The Playoffs Are a Crapshoot, a 6-Part Series: Introduction

Playoffs are a crapshoot

It was Billy Beane in Moneyball who famously remarked, “The playoffs are a crapshoot”.  The argument goes that whatever assiduousness and craft goes into producing a winning regular season team, the outcome of the playoffs is random.  I want to use my offseason opportunity this year to explore this a little bit.  A warning up front: there will be a fair amount of math, and I’m not going to come close to explaining it all.  But I give a few references, and I’ll try and answer any questions you have. 

Stating the Obvious

We need to start by clearing away some underbrush.  The first (and I hope obvious) point is that no team has ever won the World Series without making the playoffs.  So the teams from which the World Series champion emerges are all pretty good teams… certainly none of them is putrid.  The collective season won-loss records of the teams in the playoffs this year was over 60% but the collective records in the playoffs will be exactly 50%, so on average, every team plays worse than they played in the regular season.  The average quality of opponents faced will inevitably be higher than the average quality of opponents faced in the regular season, so the expected winning percentage will be lower.

Second, every baseball game ever played has some combination of luck and skill.  Most people don’t think about what this really means, and even when they do, they greatly overemphasize the relative effect of skill, as I hope I’ll demonstrate in the next installment.  But there is one fact about luck that needs to be remembered: it evens out over the long run but can dominate results in the short run.  Since the playoffs are shorter than the regular season, whatever component luck plays in an individual game will have a higher relative impact in the playoffs.  If they played, say, a 31 out of 60 series,  instead of 3 out of 5 and 4 out of 7 series, more skillful teams would almost always win.  But they don’t.

This evening out of luck in the long run is not some huge surprise to baseball fans, for whom the phrase “small sample size” requires an acronym just to avoid tedious typing.  But quantifying it is what will take some math.  Some of the math to do so actually originates in sabermetrics, from Tom Tango.

Third, this result is independent of changes made to teams to better prepare them for the playoffs and to changes in managing strategy in the playoffs.  In any given series, both teams make these changes, so they don’t affect the relative effect of skill very much at all.

Finally, not only is luck of higher relative importance in the postseason, just because there are fewer games, but our estimates of team’s skill going into the playoffs is overestimated for the good teams by the excess of luck they happened to have in the regular season – this is the phenomenon known as regression to the mean, and it is invoked six times more often than it is understood.

Sum of its Parts

These three factors: better quality opponents, shortened playoff seasons and regression to the mean all serve to flatten results:  they reduce the chance that the best teams will win the World Series.  I don’t mean to suggest that there may not be other factors, but in this series I’ll try and quantify these three.  It is not my goal to subtract from the romance of baseball, as one is often accused of doing by sneaking math into the discussion.  On the other hand, though, the following xkcd cartoon pretty much defines my whole working life, as well as idle sports conversation in bars (no comment on how different that is from my working life):

Playoffs are a Crapshoot

If you don’t want to read the rest of the series, I forgive you, and I’ll cut to the chase: it’s pretty much a crapshoot.  To be precise, it’s about 90 percent crapshoot and 10 percent skill.  Billy Beane is right. 

Thanks for reading The Playoffs are a Crapshoot!

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Author: JonathanF

Alive since 1956. Braves fan since 1966. The first ten years were pretty much wasted. Exiled to Yankees/Mets territory in 1974 --- bearable only with TBS followed by MLB.TV.

34 thoughts on “The Playoffs Are a Crapshoot, a 6-Part Series: Introduction”

  1. Hi, Everybody…
    I’ll try and answer all your questions as they emerge, but I’m in Europe for the next week, so I won’t be monitoring this constantly and my answers are likely to be bunched in the wee hours of the US morning. So please be patient…

  2. If I remember my high school math correctly, the odds of a 50/50 outcome ‘x’ times in a row is the equation .50^x

    So assuming a 50/50 chance of winning, the odds of losing 10 times in a row is .50^10 or 1/1024.

    I’d love if at the end of this series we explore the Braves horrible ‘luck’ in the 0-10 playoff streak. Have the aggregate odds really been 50/50 (evenly matched teams) or have Braves opponents generally been better? How should home field advantage have played out? Do the statistics we use to determine the ‘better’ team based on regular season results mislead as to which teams may be constructed to better person in a short playoff series?

