teams with really legitimate shots at winning the NBA title. The NFL isn’t quite as skewed, but, so far, no 8-8 team has done much in the playoffs IIRC, although some 9-7 teams (equivalent, however, to 91 wins in baseball) have gone to the Super Bowl.

    Personally, I don’t really like the idea of teams struggling most of the year and getting hot around playoff time and bouncing teams that have had excellent seasons. This happened to the Braves a number of times in the 90s. But, clearly people differ on this, as JC apparently likes it. ON the other hand, without the wildcard in baseball, you would have a much more hierarchical set up; as it is, the Yankees don’t have much more of a chance of winning the World Series than the Giants.

    It doesn’t bother me that MLB wants to make money; it seems strange that, in a country where people who advocate any kind of non-market solutions are derided as “socialists”, we would complain about owners trying to make money. But the problem is that their efforts to make money lead to less pleasant experiences for many fans–WS games in November, publically financed stadiums, 8 dollar beers, etc. (By the way, while Adam Smith did defend the market he was not a market fundamentalist; he believed that government had a role to play in helping people.)


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