Monday, January 24, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, January 24, 2022 -- "Single Elimination"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 13, No. 148
January 24, 2022

The NFL went out and had itself a weekend. Across four playoff games in its divisional round, all were decided on the final snap -- three game-winning field goals and a walkoff overtime touchdown. One game swung on a blocked punt returned for a TD, another had three tipped balls go for interceptions, the last, with under a minute left, turned into a deciding kick. Some of the play wasn’t great -- the Saturday games were downright ugly at times -- but that never seems to affect interest. The weekend was capped by one of the best games in league history, with 25 points scored in the final two minutes of regulation as two of the sport’s superstar quarterbacks went up and down the field.

The key, though, is this: We’re not setting up for Game Twos today. Football is played in one-game chunks, and always has been. It’s a brutally physical sport, with rules changes to protect the talent barely keeping pace with the size and speed of the players. One of the game’s present controversies stems from games being played on Thursday nights, just four days after a team’s prior contest, perhaps not enough time to physically recover. If four days is a problem, then playing baseball-style series or even NBA back-to-backs is a non-starter. Football teams play 17 games in 18 weeks, and then single-game playoff rounds through the Super Bowl.

This is a driver of football’s popularity, and especially so during the playoffs. The stakes are plain as day, much as they are in the NCAA basketball tournament, another hugely popular event. Win or go home. Survive and advance. There’s no back-and-forth, no tension build-up, just 60 minutes of football -- sometimes a few more -- and a decision. Casual fans can turn on their TV at 3 p.m. without knowing the backgrounds and turn it off at 10 p.m. with a resolution.

Baseball, of course, does it differently. The earliest organized leagues didn’t play many games and most of the ones they did play were one-offs, but the first season of the National League, in 1876, featured series we would recognize today, one team traveling to another’s city to play multiple games. In those innocent days, the only money came from selling tickets and refreshments, so maximizing games played was the way to maximize revenue. Teams in the NL of 1876 averaged 65 games each; in a decade’s time, that would more than double to 131.

The first postseason series were driven by this idea: More games, more money. In 1884, the winners of the American Association and the National League squared off in a best-of-three. A year later, it was a best-of-seven, and by 1887, it was a 15-game barnstorming series. In this era, games would be played even after the series winner was decided, as in 1888, when the New York Giants won six of the first eight contests over the St. Louis Browns, only to play out the final two games in front of sharply diminished crowds.

When the National and nascent American Leagues set up the first modern World Series in 1903, it was a best-of-nine affair. Two years later, the Series was a best-of-seven, and save for a stretch just after World War I it has remained so ever since. We’ve come to think of this as the natural length of a championship series. In 1939, after using many formats in its formative years, the Stanley Cup finals became a best-of-seven, and for the past 35 years, all NHL playoff rounds have been best-of-seven (pandemic season excepted). The very first pro basketball playoffs, in 1947, featured a best-of-seven final, as have all the finals in the history of the NBA. Since 2003, all NBA playoff series have been best-of-seven.

Now, the talent distribution in other sports means that you generally need fewer games to figure out who is good and who isn’t. In the NFL, it takes 11 games; in the NBA, 12 games. In MLB...

“But in baseball, it takes a whopping 67 games for half of the variance in observed winning percentages to come from the distribution of talent and half from randomness.”

That’s Neil Paine at 538. This concept is one reason why the results of baseball playoffs are random in a way that the outcomes of the pro football and pro basketball playoffs are not. It just takes more time for true talent levels to come through in baseball. Michael Lopez ran the numbers: for the better team to advance 80% of the  time, which is the NBA standard, MLB playoff series would have to be best-of-75.

There’s this ongoing fight about whether the Division Series round should be best-of-seven, and that fight will shortly extend to an expansion of the Wild Card Round that will likely be best-of-three. We will routinely see 100-win teams face off with 80-win teams in a format little better than a coin flip. The thing is, extending these series to the next odd number wouldn’t matter all that much. The marginal differences between a one-game versus a three-game playoff, five versus seven, are basically rounding errors. A best-of-seven World Series feels right because no one reading this remembers anything else, but it’s no different, outcomes-wise, from a best-of-one.