  3. I will discuss the application of this to the Braves briefly in the last entry. But this series is about winning the World Series, not about how a team falls short, whether in the first round or in the WS. Your analysis, though, is right… It is really unlucky to lose 10 series in a row, irrespective of relative quality, and irrespective of playoff-time personnel moves.

  4. Checkmate, BravesJournal.

  5. Josh is a well known Twitter troll who, for reasons only known to him, actually trolls the fans of teams he pulls for rather than other team’s fans. One could say he’s original, I guess…

  6. I’ve always thought Billy Beane was right that the playoffs are a crapshoot—the Braves’ experience of the nineties convinced me. But if JonathanF says it’s true then you can take it to the bank.

  7. They are a crapshoot. Like after the Nationals won the World Series, if MLB immediately did another postseason from the start with the same eight teams, what are the odds we’d get a different champ?

  8. @4–I’ve said this before, and you may not believe me, but for much of my long fandom there were many baseball insiders who would have said that Markakis is better than Donaldson because of those 26 points of batting average. Before Bill James, lots of folks thought that Enos Cabell was better than Darrell Evans.

  9. So, JonathanF, not to skip to the end of the book, but my biggest question is:

    Okay, let’s say the outcome is 90% driven by chance, and 10% driven by factors under the team’s control. Given that, is it worth spending money on the stuff that we know works in the playoffs? Or is that money always going to be misspent given that you’re only going to get a dime of value on your dollar?

    Obviously, the Braves are a playoff bubble contender for 2020. Should they spend more than $0 this winter in order to move their potential playoff needle?

  10. Well, AAR, the things that move the needle are the same things that make you a good team. The difference between being a 105 game winning team and a 97 game winning team in fact translates into another couple of percent chance of winning the World Series… but only a couple of percent. That said, Wild Card team have less than half the chance of division winners, so money spent to reduce the chances you’re a wild card team are definitely well spent. So my answer is: spend what you need to spend to have a reasonable chance to win the division. After that, you’re spending dollars to make dimes, as you say.

  11. I like Josh just fine as a funny Twitter troll guy, but it’s starting to get old. I hope he finds new material soon. He could always take a break from trolling Braves fans and troll other teams’ fans. That’d be fun to read for a little while. He had some funny stuff on Jack Flaherty that really got Cards’ fans revved up.

  12. Wasn’t Bobby Cox before Billy Bean in this department? He kept on saying it to the point that I no longer believed it. How convenient for just one WS win out of all those post seasons and with pitching all the others would kill for.

    Game 4 last October confirmed it. One team choked, the other didn’t. Then Folty choked in Game 5. You are not going to survive back to back chokes late in a series. There is no need to delve any deeper.

    Jonathan F, good to see you back in print. Stay out of that casino in the principality. Your money would be safer with me.

  13. should have added…
    ‘you are not going to survive back to back chokes…’

    ..regardless of how much the players concerned are paid. See Donaldson J.’

  14. @12–AAR, are you assuming that there is stuff that works in the playoffs? That is, that works disproportionately well in the playoffs as opposed to the regular season. I’ve heard lots of folks assert that certain things are the key to playoff success, such as putting the ball in play (Royals of 2014 and 2015), or having 3 dominant starting pitchers (Nats and Astros 2019). Of course no team in history has had three more dominant starters than the 90’s Braves.
    Anyway, I am curious: are there reliable studies of certain skills or attributes that do better in the postseason than the regular season?
    Or is it luck all the way down?

  15. Hi, blazon.
    I don’t think Bobby ever said that his job was to get the Braves into the playoffs and whatever happened after that was out of his hands. If he did, it would be a pretty odd thing for a manager to say. I do believe he defended his playoff decisionmaking, though. At the end of the piece I discuss the Braves one win in 14 straight division winning seasons. It’s below par, for sure, but not ridiculously so. Indeed, the current streak of ten straight series losses (counting wild card games as a series) is actually more unlikely than one win in 14 years of being one of the top two or three teams.

    I don’t like the term “choke,” but I won’t begrudge your use of it. But I’m with Bill James that to the extent it connotes a lack of character, it presumes facts not in evidence.

    Finally, I’m in Austria, not Monaco, but thanks for your solicitous interest in my financial wellbeing.

  16. @17: I don’t think there are such studies, Tfloyd. At least, I haven’t seen any. If Howie Kendrick doesn’t homer off the Dodgers, the Nat’s starting depth would have been worthless. I do link to one blog post later in which someone fecklessly tries to link various things known to win individual ball games to WS winning and comes up empty. But that’s far from systematic. But whenever you see an explanation for WS success, recall the cartoon above.

