Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Meaning of the World Series

UPDATED, 10/28/07

The World Series doesn't decide the best team in baseball.

The World Series -- like the playoffs that precede it -- is nothing more than a expanded regular-season series. Teams play dozens of regular-season series in order to qualify for postseason play. If it takes dozens of such series to determine which teams are qualified for postseason play (i.e., the "best" teams), how can the World Series and the playoffs that precede it determine the "very best" of the "best"? Logically, the teams involved in postseason series would have to play each other many, many times before one of them could claim to be the "very best."

The meaninglessness of postseason play is demonstrated by the inclusion of wild-card teams. After 162 regular-season games, a team that has finished second in its division suddenly has a chance to "prove" that it is really baseball's best team. That is, it is allowed to "prove" in three brief rounds of postseason play what it failed to prove in 162 games. The result: wild-card teams have won four of the thirteen World Series played since their inclusion in postseason play.

Over that span (1995-2007), the World Series has been won eight times by a team with a worse regular-season record than that of its opponent. Moreover, 37 of the 78 postseason series between teams in the same league -- the Division Championship Series and League Championship Series -- have been won by the team with a worse regular-season record than that of its opponent. Luck, not skill, seems to have a strong hand in determining the outcome of postseason play.

Postseason play is -- above all else -- a way of filling seats, selling concessions, and selling broadcast rights. It delivers often-exciting games between baseball's better teams. A series that goes down to the wire and is filled with exciting games is a baseball fan's delight. But none of that has anything to do with deciding which of baseball's teams is the best.