America Loves Playoffs, But Do They Always Crown the "Best" Champion?

By Mike Cardillo
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Fair warning, this post is going to start off with something about MLS. If you can set aside whatever personal disdain you have for soccer or disinterest in the American professional league for roughly 17 seconds it might be worth your time.

Still with me after that exciting lede?

On October 26, admist the NFL season, the Seattle Sounders beat the Los Angeles Galaxy to clinch the best record in the 2014 MLS season. In doing so, the Sounders won the Supporters Shield trophy — think of it as the President’s Trophy in the NHL. It’s something you want to win, but at the end of the day it’s not what most people will remember or value. The MLS Cup champion is crowned in December following a strange, less-than-loved playoff system. Things have reached the point where it’s not only fans and media members questioning the MLS playoffs, but one of its star players.

U.S. World Cup breakout star DeAndre Yedlin — bound for the EPL shortly — told reporters following Seattle’s win that the Supporters Shield was more important than the MLS Cup. Later he took to Twitter to clarify his remarks.

A hat tip toward Yedlin’s direction is merited. You’ll be hard-pressed to argue that a playoff system vs. a 34-game regular season is a better gauge overall of a soccer team. American soccer adopted many traits from around the world, but implementing a system where a champion is crowned via the most points during the regular season is, seemingly, a bridge too far. There’s no need to get too much into the specifics of the MLS playoff system, which includes one-game play-in matches, home-and-home series and single game for the Cup, but it doesn’t always crown the “best” team at the end.

The way soccer works, in a given game a lesser team could play a defensive gameplan, hunker down and stun the favorite with a goal on the counter attack or set play — or play for penalties — and advance. In a long, 34-game season, this kind of result can be shaken off, but in the playoffs the better team goes home for the winter. According to Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus, since MLS adopted a two-leg playoff format the higher seed only advanced 56.25 percent of the time. Straus’ piece also includes this telling line from longtime MLS coach Bruce Arena from 2011 about playoffs vs. regular season: “They are two separate competitions. They’re unique in themselves and one has nothing to do with the other.”

Playoffs tend to make sense in America since they get bigger television ratings — or create more buzz — than the regular season. Take the NBA as a prime example. Baseball might not be the ratings machine it was in the 1970s, but Game 7 between the Royals and Giants last Wednesday still attracted over 23 million viewers — a huge number for network television in 2014. Unfortunately the 2013 MLS Cup final played on a Saturday barely drew half a million viewers on ESPN, making it the lowest rated final ever, a story for another day.

Sometimes, a playoff is necessary as a practical matter, in a league like the NFL where it’s impossible to play a balanced schedule with only 16 games–lest we get a computers or pollsters involved and decide the champion on public opinion. Most sports, though, from soccer to baseball, the size of the playoff is not necessary to truly determine the best team.

I thought back to Yedlin’s remarks when I spoke with former Braves pitcher John Smoltz about World Series Game 7 over the phone last week and the changes he saw as a player in the baseball playoff format. Now MLB is a lot like MLS — or all other leagues — including a Wild Card playoff/play-in change, a five-game Division Series a seven-game League Championship followed by a best-of-seven World Series. Much like soccer, a one-off or small sampling of baseball doesn’t exactly tell the whole story mostly because of the pitching. This isn’t always the case, but as Smoltz and I talked about, the scheduling of playoff baseball allows a manager to mix-and-match his pitching staff in ways he couldn’t during the regular season.

Case-in-point, look how much Madison Bumgarner’s left arm dominated the Royals in the World Series across two starts and one instantly-legendary relief performance to close out the clincher.

This October was Bud Selig’s final chance to hand out the World Series trophy. One of Bud/Bird’s long-stated goals was parity on the field. Selig got his wish, sort of, this year as both World Series teams failed to win 90 games — each advancing from the one-game Wild Card play in. Comparatively, a team winning 89 games vs. 90 isn’t a huge deal — the winning percentages are .549 vs. 556 — so it’s merely a matter of cosmetics and baseball’s longtime obsession with round numbers for counting. (Four years ago, Jason Lisk broke down what it might look like if baseball played a 16-game season, for comparison.)

Plus the Giants won the World Series in both 2010 and 2012, while the Royals were a nice feel-good story following 29 years of playoff futility, so nobody really got on their soapbox to grouse about either team’s regular season records.

At this juncture, it’s worth remembering at the time of the first World Series in 1903 the American and National Leagues were dire rivals, raiding each other for players. The playoff following the conclusion of each league’s respective seasons proved to be a good chance for “world” bragging rights, but more importantly another chance to sell tickets in Boston and Pittsburgh — professional sports are forever and have always been a business first. The first Series wasn’t even established or intended to be a yearly event, either. To a lesser extent the first Super Bowl between the NFL and AFL followed these lines in the mid-1960s.

Baseball, we can agree, changes the most from its regular season to the postseason simply because of the pitching and how a team juggles its staff. Playoff NFL or NBA games, while more intense, are essentially the same tactical Xs and Os we see during the regular season. The fundamental game hasn’t been altered. Admittedly I’m not an avid NHL observer, but the presence of a “hot” goalie tends to shift the balance once the Stanley Cup playoffs begin, leading to more upsets.

All of this rambling prompted me to look back at the regular season vs. postseason for the four major North American sports leagues to see if there have been any irregularities worth noting over the last 10 completed seasons for each sport.

NFL

All stats here begin with Super Bowl XXXIX between the Patriots and Eagles. The Game was played in 2005 but considered part of the 2004 season.

