May the best team lose: In the MLB postseason, it happens

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 15: San Diego Padres fans celebrate after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-3 in game four of the National League Division Series at PETCO Park on October 15, 2022 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 15: San Diego Padres fans celebrate after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-3 in game four of the National League Division Series at PETCO Park on October 15, 2022 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

Predictably, much of the baseball world is angst-ridden over the reality that the MLB postseason has, in their eyes, been marred by the victories of the Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres. Those two teams finished the regular season a combined 36 games behind the teams they just eliminated.

Gabe Lacques, a columnist writing Monday in USA Today, gave voice to these sentiments, which were especially noticeable in Los Angeles, where the 111-win Dodgers went down in four games to the Padres. You could also hear them in Atlanta, where the defending champion Braves lost in four to the Phillies.

“The presence of an 89- and 87-win team in the NLCS does not speak well for the concept that the best team will make off with a World Series championship,” Lacques wrote.

Yet as Lacques goes on to note, the concept that the MLB postseason in general and the World Series in particular is designed to identify the game’s best team is badly outdated.

That approach was replaced years ago by the transformation of the MLB postseason into a tournament which, like all tournaments, crowns a champion but not a superior team.

The basic issue is one that confronts every sport at both the professional and NCAA level. As you would suspect, the drivers are TV and money.

It is a given that the more teams make it to postseason, and the more postseason games there are, the more money TV pays in rights fees and the more money the sport makes. That’s why literally every professional and college championship that can be sold to TV has increased its postseason field over the years.

It is also a given that the more teams are allowed to compete for a championship, the less likely it is that the best team wins.

The following math only really holds for professional sports. But here’s the way it works.

In any match between two relatively balanced teams — which is to say between professional playoff teams — the “better” team will win about 55 percent of the time.

That 55 percent figure is a broad generalization, so it may not apply exactly in every matchup situation. During the 2022 regular season, the Houston Astros won 64 percent of their 55 games against other playoff teams. The Dodgers famously played .736 ball against the Padres in the regular season before losing three of four in October.

Still, the number is accurate as a generalization. If you take the four teams that received 2022 postseason byes (the Dodgers, Braves, Astros and Yankees), their combined regular season record against other postseason teams was 128-101, or .559.

If, then, you have a three-tiered playoff process, the odds of the “best” team surviving three rounds to win the World Series can be stated as about .55 x .55 x .55, or about 17 percent.

Add a fourth postseason tier, which both the NBA and NHL do, and the odds of the best team winning it all are .55 x .55 x.55 x .55, or about 9 percent.

The NFL (and this year MLB) use a hybrid that gives first-round byes to the best teams, so the exact number ends up being around 17 percent for the top teams and lesser fractions for the worst playoff teams. Still, the difference between having a 17 percent chance and a 9 percent chance is hardly Vegas-level certainty if we are talking about winning the Super Bowl or the World Series.

The bottom line is the more teams any professional league allows to compete for a championship, the more money it makes … and also the more it’s running a crapshoot.

In the real world, MLB’s postseason actually has a decent recent track record of having beaten the odds. Since the creation of the “wild card” in 1995 (that’s 27 postseasons ago, not counting the weird 2020 thing), six teams that finished with the best regular-season record went on to win the World Series.

Okay, five and one-half: The 2013 Red Sox tied for the best regular season record. The others were the 1998 Yankees, the 2007 Red Sox, the 2009 Yankees, the 2016 Cubs and the 2018 Red Sox. Still six out of 27 (eliminating 2020 and counting this season, with the elimination of the Dodgers) is 22 percent, which is better — although not by much – than 17 percent.

For those concerned about “inferior” playoff teams winning the World Series, the antidote is obvious: allow fewer teams to qualify for post-season. Eliminating the wild card round — which is to say reducing the playoff field to eight teams — would improve the likelihood of the best team emerging as champion, although statistically only to about 30 percent. That’s still well short of a good bet.

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The obvious tradeoff is the loss of huge amounts of TV money, which is why it will never happen. It’s also why those in mourning over the early playoff departures of “best” teams need to buck up and get over their angst.