You have to feel bad for fans of the Reds, Braves, Twins and Rays (did you know Dick Vitale is a season ticket holder?). To see your team knocked out of the MLB playoffs in the first round is brutal — the countdown to spring training is particularly long this time of year. Losing in a five-game series, however, carries with it a special feeling of helplessness. You’ve just finished a grueling 162-game season and have come out on top of your division. Suddenly, your team is packing its bags after losing only three. The Rays are a particularly sad case — the team finished with the best record in the American League and won their second AL East title in franchise history, only to be unseated three games to two to the lowly Rangers, who finished with the lowest record of any team to qualify for the playoffs (and are currently making a mess of my Yankees’ postseason plans). As it turns out, some long-distance runners don’t take too well to sprints.
As a Yankees fan, I am particularly sympathetic. I’ve seen the Yanks get bounced from the American League Division Series four times since 2002 — ’02 and ‘05 to the Angels, ’06 to the Tigers and ’07 to the Indians. Every time I remember thinking exactly the same thing — “It’s over? Already? The whole season washed away in five measly games?”
I’ve always said that if I could change one thing about baseball, I would make the Division Series a seven-game contest. Five games is simply too small a sample to determine who has the better team. True, seven games isn’t much better in a sport in which the worst team in the league beats the best team more than three times out of 10. Baseball, particularly in the playoffs, is largely a game of luck. Still, there are little things we can do to make our game more fair — to make it reward the truly superior team. The cost? A mere two days added to the Major League schedule. While the Commissioner’s Office may freak out about a season that extends into November, I say bring it on — after all, if you’ve read this far into my column, I’d guess you’re someone who prefers more baseball, not less.
But how significant is the actual difference between a five and seven-game series? How often is a five-game series too short to produce the “proper” outcome? All good complaints are backed by numbers, so I decided to go find some. The specific question we need to answer is as follows: how often would the loser of a five-game series go on to win a seven-game series?
The question proved more difficult to answer than I had anticipated. I had to go back through every five- and seven-game series in baseball history, but that data is all available in a nice spreadsheet if you know the right people. Essentially, I found the probability that a team wins a five-game series 3–2 and multiplied it by the probability that a team comes back from a 3–2 deficit to win a seven-game series. I then repeated that calculation for 3–1 and 3–0 series and added them all together. If you don’t follow the math, don’t worry, I promise the answer I found is at least in the right ballpark. I won’t bother you with the tedious calculations, but my fastidious number-crunching reveals that the loser of a five-game series would probably go on to win a seven-game series about 14 percent of the time. Thus, a five-game series is “too short” (relative to a seven-game series) 14 percent of the time. More simply, a seven-game series is 14 percent more accurate than a five-game series in advancing the better team (not really, but it’s almost true and it’s an easy way to think about it).
14 percent isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s not trivial either. It’s particularly salient when you consider the negligible cost of expanding the Division Series. Two more games on the schedule? I understand the desire to avoid a four-round, 28-game nightmare like the NBA playoffs, but how much of a difference would two more games make, so long as we don’t stray from the three-round format? The baseball fans would love it. The TV networks would love it. I’ll bet you even the players, half of whom play a grinding 162-game season only to have it all wiped away in five games, would love it too.
When my Yankees fell in the Division Series four times in six years, you can bet I would have traded just about anything for that 14%. I haven’t checked in with Dickie V just yet, but my guess is that he’s on board as well.
Of course, when Cliff Lee shuts out my Yankees in game seven of the ALCS on Saturday, you can bet I’ll be the first one calling for a nine-game series.
John Ettinger is a junior in Saybrook College.