Do the MLB Playoffs have enough variety?

Does Major League Baseball have a static set of top teams due to its lack of a cap?

I had a discussion recently where the other person was adamantly claiming that the MLB playoffs did not have enough variety in terms of different teams appearing. He felt that the same teams are featured far too frequently, year after year. He claimed that due to baseball’s lack of a cap, the top echelon of clubs remains pretty much the same—sort of a version of the socio-economic “one-percent” elite but in baseball.

He further claimed that the other three major North American sports have a much higher degree of variety in their playoffs and that the top echelon is constantly changing due to the equalizing effects of the cap. (I’m restating the argument in more diplomatic terms than were originally used).

As you may imagine, I disagreed but I didn’t have any data with me at the moment and wasn’t aware of any existing study that verified or discredited these statements. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have felt the need to respond, since the burden of proof is on the person making the claim, but my interest was piqued and I decided to undertake an amateur study myself.

The first and most obvious problem with saying there is more variety in the NFL, NBA and NHL playoffs is the illusion caused by there being more playoff teams in those three sports. 12 out of 32  teams (37.5%) make the NFL postseason, 16 out of 30 (53.3%) make the NHL and NBA postseasons, and 10 of 30 (33.3%) make MLB’s postseason (down from a measly 8 recently). So naturally it’s going to seem like there’s more variety due to there being more playoff spots up for grabs. We need to compare apples and apples.

Instead of looking at playoff teams, let’s make the number the same for each league and study the variety within the fabled top echelons. I took the top eight by record (or points for hockey) in each league for the seasons (beginning in) 2006 to 2015 and compared the percent change from year to year.

According to this other person’s theory (my null hypothesis if you will), there will be more variety, year to year, within the top eights of the NFL, NBA and NHL than with MLB. My hypothesis is that baseball will have as much or more variety.

– MLB saw a turnover of 62.5% from year to year on average

– The NHL had 44.44% new teams on average in each season

– The NFL had 52.78% new teams on average

– The NBA saw a turnover of 43.05% from year to year on average

Baseball had the greatest variety within its top echelon over the past 10 years and it wasn’t particularly close. Null hypothesis disproven/hypothesis proven (ok, it’s not so certain as all that. Low sample size etc., but I think it’s enough to discredit the argument put forth in the original discussion)

How did the cap-less MLB come out on top? A few thoughts:

– One elite player in baseball is not enough to carry an entire team even to mediocrity (see Trout, Mike). Whereas one player can drastically alter the fortunes of a NBA team for example (see James, LeBron).

In baseball, a successful team needs to be proficient in five essential elements (batting, baserunning, fielding [possibly a separate category for catching], starting pitching and relief pitching).

One franchise hitter does not address the needs of the rotation, the bullpen, or necessarily fielding or running either. One franchise player in basketball can have an impact on all elements of the game (there are role players of course but all players must play both ends of the court when they’re on).

To have all five elements of baseball clicking, even for one season, is extremely difficult and improbable. Competitive windows are usually, therefore, narrower. I’m not denigrating the other sports in saying this. They’re simply different. Obviously, having a top team in any of these leagues is huge challenge.

– Analytics finding other pathways to success. No other major sport utilizes them more (Being a “safe haven” sport with one-on-one match-ups naturally makes it more conducive to statistics than a free-flowing sport like hockey or basketball)

– Caps primarily function as cost controls for owners and not as competition levellers. Larger payrolls lead to more wins in all four major sports, not just baseball (to be discussed more in a future post)

The opinion of the person I had the debate with I’m sure is not an uncommon one—especially among non-baseball fans. It is, however, not a correct one.  Caps are not some be all and end all of competitiveness. Baseball, in this regard, is doing just fine.


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