Baseball’s Playoff Problem

by Conway West 1.17.15

In the age of parity in baseball, has competitive balance driven teams to mediocrity?

In my experience as a baseball fan, I have never seen a winter quite like this one. I am not talking Polar Vortex round 2. I am talking the active lifestyle of every major league franchise’s front office. Virtually every team is making moves– every team in baseball completed at least 5 moves to their big league roster in the month of December alone. All teams but the Diamondbacks, Rangers and Brewers completed Major league contracts with Free Agents, with the D-backs and Brewers completing trades of accomplished big leaguers. The Rangers were the only team that stood pat, but their fans have more DL days than any other team coming back in 2015 – Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo and Yu Darvish could be better than signing free agents.

Baseball postseason this year has been fun. As JD Cam pointed out, it has brought life into some franchises that desparately needed it. Along with the Padres, the White Sox have done some massive retooling, and the Blue Jays, Cubs, and Red Sox have pushed all-in with huge commitments. The Mariners, Pirates, and Marlins set themselves up for success in the past couple years, and invested big money in winning now. Even the Twins and Mets pushed money into veterans in hopes of hitting the lottery on a winning season. At this point in the offseason, only the Phillies, Braves, Astros and Diamondbacks can be looking at 2015 as a “rebuilding year”. 26 other teams can go into spring training with hopes that this is “their year”. These teams may not be off base, looking on previous results.

Last year’s AL champs, The Kansas City Royals, won 89 games and were projected for 82 to start the year. The MLB champs, the San Francisco Giants, won 88 when projected for 83. Both only mildly overperformed during the regular season, and neither team had a wildly overperforming roster- the Royals played great defense and didn’t strike out, and the Giants relied on a couple stars to beat up on bad NL West foes. Both teams did about what was expected of them, but over-performed their expected W-L (by run differential) by a couple games during the season to scratch out wild card berths.

The Royals proved that any team can 'get in and win'.

The Royals proved that any team can ‘get in and win’.

This proved to be all they needed, as both teams caught fire in October. And while this made for exciting times in Kansas City (and some irritating enjoyment out of San Francisco), it further frustrated other fan bases with loaded teams. Fans of the Nationals and Tigers must feel wrecked – they have had some loaded teams for a couple seasons now, with nothing to show for it. Now they both face the reality that their cores won’t stay in their prime forever. Rebuilding looms in the future for both squads.

Since the MLB playoffs expanded to 8 teams in 1995, we have seen 6 wild card world series champs. From 2002 to 2007, there was at least one wild card that made it to the World Series. There has actually been research (and Freakonomics articles) to show regular season wins do not correlate to postseason success.

This offseason shows the direction of baseball as we move toward the future. For starters, it says that Major league baseball is doing very well financially. That much is clear when guys like Kendrys Morales get multi-year deals after being vastly below replacement level in 2014. The other thing it says is that there is no incentive to being great in the MLB right now. None. No home field advantage in the playoffs, no ensured success in the playoffs. Only 3 of the last 20 World Series winners have been from the best record in the league. The sample size of the playoffs is just too small to have any certainty that your loaded team will win.

The MLB playoffs are essentially a lottery. The best team doesn’t win much more often than it loses, and almost anything can happen in a series less than 5% the length of the regular season. So it has turned into a random event. We haven’t had a back-to-back winner since the Yankees won 3 straight from 1998-2000, and teams are beginning to realize that spreading out your wins over many seasons ensures that each year you are getting a chance at that lottery.  Teams are setting themselves up for a chance at 88 wins, without sacrificing their future to do so.

The reward of having a 95-win team over the risk of giving away your future just isn’t worth it. So many of the teams that made big moves this season (Padres and Mariners to name two) felt like they did so without breaking the bank nor giving away tons of their best young talent. The goal isn’t to win 95 for 3 years then rebuild, it’s to win 88 every year.

The most obvious and excellent example of this philosophy is Oakland. The Athletics pushed all their chips in the pot last year – huge trades for stud starting pitchers, and all their offensive pieces hit their prime in May of 2014. Unfortunately, some of their hitters stopped hitting (or got banged up), their middle infield stopped fielding and what appeared like a 100-win team in early July turned into a team that scraped into the last playoff seed.

Well, Billy Beane seemed to look at the Royals success and say “why not us?” He traded away his players he deemed had peeked in value – Brandon Moss, Josh Donaldson, Derek Norris – and ones with expiring contracts – Jeff Samardija, John Jaso. He traded all these players for guys that won’t lose too much in the present, but should make the team better past 2016. Ultimately, Oakland went from a team projected for 86 wins, to a team that is projected to win 85. This isn’t too bad, all while shaving a few dollars off the payroll. They are well within that 88-90 win threshold it should take to make the postseason. Whoever uses the term ‘rebuilding’ is wildly misinformed.

After several strong additions, could the White Sox follow the Royals path to success?

After several strong additions, could the White Sox follow the Royals path to success?

The formula for success seems simple – build a roster that every year has a chance to make the playoffs. Then roll the dice to see if your team comes up big. The White Sox have Chris Sale and Jose Abreu – who says those guys can’t do in 2015 what Madison Bumgarner and Pablo Sandoval did in 2014? All they have to do is get into the postseason. Their moves this offseason, along with the moves of 25 other clubs, are not only reinvigorating a fan base, but also purchasing that lottery ticket for the World Series Title.

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