Snoretoberfest: Or Why You Aren't Watching the MLB Post-season

6 October, 2011

I know what I'm watching. 
On Monday Night, sports fans had the option of watching the Tigers-Yankees ALDS Game 3 (with the series tied at 1-1), OR the Colts-Bucs Monday night game sans Peyton Manning. This should be a no-brainer, playoff game or a early season matchup between a basement dweller and an up and comer from a small market and few marquee players. So how do you think the ratings went?

MNF = 10.84 million viewers
MLB Playoff game = 6.05 million viewers.


This discrepancy is a very big deal. Common sense would tell you that a playoff game following a grueling season featuring two teams from big markets and plenty of star power should completely destroy an early season matchup without much star power at all. The biggest draw in the football game was Peyton Manning in the booth.

So why does nobody give a shit about the MLB playoffs?

1. Baseball is Boring

Okay, before I get death threats, let me be clear. I believe that almost ANY sport can be incredibly entertaining if you get invested in it enough. If you're raised playing it, watching it, with a favorite team, you know all the intricacies, and you can really understand the minutae of the game, then it's going to be more interesting to you than some sport you've never seen before. This is true of all sports. My point is that when you throw a baseball game on the tube in front of a lay person, it's not going to excite them as other sports they are also unfamiliar with would.

Imagine we take Borat and tie him to a chair and give him a remote and the only things on TV are Baseball, Football, Futbol, Hockey, Basketball, etc. He's gonna settle on Football or Hockey. Those sports can be quite exciting even if you don't really know what's going on. The problem with basketball is that scores are so frequent they seem practically meaningless until the endgame. Futbol and baseball are the opposite. There's so much inaction (come on Soccer fans, don't tell me 90 minutes of light jogging is non-stop action) that you'll fall asleep if you aren't invested in the outcome. Maybe baseball would be alright if a game only took 80 minutes. But if I'm gonna invest 3 1/2 hours in a game, it's gonna be football.
Non-stop Action

The biggest thing about baseball is the pitcher/batter duel. Yet to the lay person, this duel is practically incomprehensible. They can understand how many balls or strikes you need, but aren't going to get anything out of pitch selection. Kids these days can't even sit through a movie without texting. Don't underestimate the power of being attention grabbing.

Baseball simply isn't the top sport in America, it's football and by a longshot.

2. The Playoff Format Sucks

In the NFL, you play 16 regular season games, then in the playoffs it's one-and-done. No best of 3 or 5 or 7. One game decides who moves on. That means that the quickest you can be eliminated is after playing a postseason 1/16th the length of the regular season.

In MLB, you play 162 regular season games, then the first playoff series is best of 5. If you lose the first 3, you're done. So that means the quickest you can be eliminated is after a post-season  that's 1/54th as long as the regular season.

See the problem? The NFL equivalence of the MLB playoffs would go like this:

World Series Champion
You go 13-3, ensure a first round bye. Then you host a 10-6 team. The first quarter is a disaster, with three turnovers. With 12 minutes to go in the second quarter, you trail 21-0. If this were baseball, that's it, game over, your season is done. 17 minutes is equal to 1/54th the length of the regular season. Even if it's a close game, you gotta call it by halftime, because that's the equivalence of the series going to a full 5 games.

How about comparing it to NHL which has an 82 game season and starts the playoffs with a best of 7 series. If the NHL had a playoffs just as short relative to the season as MLB did, then you'd call the series with 10 minutes to go in the 2nd period of Game 3.

MLB has such a long season. Just think about investing yourself in 162 games, winning your division, having the best record in baseball, and then losing 3 in the row and the year is over. Or even just losing 3 of 5.

That's two balls and one strike. 
This might make sense in other sports, but Baseball is the worst sport to have this problem. There's a saying in baseball that "Every team is gonna win 54 games, every team is gonna lose 54 games, it's what you do with the other 54 games that counts." If you wanna narrow it down to decent teams that have a shot at the playoffs, then you could make the saying "every team is gonna win 82 games, lose 55 games, it's what you do with the other 27 games that counts. That's it. The difference between the best team in baseball, and a mediocre team that was barely in the playoff hunt is just 27 games spread over 6 months.

Baseball is a sport of averages, likelihoods, and it only works right if you have a large sample size. It's the one sport that really makes sense to have such a long season. And it's the sport that makes sense to have the longest playoffs. And yet it has by far the SHORTEST playoffs of the major American sports.

The quickest you can win the WS is in a playoffs that's 6.8% the length of the regular season. The quickest you can win the SB is in 18.8% the length of the regular season. The longest the playoffs can take would be 11.7% for baseball and 25% for football.

3. The Regular Season is Almost Meaningless. 

Yeah, the regular season doesn't mean anything. 
There's so much talk about "diluting the regular season" in college football if you bring up a playoff system. Since your regular season is only 11-13 games, in order to have a shot at the title, you need to win them all, or maybe you can get away with 1 loss. This means that every single game has meaning.

Baseball is the exact opposite. There are so many regular season games that you can easily lose the first 20 games and to end the season at .500 you just gotta go 82-62 the rest of the way, or go .570, which isn't that significant a hole to climb out of. By September, most people are burnt out on baseball, especially the ones whose teams aren't gonna play in October. Contrast this with NFL fans. Even if their team sucked up the joint, they're not gonna miss the Super Bowl.

Let's look at it another way. In the NFL, you know your team is going to have to win 12 games to guarantee a playoff spot (as 11-5 teams have missed the playoffs), or if you wanna play the odds a bit, let's say 11 wins is enough to guarantee a playoff birth (4 teams in the last 4 years have won 10 or 11 games and missed the playoffs).

So you need to win 11, and you can't lose more than 5. That means that losing the first game of the season can get you 20% of the way to too many losses to control your destiny. Winning any game gets you another 11th of the way to the playoffs. Losing any game gets you a fifth of the way closer to staying home in January.

I call this one the Castigator
In the last 6 years, the best team to miss the MLB playoffs was the 2005 Indians, who went 93-69 but missed the big show. So let's say that guaranteeing a playoff berth requires 94 wins, or no more than 68 losses.

Winning any one game gets you 1/94th of the way to the playoffs, and losing any one game gets you 1/68th of the way closer to staying home. That's how utterly unimportant regular season games are individually. So think about this. You're asking teams to go 162 games where the stakes are that a loss gets you 1/68th of the way closer to missing the playoffs, THEN you ask them to play games where a loss gets them 1/3rd of the way closer to ending their season.

The regular season is far too diluted in meaning, and then they try to make up for it by giving a shortened playoff and that makes the games somehow mean "too much."

Using the same metrics, NFL postseason games are 5 times more important than regular season games. MLB postseason games are  22.6 times more important than regular season games. So that means that a single MLB playoff game is just as important as the month of April.

4. How Playoffs should be done

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are the greatest 6 weeks of sports anywhere. You start with 16 teams. You need to win 4 best-of-7 series to win the cup. Teams come in as a roster of professionals. By the end of the Cup Finals, you're looking at two teams of Brothers who've just completed an epic quest. These two teams spent 82 games trying to get in, then they spent up to 25 games battling for their playoff lives. That's like playing another 30% of the regular season where every game is extremely important. The longest the MLB playoffs can go is 19 games, but compare that to a 162 game season, and that's only 11.7%. That's why Hockey players look completely spent after the finals. They've just spent every ounce of energy, sacrificed their bodies, taken slap shots to the face, lost teeth, bleed all over the ice, and come back for more. Man I'm glad Hockey's back.

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