The Utter Audacity of Major League Baseball's Five Game Series

Let me preface by saying that yes, there are some sour grapes involved in this post, as my beloved Cubs squandered their best season of my lifetime as they rolled over and died, swept away by the Dodgers in three quick games. Also, before I even begin this argument, I have to admit that they almost certainly would have lost anyway had the series been seven games, but bear with me here. (However, one has to admit that being down 2-0 in a five game series puts a team in a totally different mindset than being down 2-0 in a seven game series does. It really isn’t even in the same conversation. But I digress…)

The ALCS and NLCS are now set, and neither of the teams boasting the best regular season record in their respective leagues will be playing. Does this strike anyone besides me as somewhat ridiculous? I mean upsets are upsets, but isn’t the regular season supposed have some kind of meaning? In a game like baseball, where so many possible combinations of events can occur, repetition is everything. That’s the reason that they play a 162 game season in the first place. Playing a five game series after such a long season seems contradictory to the very nature of the sport. As meaningless as the NBA has become, at least they’ve managed to get this part right, and they only play half as many games in the regular season in a sport where repetition is not nearly as important. To put that into perspective, let’s look at the relative lengths of the first rounds of some major sports:

  • NFL Football: 1 game decides winner/ 16 game season = 6.25% (repetition far less important)
  • NBA Basketball: 7 games decide winner/ 82 game season= 8.5% (repetition slightly less important)
  • College Basketball: 1 game decides winner/ 30 game season= 3.3% (and remember that the higher seeded teams are hugely rewarded in the first round and play much weaker opponents)
  • Major League Baseball: 5 games decide winner/ 162 game season= 3.0% (and the opponent is likely quite good)

I’m a numbers guy. I make decisions based on mathematical information on a daily basis for a living, so I have a lot of trouble understanding the logic of this system. The entire point of seeding teams is to maximize certainty of the most likely outcome; that is, to reward to favorite over the underdog. This is why in the NCAA basketball tournament, the #16 seed is forced to play the #1 seed in the first round, then the #1 seed plays the winner of the #8 and #9 game, and so on. Making the first round series shorter than the later rounds does the opposite- it gives the underdog a decisive advantage, especially in a sport where repetition is so important to ensure the proper outcome. That is not to say that upsets aren’t a positive aspect of all of sports, but put simply, the worst team in the league has a better chance at beating the best team in the league in a five game series than it does in a seven game series. I’m sure everyone can agree with that, and anyone who doesn’t agree knows nothing about math and probability!

So, given that mathematical fact, I don’t understand why the same logic isn’t applied for the teams who played better in the regular season. Playing 162 games only to have a measly five more determine the ultimate fates of eight teams defies logic, and essentially negates the importance of the regular season. If the argument for adding the wild card format was to add excitement and interest to the sport, you can’t convince me that Major League Baseball is concerned about ratings. And adding two extra games takes less effort in baseball than in any other sport. Why not just start watching in October, since nothing that occurs before then makes any difference? Or invite every team with over a .500 record to the playoffs like the NBA does? Where exactly is the line where the math ceases to make any sense if we haven’t crossed it already?

While I admit that I much preferred the old system in which there were two divisions in each league, and those division champions would meet for the league title, I recognize that the wild card has added excitement to the game, and keeps the season exciting until the last day for many teams that would have otherwise been eliminated weeks earlier. But for crying out loud, the Cardinals won the World Series two years ago with a record of 83-78! The Colorado Rockies made the World Series last season! The Florida Marlins have won two World Series as the wild card team! And now, the two teams that were head and shoulders above everyone (except for maybe Tampa Bay) all season are gone by a combined 6-1 outcome. And again, no one is saying that upsets shouldn’t happen, but expanding the first round to seven games would add fairness to the playoff format, cut down on these consistent outlier results and, most importantly, uphold the integrity of the regular season. The problem lies less with the eight team format than it does with the silliness of the five game opening round. This needs to be changed, and soon.

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