Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bigger the Better

My editor, the Twins Geek, ponders the value of the postseason:

I myself have spit out similar thoughts often [that the MLB postseason is a crapshoot compared to the 162-game regular season], especially given the Twins postseason futility. But this time I was suddenly struck by something. Namely, that nobody other than baseball fans ever say this.

For instance, the Spurs record last year was much worse than the Mavericks, but the Spurs won the NBA championship, the Mavs went home early, and nobody doubts who was the better team. (Though, I'll admit, Phoenix was a different story.) In the NFL, if a 12-4 team beats a 14-2 team in the Super Bowl – a single game - nobody tries to claim the 12-4 team was better. And when Anaheim marched through the Stanley Cup playoffs last year, they were acclaimed by all sides as a clearly superior team to emulate, despite having the third most points in the regular season.

With respect to the NFL, in addition to their 16 game schedule, don't forget about their scheduling for parity. Baseball's unbalanced schedule and differing interleague matchups aren't nearly as bad. It's entirely possible that the 12-4 team is just as good as the 14-2 team. Just the fact that a team can go 12-4 in a league with as much artificial parity as the NFL should tip you off--that's a .750 winning percentage.

A baseball team with a .750 winning percentage would win 121.5 games and shatter the 116-46 record tied by the 2001 Mariners. 14-2? 141.75 wins...

Do you remember that horrible Forbes article about the best general managers in sports that used a direct comparison of differentials in winning percentage from the previous GM's tenure as the basis for ranking GMs across different sports? Kevin McHale was first and no MLB GM appeared until Billy Beane came in at 26th. McHale is no more better than every GM in baseball than a 16-game or 81-game schedule is at separating the best teams over a 162-game schedule.

The Twins Geek asks:

Why are we tempted to ignore the results when the best play against the best?

There are three obvious answers. Either:
1) There is something inherently different about baseball OR
2) Baseball is right and all the other sports are wrong OR
3) The other sports are right and baseball is wrong.

I'll let Thomas Boswell answer for the merits of the 162-game schedule. From his two-decade old Why Is Baseball So Much Better Than Football?:

46. Parity scheduling. How can the NFL defend the fairness of deliberately giving easier schedules to weaker teams and harder schedules to better teams? Just to generate artificially improved competition? When a weak team with a patsy schedule goes 10-6, while a strong defending division champ misses the playoffs at 9-7, nobody says boo. Baseball would have open revolt at such a nauseatingly cynical system.

21. Having 162 games a year is 10.125 times as good as having 16.

And just for fun:

94. You'll never see a woman in a fur coat at a baseball game.

95. You'll never see a man in a fur coat at a baseball game.


John said...

I hear you on football Kyle. It's a apples and oranges comparison. But what about basketball and hockey?

The 162 games thing is the first thing that came back on this when I emailed it to the local SABR group, too. For the most part, I think it is a little arrogant. 81 games is plenty for evaluation when there are two outcomes (win vs. loss). I'll paste my reply to them below...

Let's unpack this a bit in a theoretical vs. empirical way. My supposition is that you don't learn significantly more about differentiating two teams that play 162 games than if they play 81 games, especially when there are really only two outcomes that have any meaning - a win versus a loss. A theoretical model for trying to determine which of two very good teams is better would be to try and determine which of two coins is "weighted" to win more.

So suppose we have two identical (to sight) coins, both of which are weighted so they show heads (i.e. they "win") more than they lose. One coin is designed to come up heads 65% of the time and the other one comes up heads 60%. Your job is to figure out which is which.

You can do this by flipping each coin 81 times. At that point you compare the results and guess which coin is which. Then you flip them another 81 times (so you now have 162 results) and guess again. The question is how many times more you would get the right answer after the additional 81 tries.

I suppose someone can do a Monte Carlo model of this and give us the answer, but off the top of my head, the answer is "not much more". After 81 tries, I have a pretty good guess and it's unlikely that the next 81 are going to change that. So why do baseball researchers take so much more comfort in our longer season? Again, why do we trust the regular season more than the postseason, which seemingly every other sports league does?

Of course, a logical counterargument is that the playoffs are like flipping those coins just seven times, and you can't tell a darn thing about them that way. But the other sports would reject the basic premise - these aren't coins and they aren't random. They're players who are playing a game. And you know how you determine who is the best team? You have them play each other, and whoever wins is the better team. And that's why they recognize postseason success more than the regular season records.

Kyle Eliason said...

I think the number of teams hockey and basketball allow into the playoffs has a lot to do with the emphasis their fans place on the playoffs (as compared to baseball).

It allows the best teams a bigger cushion and with so many clubs reaching the playoffs the status of the regular season is cut down considerably. The regular season is just a warm-up for the best teams. The playoffs are longer as well.

With regards to hockey and basketball, I think the fact that we still see higher winning percentages than we do in baseball is worth noting.

Uncontrollable Id said...

You wait. I am going to find a fur coat and wear it to the new stadium on opening day.

Maybe EVERY opening day.

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