Wednesday, October 07, 2009

My thoughts on tiebreakers in Major League Baseball

I was struck during the pregame show of last night's Twins/Tigers tiebreaker of how often these games end up being particularly competitive. Last night's game was no exception. Last year, the White Sox defeated the Twins 1-0, the Rockies defeated the Padres in an epic 13-inning game the year before that, and even more well known is the Bucky Dent game from 1978 and Bobby Thompson's legendary home run in 1951. Those are all one run games, and with the exception of last year's White Sox/Twins game-- a good game in its own right-- the other four are, independent of circumstance, in the upper one hundredth of one percent of professional baseball game sever played. What is it about tiebreakers that elicit such quality baseball? Furthermore, what is it about one game producing such high quality baseball as compared to a series? Is there something about both teams facing elimination that generates more competitive games?

Here's a list of the 13 tiebreakers that have been played in MLB history. Note that prior to 1978-- so starting with 1962 and heading back in time-- tiebreakers were 3 game series. Counting yesterday's game, there have been 8 one-game tiebreakers. Four of the games were decided by one run, and another had a 2 run difference.

Testable implications: Are Game 5s/7s in series more competitive than the previous games? Of the tiebreaker series that came down to a Game 3, one of them was a 1-run game and another was a 2-run game. I'm not going to count through baseball history, but I wonder how it all stacks up.

Further testable implications: What about other sports?

Possible policy implication: If both teams are faced with the possibility of elimination, and the games are found to be more competitive, and long run commercial interest is a function of competitive nature of important games, would professional sports leagues be well-advised to eliminate series and have a one-game-take-all playoff structure? There's a lot more to consider-- namely, ad revenue declines in a one-and-done scenario (and thus the value of purchasing broadcasting rights to a championship series), as well as cultural issues (mostly with baseball)-- but it's nonetheless worth thinking about. Oftentimes, people like to say that a seven game series is not long enough to effectively separate the better team in baseball. I don't disagree. But if seven's not good enough and there's no prospect for lengthening the series, why not move to one game if the game is likely to be very good?

Interesting note: Football is the only sport that currently lines up as coming down to one game for playoff advancement, and it is clearly the most popular of the four major sports.

Another interesting note: Basketball recently switched from 5 game series in the first round to 7 game series-- thereby reducing the chance of a double elimination game-- and the argument could be made that basketball's popularity in the recent past has declined.

Yet another interesting note: College basketball's playoff structure is one-and-done and is massively popular.

1 comment:

rolub said...

Not that you're suggesting the drama of one-and-done scenarios is the main reason for the NFL's and NCAA Tournament's popularity, but there are other more important (methinks) reasons these two playoff systems are the most popular; particularly gambling! Surprised I brought this up, right?

The widespread participation in March Madness^TM pools contributes to the added interest in the tournament, not to mention the slightly-more-than-casual-but-less-than-degenerate-status gamblers who have a 50-day itch since the Super Bowl they're looking to scratch with a Thursday full of 16 games spread across 12 hours to gamble on.

Aside from gambling, you have 64.5 participants which have fan bases comprised of two groups: alumni and regional bystanders. The combination of Ohio State fans, for example, is widespread due to their large alumni base and the fact that Columbusites (and even Ohioans in general) treat the university as a professional sports franchise. The general fan interest and added interest from regular and casual gamblers are probably the two main drivers behind the tournament's popularity; I'd think the drama derived from the one-and-done format is part of it, but small in comparison.

I'll be more brief with the NFL: its popularity is driven by gambling and fantasy football. I'd also think that the limited, set schedule of Sundays and Mondays with a couple Thursdays throw in for good measure gives the public a comfort of knowing when they can relax and watch the games, as opposed to MLB, when games can be played any day of the week, starting at 1:00, 3:30, 4:00, 7:00, 8:00, or 10:00, on the hour or half-hour, 162 times a year. That's quite a commitment for a casual fan. It's easier to follow the NFL, and the American public loves "easy".

But to your main point, you and i both know the sample size is too small, and may take another 100 years before it can be significant. Sports like football, basketball, and hockey typically trot out the same active rosters on a game-by-game basis, while baseball includes one very significant player that changes every 6th game. I think MLB has the best argument to maintain a series-format for their playoffs, despite the drama that the one-game division tiebreakers has produced.