Competitive Balance

Dave Pinto at the indispensable Baseball Musings writes about competitive balance in baseball here. This reminded me of a post at my old blog. I don't know how many baseball fans hang around Catallarchy, but I'll reprint it here for any thoughts:


Last week, Rob Neyer wrote that the "problem" of competitive balance may not be such a problem after all:

If by "competitive balance" we mean that a significant number of teams have a fighting chance to win the World Series, then we're probably at an all-time high. In any given season since 1994, roughly four out of every 10 teams finished the schedule within five games of either a division title or the wild card, and that's a lot of teams.

And yet, the Commissioner continues to prattle on about "competitive balance" and, even more cloyingly, "hope and faith." Well, he and his fellow owners solved the "problem" 10 years ago when they created two new divisions and four new postseason berths. In the face of the evidence I've presented above, I'm led to one of two conclusions: that the Commissioner won't be happy until 1) MLB is like the NHL and the NBA, with more than half the teams not only having the chance to make the playoffs, but actually making the playoffs, or 2) the Commissioner's own team, which hasn't played a postseason game since 1982, actually makes the playoffs.

Then again, maybe those two things are one and the same. All I know is that among all the other things that make this the greatest time to be a baseball fan, is the fact that most baseball fans this winter could reasonably harbor high hopes for their team in 2004. Almost everybody is happy, or will be soon.

When developing playoff formats, there is a trade-off that is difficult to get around. You try to accomplish two goals, but they are often at odds with each other:

  • You want the best teams to win the playoffs. This makes the regular season actually mean something and it celebrates excellence. The less teams in the playoffs, the greater the chances of this occurring.

  • You want to create the most interest among the highest number of fans and you want to give teams the incentive to compete their hardest throughout the year. The more teams in the playoffs, the greater the chances of this occurring.

Baseball has traditionally traded the second for the first (unlike the other team sports), because in baseball there is the least distribution of winning percentage. If you allowed all baseball teams in to a postseason tournament, there is an unacceptable chance that an average team would come out on top and the best team would not. In all other sports, half the teams are in the playoffs, yet the best team seems to win a good portion of the time. They have managed the trade-off well.

Well, I think there is a way to manage this trade-off in baseball, still give the best teams the best chance of winning, and include all, yes - all, teams into the playoffs. Here's how it works:

  • First, let's assume two teams are added, or expanded (even though this is not necessary, it just makes the model easier to describe.)

  • Seed the teams in each league 1 through 16 (however you choose to do so - by record, weighted to division standing, etc.).
  • This would give five rounds of playoffs. All rounds would be best-of-seven.
  • In the first round, the highest seeded team gets a 3-game advantage, starting the series leading 3-0.
  • In the second round, the higher seed would get a 2-0 advantage.
  • In the third round (of eight) the higher seed would start 1-0.
  • In the league championship series and World Series, series' would be best-of-seven with no advantage.
  • Of course, this would require shortening of the season, but not by as much as you would think. If earlier rounds are played without a lot of days off, this would make up for the revenue of games lost during the season.
  • If the number of teams are kept at 30, then the top seeds could get a first-round bye.

This system most certainly would never happen, but it has certain advantages:

  • It gives every team a legitimate shot every year.

  • If the worst team happened to beat the best team, it would be against such long odds that it would not harm the integrity of the playoffs.
  • This system is stacked in favor of the 4 best teams in any given year (actually this is more so than exists know, where the 7th or 8th best teams have taken advantage of short series' to win the World Series without much advantage being given to the better teams over the course of the season - home field advantage doesn't mean much in baseball)
  • Imagine the competition for the middle seeds, where the winner gets a 3-game advantage over the loser.

Any thoughts?

I just realized that this may bring to a halt all the trading that goes on in season (especially at the trading deadline). Is this necessarily a bad thing? Does it actually add integrity to the regular season.

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