Friday, October 09, 2015

Winners, Losers, and Playoff Randomness

The Major League Baseball playoffs have begun, and with them the annual conversation has also started about how even though a 162-game season does a good job determining who the best teams are, the much smaller sample size of the playoffs increases the chance element markedly, often making it hard unequivocally to anoint the World Series winner as the season’s greatest team.

We talk about sample sizes a lot in poker, more often than not about how inadequate they are. We talk about variance, too, and how luck necessarily invites a disruption between what is and what ought to be.

The new wild-card playoff -- a one-game, winner-take-all-affair -- with which the MLB playoffs now always begin encourages such discussions even more, with each league producing one team who after 162 games will lose the 163rd and head home for the winter. The Pittsburgh Pirates, losers of the NL wild card earlier this week to the Chicago Cubs, had it happen for a second year in a row.

Just like like year when the Pirates ran into the hottest starting pitcher in baseball, Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants (then the Giants went on to win the whole sucker), this time they were up against the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta who is on a historic streak of success over the last several months. Both Bumgarner and Arrieta pitched complete game shutouts to oust the Pirates, this year after the team won 98 games (more than every other playoff team except the St. Louis Cardinals who took the Pirates’ division by winning 100).

For the Pirates it has been #JBL, as the poker-related hashtag would go.

In the NFL teams play 16 games, then enter into a series of single-elimination playoff games which obviously heighten the randomness more than a little (especially for a sport in whcih injuries are so significant). Even so, the 16-to-1 regular-season-to-playoff ratio is still not as big as the 162-to-7 ratio (or about 23-to-1) in the MLB. That’s looking ahead to the best-of-seven series coming up later for the league championships and World Series. That’s also assuming teams get to seven games in those series, which often they do not.

The NBA and NHL each play 82-game regular seasons and feature best-of-sevens each round of their playoffs (a little less than 12-to-1). NCAA basketball has it worse, I suppose, with a 35-game season (roughly) then a single-elimination tournament at the end.

Having playoffs is still better than not having them, I think, as college football proved for several decades up until the institution of the Bowl Championship Series from 1998-2013 and the College Football Playoff starting last year. Voting on the best team never worked well, nor does applying the incredibly complicated advanced analytics that are available these days to “let the computer decide.”

No, it’s best to have the teams play it out. It’s a little like a well played poker hand resulting in an all-in on the turn and something that is often close to a coin flip situation thereafter. Skill helped the players get into a position to win, then luck necessarily plays a role thereafter.

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