Jul
30
2007

World Series math: How many games to crown a true champ?

True trophy: Under a statisical analysis of the past 30 years of baseball seasons, the true champion of the game would be crowned following a 265-game season and a best-of-11 World Series. (Photo by madmolecule)
True trophy: Under a statisical analysis of the past 30 years of baseball seasons, the true champion of the game would be crowned following a 265-game season and a best-of-11 World Series. (Photo by madmolecule)
The New York Yankees have had a hard time winning the World Series in recent years, despite having the largest payroll and brightest array of all-star players. What owner George Steinbrenner might need to do next to turn his team’s luck is get more games on the regular and post-season schedules.

That’s the finding a new study that analyzed Major League baseball’s statistical leaders vs. the team the ultimately won the year’s championship. Using this methodology, the study found that in 2003, the Florida Marlins had no statistical right to be in the same ballpark as the Yankees.

“The world of sports provides an ideal laboratory for modeling competition because game data are accurate, abundant, and accessible," answers the study in the journal Physical Review E. "Even after a long series of competitions, the best team does not always finish first.”

The Yankees found that out in 2003, when underdog Florida beat them out for the championship in six games. The study, through its statistical analysis identified the Marlins as the worst team in the past 30 years to win the World Series.

Baseball has, by far, the longest season and largest number of games at 162. But the study found that in order to ensure the best teams win the championship each year the regular season should stretch for 265 games and the World Series should be a best-of-11 affair.

Lower-seeded teams have a 44-percent chance of winning baseball games over the past 100 years. Using that data along into a mathematical model, the study came up with these ideal numbers of games to identify a true champion.

Baseball does have the longest season of any other sport. Football, on the other hand, has just 16 games in a season. In playoffs, especially, the more games involved in getting to the finish line lead to the better teams winning the title more often.

On the other hand, the single-elimination nature of the NCAA’s mens’ basketball tournament makes it hugely popular just because of its Cinderella nature. Fans love to cheer on the underdogs who emerge through its unpredictability.

I have to admit that I’m haven’t run the numbers myself. And while they look good and logical, I wonder how they really stand up. The last several World Series champions have been wild-card entries. But the shorter, single-elimination football playoffs seem to more often put the crown on the league’s top-winning team.

What do you think? Should seasons be set up to have the best shot of identifying the best team? Or do you like things to be unpredictable in sports? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Gene's picture
Gene says:

The 2003 Marlins were worse than the 2006 Cardinals?

This is the problem I have with these kinds of studies. The Yankees may be the strongest team in the majors on paper. But the game is not played on paper. It's played on the field. Balls fly in capricious directions. Players get unanticipated injuries. They have hot streaks and cold streaks, above-average and below-average years, with little rhyme or reason. And the game has a great many dimensions -- hitting, power hitting, base running, starting pitching, relief pitching, defense, coaching -- that interact in very complicated ways. You can crunch the numbers any way you want, but the game still has to be played by people.

(Also, these statistics cover an entire season. The problem is, every 9 innings, the game stops and a winner is declared. The team that scores the most runs over the course of the season is often not the team that wins the most individual games.)

You do not link to your source. I found a couple of articles, and one said the ideal season would be 256 games, rather than 265. The rationale is that the ideal number of games is the number of teams in the leagued squared. The National League, with 16 teams, would be 16 x 16 = 256.

This seems unattainable, but it really isn't. First, cut the number of teams in both leagues back to 12. The expansion of the majors in the past 30 years has seriously diluted the talent pool, driven up salaries by making talent relatively much scarcer, and has hurt competition by forcing poor teams to settle for players who really should be in the minors.

Once you've got two leagues of 12 teams each, run a 144-game season (12 x 12). The season could start a week later, avoiding some nasty early-April weather. It could end in mid-September. Then you have a best-of-11 playoff between division winners, and a best-of-11 World Series, and you're done by mid-October.

This eliminates usurping wild card teams, which are an abomination before the Lord. And after Him, too.

And it does away with inter-league play, another abomination.

Next, we get rid of the designated hitter.

And stay off my lawn.

posted on Wed, 08/01/2007 - 10:11am

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