Average seed to win a Super Bowl: 3.4
Average seed to reach a Super Bowl: 2.45
Average wins by Super Bowl-winning team: 11.4
Lowest seed to win a Super Bowl: No. 6, 2005 Steelers (11-5); 2010 Packers (10-6)
Most regular season wins that failed to reach a Super Bowl: 15-1 (2004 Steelers, 2011 Packers)
Fewest regular season wins to win a Super Bowl: 2011 Giants went 9-7.

The notable team absent in the numbers above are the 2007 Patriots, who went 16-0 in the regular season but lost in the Super Bowl to the Giants. In the last 10 Super Bowls the No. 1 seed has won twice (2009 Saints, 2013 Seahawks) and in both instances their opponent was also seeded first.

If there’s any takeaway here it’s that an average seed of 3.4 winning the Super Bowl seems low, but the average wins in the regular season is still over 11 — and the general consensus is that an 11-5 regular season team would fall under the auspices of “good.” Both No. 6 seeds that won the Super Bowl surpassed 10 regular season wins, too.

A prediction? If we ever see an 8-8 team sneak into the playoffs and win the Super Bowl all the hot takes are going to break out from the seventh ring of hell.

MLB

Period begins with the White Sox win over the Astros in 2005 (Steeeeeve Perry!) and ends with the Giants triumph Wednesday night. The seeding in baseball, and all sports, can be misleading since Wild Cards often finished with better records but lower seeds than division winners. Note: until 2013 only four teams made the playoffs in each league.  

Average seed to win a World Series: 2.3
Average seed to reach a World Series: 2.6
Average wins by World Series-winning team: 93.4
Lowest seed to win a World Series: No.5, Giants 2014
Team with most regular season wins that failed to reach a World Series: 2011 Phillies, 102-60
Team with fewest regular season wins to win a World Series: 2006 Cardinals, 83-78

Given baseball’s long-term shift toward parity and competitive balance I’d guess the average number of wins to take the Series will drop by a game or two. The Giants and Royals serve as examples, just get in and maybe you have a chance, although we don’t want to see a scenario develop where baseball becomes like NCAA basketball where the regular season is almost completely meaningless due to the tournament. A team would much rather win 12 games in October like the Giants than 100 from April-September, a new reality baseball fans will probably have to accept.

NBA

Stats here begin with the 2004-2005 NBA Finals when the Spurs beat the Pistons. 2011-12 is omitted from averages due to the lockout-shortened season. Seeding in the NBA for the playoffs also changed after 2006 when teams with better records would be seeded higher than division winners. Dallas won 60 games that year but was a No. 4 seed, but still made the finals.  

Average seed to win a NBA Finals: 1.7
Average seed to reach an NBA Finals: 2.05
Average wins by NBA Finals-winning team : 60.2
Lowest seed to win an NBA Finals: No. 3 seeds, San Antonio 2006-07; Dallas 2010-11
Team with most regular season wins that failed to reach a NBA Finals: 2006-07 Dallas with 67
Team with fewest regular season wins to win an NBA Finals: 2005-06 Miami Heat, 52

The NBA is pretty straightforward, the cream tends to rise to the top in the regular season and exhibit its dominance over the Best-of-7 format as well. Over this span the lowest regular season wins to reach a Finals were Cleveland in 2006-07 and Boston in 2009-10, each of those appearances were tied directly to the performance — one good, one bad — of LeBron James.

Or look at the San Antonio Spurs under Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, who’ve famously used patchwork lineups late in the regular season to rest players once they’ve clinched a playoff seed. The math between winning a game in late-March vs. late-May is a no-brainer in the NBA.

NHL

A lockout canceled the 2004-05 NHL season and shortened the 2012-13 campaign, so all the numbers below are from 2005-06 onward and the shortened-season 2012-13 isn’t taken into account for point total averages.

Average seed to win a Stanley Cup ( all figures since 2005-06): 3.2
Average seed to reach a Stanley Cup final: 3.5
Average points by Stanley Cup-winning team: 105.8
Lowest seed to win a Stanley Cup: No. 8, Los Angeles Kings in 2011-12
Most regular season points that failed to reach a Stanley Cup final: 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings, 124 points
Fewest regular season points to win a Stanley Cup: 12011-12 Kings, 95 points
Fewest regular season points to reach a Stanley Cup final: 88, 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers (No. 7 seed)

Again, I’m not an NHL expert. A quick, highly unscientific poll on Twitter gave me some benchmarks that anything over 90 points in a season is considered a “good” regular season, while topping the 100 point threshold is great. In this period the President’s Trophy winners won the Cup twice, the 2008 Red Wing and 2013 Blackhawks. Of the four major sports, the NHL is prone to the most upsets and its not really considered that big of  deal if a team like the Kings is a No. 8 seed and wins it.

Ultimately all this isn’t going to matter much. Playoffs aren’t going away, even in MLS. Television networks don’t pay billions to acquire the rights to a sports league for it to just sort of end without any climax or build-up. However, is there a fair way give the higher seeded team a better reward for its regular season aside from homefield advantage without warping the dynamics of the game itself too much?

If you’re a team that’s good in the regular season, congrats — you get a banner for your arena. Either that or you end up like the 2007 Patriots or 2001 Mariners, historical footnotes … but not for the right reasons.

More often than not we tend to like the underdog team making a run through the postseason. Yes, a small minority might grouse but playoffs — and the upsets contained within — are so ingrained in American sports culture, nobody tends to give much pause when a No. 6 seed lifts the Lombardi Trophy in February. Long story short, a regular season is indeed a more accurate indicator of a “better” team but as Americans we don’t seem to care all that much. You’re much better off being great for a month than very good for six … at least if you want to be remembered and earn a ring.

[Photos via Getty]

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