So why not lean into that? Instead of trying to fit more games into the window between the end of the regular season and the first snowfall, instead of pretending there’s any meaningful difference between best-of-X and best-of-X+2, just take a page from the NFL and make the playoffs single-elimination. Let 16 teams in, seed them accordingly, and set up October Madness: Four weekends of baseball culminating in a World Series that starts at 6:30 on the final Sunday of October, and ends that night in a dogpile?

Think about it. We already know that TV ratings rise as a series gets towards its end. More fans tune in when there’s a championship on the line. You’d be losing a lot of games, but keeping all of the maximum-value ones, the ones that bring in the largest audiences. Remember, this isn’t as radical an idea as it seems. MLB already broke the glass on this by introducing one-game playoff series in 2012.

MLB’s early rounds are a bit of a slog, and while they’re great for hardcore fans -- those Division Series quadrupleheader days are fun -- they’re invisible to the people who tuned in in droves for the NFL’s quarterfinals. As great as that first Friday in October can be, nothing is on the line yet. No one’s going home. It’s all prelude.

Let’s throw out the prelude. Let’s turn the baseball playoffs into the Sweet 16, into the NFL’s model. The first round can wrap around that first weekend -- one game Friday night, three each on Saturday and Sunday, one on Monday. Yes, the middle two days go up against football, but instead of doing that with games where no one will be eliminated -- where the stakes are low -- you’re doing it with elimination games. You can grab back some of the mindshare you’ve ceded to the NFL for 40 years. The second weekend, maybe it’s one game Friday night, two Saturday, one Sunday. No more 2 p.m. Friday starts, and certainly no more 10 p.m. Friday starts. You’re losing games, but you’re keeping the ones TV -- and casual fans -- like best: prime-time elimination games. Every playoff game would be an event the way the last two weekends have been events in the NFL.

This is the single best way to restore value to the regular season as well. Right now, teams securing a wild card are rewarded with a one-game playoff just to earn the right to play best-ofs against much better teams that are rested. It’s not always the best decision to chase a playoff spot given the challenges wild-card teams face. Now, not only would we be lowering the bar for entry -- allow 16 teams in and you’ll probably have 20-22 teams with a reasonable chance in August and even into September -- but you’re lowering the bar for success.

The secondary effect is what I really like, though. In the current circumstances, it’s hard to convince people that playoff success determines the best team, despite all the evidence we have that playoff outcomes and overall team quality are only tangentially related. This will only get worse as the playoffs expand and it becomes harder and harder for any team to get through October. What this format does is make it clear that the regular season is one thing, and the tournament is something completely different. Winning the AL East or the NL Central can once again be valued for the triumph that it is over 162 games, and success in the tournament can be valued for the triumph that it is over four. The difference between the two would be made more clear.

There are other gains. All of the complaints about the length of games go away, because those are largely a function of the length of the month and the later start times. Look, I love baseball too, but October has become a grind. The games themselves are grinds and they stack up over the course of the month and become a blur. All that goes away. You want to bring back the primacy of starting pitchers? They’ll be quarterbacks in this format. Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander taking the mound every week with the season on the line. There will still be strategic differences between teams that ride horses and teams that go with all-reliever approaches.

This doesn’t come without cost, of course. Baseball still draws big crowds at inflated ticket prices in October. There were 37 playoff games last year, 40 in 2019, 33 in 2018. There would be 15 in this format. That’s a lot of ticket, beer, and hot dog money to give up. The players are paid in the playoffs based on gate revenue, so you’d have to find a way to make them whole. I’m less worried about the effect on TV deals; you’re removing bulk, and a lot of that bulk is on MLB Network and FS1 and TBS and BYUtv. (It’s how I feel about the regular season, too -- you can take away 15 games in March/April and 15 games in September and not affect the true value of the TV inventory at all.) My rationale is that the gains in the value of the remaining games would, over time, make the financials a wash.

This is admittedly a play on spec, a bet that a postseason single-elimination tournament would, as it does for the NFL, bring in more casual fans for the spectacle. Baseball just doesn’t have anything like the NFL has had these last two weekends, and its current postseason format will simply never allow for it. A radical rethinking of the playoffs would be taking a big leap, but it’s one I believe would do more for the game’s popularity than would just tacking best-of-threes on to the current system.

October Madness. Make it happen.