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The importance of being Effectively Wilde

by on May 3, 2013

[I realize I buried the lead because I’m terrible at writing; this post is about how to fix the baseball playoffs MAYBE – DM]

So I listen to a lot of podcasts. More specifically I usually listen to Effectively Wild, Ben Lindbergh & Sam Miller’s daily podcast for Baseball Prospectus. It’s a very enjoyable, informative, and brief podcast, and I highly recommend it. Today, for instance, they touched on several obsessions of mine, both personal (the unpredictability of bullpens, BABIP, Russell Martin’s approach to catching) and professional (survey methodology).

But that’s not why I’m writing about it now. See, I had missed yesterday’s episode, and was pleased to find, upon catching up this morning, that they had discussed Joe Posnanski’s piece that I was going on about. I was slightly (only slightly!) less pleased that Miller and Lindbergh more or less pooh-poohed the idea, and (like everybody else) failed to draw the obvious parallel with the NHL’s President’s Trophy, but I was intrigued by a particular bit at the end of their discussion. It went like this:

At one point, Miller rebuts Posnanski’s suggestion that crowning a champion based on a long season rather than a short playoff “mirrors life” insofar as it rewards hard work over luck. Of course Miller is entirely correct that luck has an underappreciated effect on outcomes in life (this is where I refrain from an extended riff on the topic because that can only lead us into the political weeds and probably alienate all four or five of our readers). But Lindbergh points out the problem that Posnanski alludes to but doesn’t spell out: that the MLB playoffs are not so much a poor mirror of life, but a poor mirror of baseball. Specifically, that the regular season rewards teams that maintain deep pitching rotations, while the playoffs reward teams with front-loaded rotations.

This got me thinking. Other sports have playoffs that do mirror the regular season reasonably well. Sure, there are no shootouts (thank god) in the NHL playoffs, or ties (of course) in the NFL playoffs, but the NHL and NBA generally feature one- or two-day rest between playoff games, similar to the regular season rhythms of those leagues. The NFL plays once a week, exactly as the season is constructed. But the MLB playoffs feature far more off-days than the regular season does. And given the rest requirements of starting pitchers, and the outsize influence of those pitchers on the outcomes of the games, this change in rest patterns has much more potentially-asymmetric effects than any similar change I can imagine in the scheduling of other sports’ playoffs.

So I think the question is how could the baseball playoffs better mirror the regular season?

I’ve got two ideas:

1. Just get rid of the off-days. This seems pretty obvious. This even solves the problem of having games in November (not that that’s a real problem). Of course, eliminating the bulk of the off-days means either having more day games (fine! do it!) or having more games overlap (boo! this already happens too often!). Bud Selig clearly doesn’t want either of those things, but you know what? This isn’t a discussion of what Bud Selig wants, it’s a discussion of what would make baseball better. But if we want to get really crazy…

2. Round-robin tournament! I haven’t given a ton of thought to the actual setup of this one, but I imagine something similar to (but longer than) the WBC, with a four-team round-robin for each league, each producing the league champion. You could even keep the Wild Card play-in game just to set the WC teams at a slight disadvantage. I’m tempted to say this could keep us out of those weird situations where one LCS ends in a four-game sweep, leaving one team cooling its heels for a week and a half (like the 2012 Tigers) waiting for the other league champion. But I suspect that any workable round-robin situation would come with the potential for a dominant team to clinch early and create the same situation. And anyway that’s a phenomenon that exists in the NHL and NBA too, and it’s probably not avoidable (nor obvious that it even should be avoided).

But never mind me, this is all just crazy talk while I try not to think about today’s Cubs game.

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