ETTINGER: In defense of the MLB playoff system

The Yankees have been bounced from the playoffs. After pacing the American League with 97 wins, their season ended abruptly after they lost three of five games to the Detroit Tigers. The Philadelphia Phillies suffered a similar fate after leading the Major Leagues with 102 wins but failing to take care of the St. Louis Cardinals in a decisive game 5. Diamondbacks and Rays fans can also sympathize, as can fans of the 34 teams that have been knocked out in five or fewer games since the Division Series was implemented in 1995. There is something incredibly unfulfilling about surviving a 162-game marathon and being sent home after coming up short in a five-game sprint. There is a terrible feeling that the better team suffered the raw end of a five-game dice roll. In the words of Billy Beane, the king of the large sample size, “My [excrement] doesn’t work in the playoffs.”

This logic is sound, and it’s what this somber Yankees fan chooses to reflect upon as he stares ahead at six long months without baseball. This sentiment, however, is not entirely fair. Think back to your greatest baseball memories. For me, this is Aaron Boone’s 11th-inning bomb off of Tim Wakefield to sink the Red Sox in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. If you’re a Mets fan, it might be a dribbler through the legs of Bill Buckner in game 6 of the 1986 World Series. If you’re a Blue Jays fan, it might be when Joe Carter touched ‘em all in 1993. In most of these cases, a dramatic playoff moment sealed a series victory. None of them, however, provided incontrovertible proof that the better team had won. Did Boone’s homer prove the 2003 Yankees to be more talented than the Sox? No. All it proved is that the beleaguered third baseman knew how to hit a knuckleball that did a little too much “hanging” and not enough “dancing.” But this doesn’t make the moment any less magical. If you’re a jaded statistician, you call this a weighted roll of the dice. If you’re a romantic baseball fan, you call this October mystique. Either way, it’s what the playoffs are all about.

All of this serves to highlight an obvious trade-off. When designing a playoff system, one has to balance the benefits of a small and large sample size. It’s easy to imagine the dangers of a playoff system that is too short or inclusive and therefore leaves too much up to chance. A one-game series, for example, wouldn’t leave the victorious team with much sense of accomplishment. It would certainly leave the losing team feeling robbed of an opportunity to prove its true merit, and would give fans little reason to invest in the grueling 162-game season. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s easy to imagine the dangers of a playoff system that is too long or exclusive and therefore doesn’t leave enough up to chance. This would produce no memorable playoff moments. There would be no mystery. It would produce predictable outcomes, as was the case when the Yankees won 10 of 16 world championships between 1947 and 1962 (back when the teams with the best records in their leagues automatically advanced to the World Series). To have a legitimate and educated conversation about baseball’s playoff system, one must acknowledge the fundamental trade-off between the benefits of long-series fairness and short-series mystique. As tempting as it is for fans of the Yankees, Phillies, Diamondbacks and Rays, making blanket statements about the invalidity of baseball’s playoffs without acknowledging this trade-off is silly.

It’s hard to say where, exactly, the current baseball playoff system lands on this spectrum. It certainly falls between the extremes outlined above. In the past, baseball has had less appetite for short-series shenanigans, as the playoffs have slowly evolved from one round to two rounds to the current three-round format (where the winning team plays anywhere from 11 to 19 games). In the future, it appears baseball will leave more up to random chance, as Bud Selig has all but officially announced a one-game play-in series to determine the wildcard in 2012. There are far more games than in the NFL playoffs (as few as three games) and far fewer games than in the NBA playoffs (as many as 28 games), but this is confounded by the fact that these sports leave a different amount up to random chance in any given game. For reference, between 2006 and 2010, the team with the better regular-season record won its playoff series 51 percent of the time in baseball, 58 percent of the time in football and 74 percent of the time in basketball, but these numbers don’t mean all that much. In the end, it’s impossible to discuss whether baseball’s playoffs sit near the “optimal” point on this spectrum because every fan has his or her own strong preferences. I, for one, would like to see the Division Series expanded to seven games. But my motivations are probably transparent at this time of year. Were you to change the number of teams, rounds or games in the MLB playoffs, you’d be sure to make someone unhappy.

Even though my Yankees have been bounced, I have no choice but to defend baseball’s playoff system. Is it perfect? No. But there is no perfect playoff system. At the end of the day, the MLB playoffs do occupy a happy medium. They are long enough and include few enough teams that they are not a complete roll of the dice — there is some sentiment that the “better” team is rewarded with victory. At the same time, they are short enough and include enough teams to allow for baseball’s most magical moments. It is this intersection of long-term reward for talent and short-term October mystique that make baseball’s playoffs so captivating for the devoted fan. There is something that feels so right about seven games with a cherry on top. Just ask Aaron Boone.