  17. Everyone seems to be ignoring the obvious. When you say that the playoffs are filled with luck and are a crapshoot, I don’t see anyone defining what constitutes luck. Also, there has been a lot of talk over time exactly about what Alex R. is talking about i.e. teams built for the playoffs vs teams built for the regular season.

    When we’re talking about luck in the playoffs vs regular season, we’re talking about being able to compensate over time in the regular season for things that happen vs not being able to compensate in a short series. It’s the same thing that allows the best teams to lose season series against bad teams and win against good teams. Luck is composed of definable things like injuries and weather (1982), the perfect example of which is Chris Martin. These things are magnified over a short period of time. Suppose Game 5 got rained out last year. Do the Cards still score 13 runs the next day when Folty has an extra day of rest? Scherzer or Strasburg gets rained out after 4 innings in the Dodger series and the Nats don’t win.

    As for team design, it seems to me that a team of stars and scrubs (with enough stars) would make for a better playoff team whereas a balanced team with talent up and down the roster AND in AAA and including mid-season trades shows better over the regular season. The Nats are a perfect example. If you take their eight best offensive players and four best pitchers (two starters and two relievers including converting a starter to reliever for the playoffs), you might find that the Nats actually had the best team in the league for the playoffs (as horrible as their back-end starters and most of their relievers were).

    Do teams with more 4 WAR players win playoff series more often? 3 WAR players? If you really believe in statistical analysis, you should be able to come up with a formula for a team that will win 80% of the time. If that means you have to pay a few dollars for a few pennies worth of extra value then that is exactly what you have to do. Extra value should cost more than base value. The difference between a 3 WAR and 4 WAR player might be twice the salary.

  18. I also don’t think you can measure the Braves 10 series playoff losing streak by series. The Braves have win games during those losing series. I haven’t added it up but I’ll be the winning percentage is around 40%. There’s a difference between talking about losing 10 straight games vs 10 straight series.

  19. Thanks to Jonathan F for bringing a great discussion.

    For those still having issues on the site, I am proud to say that the issues are going to be completely gone very soon as we will be starting from scratch with a new host.

    With that comes spending and, if you’re able, buying a shirt, or becoming a patron would really help out a lot.

  20. Roger… Most of what you say here will be addressed later, particularly on defining luck. Let’s talk after that. As to series vs games, MikeM’s math above is correct. The better team has a better chance of winning a series than a game, but the odds of losing 10 games in a row when you have a 50-50 chance of winning each is exactly the same as the chance of losing 10 series in a row when you have a 50-50 chance of winning each. The 50-50 is just an approximation, of course, but it’s in the ballpark.

  21. Jonathan F

    Ah, the piste, I should have known. A man of your still formidable athletic instincts can hardly be expected to while away the hours with the glitterati. Beware the avalanches please, they seem to be on the news here so often.

  22. That’s strike two, blazon. Actually in Vienna, with nary a flake in sight. (And Remy: I was in Budapest last week — great city.)

  23. @Roger
    The Braves, in their heyday, were a team totally built for the playoffs and yet walked away with one World Series. 3 HoF SPs, 1 HoF 3B, and arguably the best defensive CFer to ever play.

  24. @27 Ryan, I think that getting to the Series as many times as they did was pretty good and proved their value even if they only won one. Luck and design were on their side more than not. Part of having 4 HOF’ers was their ability to get through the playoffs into the Series. And, for the most part, the team had to win two series to get to the Series. So each year they made it, they won two out of three series’.

  25. @28, they’ve gotten through the playoffs a lot less frequently of late, since they added the division series. In 1991 and 1992, they just had to win the NLCS. Here’s their history as a franchise:

    Wild Card Game (since 2012): 0-1
    LDS (since 1995): 6-9 (they won their first five, then as we all know they’ve lost their last eight)
    LCS (since 1969): 5-6
    WS (since 1903): 3-6

  26. Apologies if this steps on the toes of future posts, but in looking at the last 10 playoff series, the Braves teams had an average regular season winning percentage of .582 compared to an average winning percentage of their opponents of .562. Couple that with the fact that ATL had homefield in 7 of the 10 series and the pre-series odds on average had to be a little better than 50/50 I’d say.

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