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A Modest Proposal for the MLB

Major League Baseball got greedy and needs to reform.

The Major League Baseball (MLB) season is finally over. Whew!

In the World Series, the Texas Rangers (which tied with Houston and Philadelphia for the 6th best regular-season record) defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks (which had the 13th best regular-season record). What exactly was the point? Many of the games were entertaining but no one would seriously argue that these were the two best MLB teams.

There was a time when the World Series pitted the American League team with the best regular-season record against the National League team with the best regular-season record. Then, the MLB got greedy and crafted an elaborate playoff system designed to increase revenue. First came two rounds, then three rounds, now four rounds. Currently, 12 out of 30 teams qualify for the postseason playoffs.

Luck is endemic in baseball. As I have written elsewhere,

Batters have to decide in a quarter of a second or less whether and how to swing at a ball traveling 90+ miles an hour and possibly swerving at the last moment. Even if the ball is hit, the slightest difference in how that slender rounded bat hits that small round ball can make the difference between weak and solid hits. Even if the ball is hit solidly, it might go directly at a fielder or in between fielders. Even if the ball is hit weakly, it might be an easy popup or a bloop hit. A weak dribbler might stay fair or roll foul. Ground balls bounce off pebbles; fly balls are blown by gusts of wind.

Baseball, Life, and the Mediocrity Magnet | by Gary Smith | Medium

Compared to the 162 games that each team currently plays during the regular season, the results of 3-game, 5-game, or even 7-game playoff series are largely determined by luck and make it very likely that the teams with the best regular-season records do not play in the World Series.

For some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I made a simple model for estimating the probability that a team with an X% regular-season winning record will win a game against a team with a Y% winning record. This model is simple in that it ignores the starting pitchers, home-field advantage (if any), and other complicating factors but it generates plausible probabilities. For example, a team with a 60% winning record is given a 50% chance of winning a game against another team with a 60% winning record, a 55% chance against a 55% team, and a 60% chance against a 50% team.

Using the 2023 regular-season data, I estimated the probabilities that each of the top six teams in each league would win the World Series for four different post-season systems for qualifying for the World Series: no playoffs, one round with the top two teams in each league, two rounds with the top four teams in each league, and three rounds with the top six teams in each league.

Notice how the introduction of a playoff system makes it unlikely that the teams with the best regular season records will win the World Series. The current 3-round system is slightly more favorable than a two-round system for the top two teams in each league because they get a bye in the first round. Even so, there is a 22% chance that a wild-card team will win the World Series.

Mere Entertainment?

It might be argued that the World Series is not intended to identify the best team but merely to provide entertainment, and that seeing Texas play Arizona is as entertaining as seeing the two best regular-season teams (Baltimore and Atlanta) play each other. Modern sports are certainly focused on entertainment, as evidenced by rule changes that are intended to increase the entertainment value. However, a large part of the appeal of sports is bragging or at least feeling good about how well your favorite team did (and those timeless debates comparing, say, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, the 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers, and the 1985-86 Boston Celtics). We lose all that if the public loses faith in the ability of the system to identify the best teams. Who is going to remember, let alone take seriously, the 2023 Texas Rangers? The World Series is already widely viewed as a farce, which hardly helps restore the allure of what used to be America’s pastime.

What’s the alternative? Here’s a radical proposal. The English Premier League has a regular season during which each of the top 20 soccer clubs play the other 19 clubs twice, once at home and once away. There are no playoffs. Whichever club has the best regular-season record is the Premier League Champion. The bottom three teams are relegated to the Championship League and replaced by three teams from that league.

The MLB might follow this example by eliminating the distinction between the American and National leagues and putting the top 20 teams in a single (call-it-what-you-will) league, with each team playing the other 19 teams eight times, four home and four away. Based on this year’s regular season records, these 10 teams would be put in a lower-level league, perhaps with some current triple-A teams: Oakland, Kansas City, Colorado, White Sox, Washington, St. Louis, Angels, Mets, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. At the end of every season, the team with the best record is acknowledged as the best MLB team that year. The bottom three teams would be relegated and replaced by three second-division teams.

An Incentive to Be Good

One added benefit of this system is that teams would have an incentive to be good enough to play in the top-level league and earn top-level revenue. Under the current revenue-sharing system, aided and abetted by loyal fans who watch and attend games no matter how poorly the team performs, many owners seem to prioritize maximizing profits by minimizing costs.

The MLB could preserve the World Series by having a tournament throughout the regular season that is similar to English football’s FA Cup, a knockout competition open to teams all the way down to Level 9. An MLB version would be open to minor league teams and culminate in an October World Series for the two teams that survive the knockout rounds.

MLB will surely not adopt this proposal because it would eliminate post-season playoff revenue. On the other hand, the lengthy playoffs surely devalue the regular season now that 40% of the teams make the playoffs. If the regular season is devalued and the playoffs are recognized as essentially meaningless, total revenue may actually be diminished by the current system.

At the very least, it could be more fun to debate this proposal than to compare the Texas Rangers to other recent World Series champions — if only we could remember who they were.

Gary N. Smith

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Gary N. Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College. His research on financial markets statistical reasoning, and artificial intelligence, often involves stock market anomalies, statistical fallacies, and the misuse of data have been widely cited. He is the author of dozens of research articles and 16 books, most recently, Distrust: Big Data, Data-Torturing, and the Assault on Science, Oxford University Press, 2023.

A Modest Proposal for the MLB