Monday, October 26, 2009

Baseball playoffs are not as exciting as you might think

Here in Japan, the misnamed Climax Series' are finished, with both home teams winning in just 4 games (the home team is given a 1-game advantage in the best-of-7 series). Both the Giants and Fighters only lost once before achieving their 3rd victory, and they will now meet in the Nihon Series starting next Saturday. It should be a good series, and I'll be watching occasionally hoping to see the Giants lose. The midweek games are in the nearby Tokyo Dome and amazingly, ticket prices are reasonable. It's only 3,000 yen for a seat in the second deck. I'd consider going to a game, but with a start time of 6 pm, there's no chance to get there in time from work. One of the games is on a holiday, but I'm quite sure that tickets for that affair will be tough to get.

Over in the States, the Angels managed to take 2 out of 3 in LA, thus extending their series. I was looking forward to watching game 6 Sunday morning, but rain in New York led to a postponement With the Phillies already through, it's now been 2 days without a playoff game (which happen to be two weekend days here) in what should be the most exciting time of the year. ESPN's Jim Caple writes a good article about how baseball has overextended the post-season in the name of ratings, so there's not much I can add on that topic.

But what I did want to write about was the overall excitement level of the playoffs and how it rarely lives up to the hype. Certainly there's always some great games in the playoffs, but more and more we are not seeing great series.

In MLB, there can be anywhere from 24 to 41 playoff games over the 3 rounds. Clearly the more series that go the distance, the more exciting things are. But recently, the total number of games played has been closer to the minimum as few series are stretched to the distance. Last season only one series went to 7 games and only 32 games were played. This was better than the previous season, when a mere 28 games were played, just 4 beyond the minimum (3 coming in the Boston-Cleveland 7-game ALCS). In 2005 and 2006, just 30 playoff games were contested each year.

Between 1995 (when the wild card system began) and 2000, only the 1997 playoffs saw more than 32 games. In fact, it was just during the four years between 2001 and 2004 that the MLB playoffs actually lived up to the hype. Both the 2001 and 2002 World Series saw 7-game thrillers, while in 2003 there were 38 out of a possible 41 games played, although the White Sox championship came in 6 games. Boston's incredible comeback over the Yankees was the highlight of 2004, which was tempered by their blowout of St. Louis.

So in 15 seasons since the introduction of the division series, at most 5 playoffs have been particularly memorable. I find this interesting because you would expect to have more closer series. Assuming two teams are evenly matched, a 5-game series would only be swept a quarter of the time. But in the 60 division series since 1995, 26 have ended in sweeps.

In a 7-game set, a 4-game sweep would happen 1 out of 8 times, while a 7 game set would occur about 31% of the time. In the championship series, these numbers are reflected accurately over the past 15 seasons, with only 4 sweeps and 8 series going the distance. But in the World Series, the opposite happens, with 5 of the 15 fall classics ending in a 4-0 whitewash, while only 3 have ended in a winner-take-all game 7.

What does this all mean? To me, it shows that teams making the playoffs are not equal (well, duh!), and in fact, there are still large differences between them. This year Minnesota, Boston, and St. Louis were not worthy playoff teams, being eliminated faster than the guy with the red shirt in Star Trek. The best teams in baseball (usually the top two in each league) are usually much better than those 2nd tier teams that sneak in. When they meet in the Championship Series, it's often a good battle. But by the time the World Series rolls around, one league is often so superior to the other that there's no excitement at all for fans of the sport as a whole. Let's see if the Yankees and Phillies can change that this season.

In Japan, there are now between 14 and 25 games in each playoff year. But it's far too early to determine if the Climax Series is a good addition or not. I'm not a fan of these extra games as it rewards mediocrity (like the Swallows this year) and extends the season into November, but I understand it provides excitement for fans of these teams. The Pacific League instituted the CS first in 2004, and promptly won three straight Japan Series over the Central League's representative, who had generally not played in two weeks. The CL felt that the long layoff was quite a disadvantage, so they began their own CS in 2007. Over the 9 combined series, the first place team has advanced 6 times, with the 2nd place team moving on the other 3 times (and in each case winning the Japan Series).

As is often the case in Japanese baseball, the powers that be continually tinker with the rules - back in 2004, the second series was a best-of-five, then in 2006 the one-game advantage was given to the first-place team, and finally the current system was instituted last year. So it's tough to make a strong statistical analysis on the merits of the Climax Series as a whole. Looking at this year's games, Yakult took Chunichi to a 3rd game, and the Fighters achieved a remarkable comeback over Rakuten with a 5-run ninth capped by ex-Expo Termel Sledge's grand slam, but other than that, there wasn't much to write home about.

So overall, I think that we are led to believe that the baseball playoffs on both sides of the Pacific are EXCITING and UNBELIEVABLE and [insert big hype word here]. But looking back, I think a lot of it is just that: hype. Yes, there are some excellent games, but for the culmination of the season, fans of the sport are often left wanting.



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