Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Who's getting screwed?

Here's an interesting statistic for baseball fans in the know to think over:

Place in Division Avg Record
1 0.6067
2 0.5269
3 0.5162
4 0.4365
5 0.3942

That is, the average team in first place in its division has a record of .607.

Once we know the average placement for every record, we can see who's getting screwed through unlucky division membership. Number one on our list: the Milwaukee Brewers, who continue to trade spots with St. Louis and the Chicago Cubs for 1st-3rd place in the NL Central. Right now the Brewers (with a .577 record) are in 1.37th place in the average baseball division, yet they hold third in the Central.

Two other unlucky teams have over a full place difference between their current place and where they would be in the average division:

Philadelphia (.556 and in 3rd in the NL East) places 1.64th place on average
Tampa Bay (.539 and in 3rd in the AL East) places 1.86th place on average

The lucky teams who actually deserve worse than they have?

Minnesota (in 2nd and really deserves 3.69th place)
Kansas City (exactly the same as Minnesota)
Los Angeles Dodgers (in 2nd and really deserves 3.2th place)
San Francisco (in 3rd and really deserves 4.19th place)

Here's the simple reason why the old league pennant was a great system: choosing playoff contenders through divisions is a yearly gamble. No division is the same, so Milwaukee gets screwed and Minnesota gets lucky. The pre-1969 pennant race, where each team played each other league opponent a set amount of times, was a perfectly fair method of choosing champions (forgetting, for the moment, inequality between AL and NL going into the World Series).

But as long as the public wants playoffs - and you know we do - we'll have to put up with the warts. Other major sports have tried to equalize a naturally unequal situation: hockey reseeds opponents between playoff round 1 and 2, and the NBA lets sixteen teams into the playoffs. Maybe baseball will have something up its sleeve someday.

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