Postseason Versus Regular Season Baseball

October 3, 2019

No professional sports league in America plays as many games in the regular season as major league baseball to decide which teams get entered into post-season play to decide the year’s championship. This is done for the simple reason that the margin between victory and defeat in any game of baseball is comparatively small. It takes a lot of observations to sort out a representative ordering of teams from best to worst. A team that wins at least 100 games is considered elite. In four of the five seasons from 2010 through 2014, for example, no teams in either the National or American leagues won as many as 100 games. Likewise, very view teams go through a season losing more than 100 games, or conversely, winning fewer than 60 games. For almost all teams, good or bad, at least 60 games are going to be won, and at least 60 games will be lost. So out of the 162 games that make up the whole season, the difference between the best and the worst boils down to what happens in the club’s remaining 42 games.

One intuitively might expect a team that has one more games in the regular season than any other to have an odds-on bet of being the last club standing in post-season playoffs. Until 1968, post-season baseball consisted of a single series between the teams with the best regular season record from the National and American Leagues. An extra layer of playoffs was introduced in 1969, and the inclusion of wild card teams in 1995 expanded the number of entrants, which now includes five teams from each league or a total of ten.

Would you believe that the winner of only 12 of the 49 World Series played since 1969 was also the team that had won the most games during that year’s regular season? In ten of the years when a team without the best regular season record persevered to be named champion, it won at least ten fewer games during the regular season than some other team. The widest margin occurred in 2001 when the Arizona Diamondbacks won the world series after winning just 92 games in the regular season. That same year, the Seattle Mariners won 116 regular season games. None of the dynastic Oakland A’s squads that won three straight World Series in 1972-1974 had been the same team that won the most in the regular season. And over the past twenty years, the success rate has diminished somewhat further of teams winning the most regular season games going on to win the World Series. That’s happened only four times: 2007, 2013, 2016 and 2018.

Several factors seem to account for the discrepancy between regular season and postseason results. The regular season is a marathon stretching over six months. Almost no games are do-or-die, and organizational depth is very important in prevailing in what can be a war of attrition. The post-season, by contrast, consists of a series of short races with practically no margin for error. Yet like in the regular season, each team’s most influential player, the pitcher, is changed each game. For another thing, baseball results tend to be streaky. Over 162 games, teams run hot or cold at different times. A cold spell isn’t catastrophic because there’s time to make up ground with a hot streak down the road. Being hot in the playoffs bestows a team with a great advantage. Also, since there’s so little room for error in postseason, teams are often managed differently in those games from the regular season. This introduces uncertainty into the outcome.

A final plausible explanation for the variance between ultimate success in the regular season versus the postseason would seem to be the need to overcome a series of short tests against different opponents. If each playoff series is considered a single observation, a wild card team in the current format must prevail three straight times. It is easier to get a “heads” with a single flip of the coin than to get three heads in a row. It so happens that in the 65 years in which postseason play simply pitted the teams that won the most games in the American and National League with the first team to win a prescribed number of games (usually four) being awarded the championship, the team with the best regular season won the World Series 33 times, and in four other years the championship team won exactly the same number of regular season games as did its opponent.

Copyright 2019, Larry Greenberg. All rights reserved. No secondary distribution without express permission.

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