Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Bracket Time

We're rapidly approaching the end of the playoffs for two major sports leagues: the NBA and the NHL. Each league accepts 16 teams into their playoffs, and each matchup is a best-of-seven series. This, combined with a good number of off days explains why these playoffs last two months.

This makes me wonder why Major League Baseball can't involve more teams. Why do they only invite 8 teams to "the dance" where the other leagues invite 16. The NFL even invites 12 teams. Why not have best-of-seven series matching up more teams in baseball.

Then I realized, this pretty much already happens. It just happens during the regular season. What if, instead of playing another set of games at the end of the season, we just take the games already played, simulate a bracket, and have the "winners" play in the World Series? So, that's what I did, at least for the past five seasons.

Here are the rules:
All teams are seeded (per league) based on win-loss record. Ties are broken based on expected win-loss (which is based on runs scored and allowed). The 1 and 2 seeds in the AL get first-round byes, since there are only 14 teams. Each round is then "played" by looking at how these teams did head-to-head. If they tied (often teams play 6 games), then the team with the most runs scored wins. The winner of the AL bracket meets the winner of the NL bracket in the Bracket World Series.

For example, the 2008 American League bracket looks like this:
1 LA Angels (100-62) Bye
8 Cleveland (81-81) vs. 9 Texas (79-83)

4 NY Yankees (89-73) vs. 13 Baltimore (68-93)
5 Chicago Sox (89-74) vs. 12 Detroit (74-88)

2 Tampa Bay (97-65) Bye
7 Toronto (86-76) vs. 10 Oakland (75-86)

3 Boston (95-67) vs. 14 Seattle (61-101)
6 Minnesota (88-75) vs. 11 Kansas City (75-87)

In the first round,
Cleveland beats Texas, 6 to 4 [their season head-to-head record].
New York beats Baltimore, 11 to 7 [why do the O's always seem to stink against the Yanks?]
Chicago beats Detroit, 12 to 6
Toronto beats Oakland, 6 to 4
Boston beats Seattle, 6 to 3
Minnesota beats Kansas City, 12 to 6

In the second round,
Los Angeles beats Cleveland, 5 to 4
New York beats Chicago, 5 to 2
Tampa Bay beats Toronto, 11 to 7
Boston beats Minnesota, 4 to 3
There are still no upsets in the bracket, though real-life playoff team Chicago is ousted by the team with the better record, New York.

In the third round,
Los Angeles beats New York, 7 to 3
Tampa Bay beats Boston, 10 to 8
No Yanks and no Red Sox in this imaginary Series... it's a happy ending after all.

And for the AL crown, Tampa Bay beats Los Angeles, 6 to 3.

Again, these are the records these teams had head-to-head during the season. Is it really fair to discount that New York beat Chicago 5 out of 7 games, even if those games weren't in October?

I'll sum up the remaining brackets with the World Series matchups, then a few comments about how it played out.

2008 : #2 Rays vs. #2 Phillies
Surprisingly, this is the same matchup as the actual World Series. The Cubbies made it to the Finals, though, before losing to the Phillies, 5-1. They almost didn't, as they split their series 3-3 with the lowly #16 Nationals, only to be saved by scoring 7 more runs. Upset special: #12 Atlanta (72-90) knocks out #5 Astros (86-75) and #4 Mets (89-73) before getting eliminated by the Cubs.

2007 : #4 Angels vs. #4 Padres
The NL champ is the one who in reality was eliminated in a one-game playoff with the Rockies for the NL wildcard. The Angels beat #13 Orioles, #5 Tigers, #1 Indians in a tie-breaker, and #3 Yankees, 6-3. The Padres squeak by thanks to #8 Brewers defeating the top-seeded Diamondbacks, 5-2.

2006 : #6 Angels vs. #1 Mets or #2 Dodgers
Whoops! My tiebreakers wasn't breaking enough! In the first round, the mighty Mets (97-65) played the #16 Cubs (66-96) to a tie, 3-3, in which they managed each to score 35 runs. If the Mets "win" that match, they go all the way; if not, the Dodgers go in. As far as the 89-73 Angels go, they earn their bid. After dispensing with the #11 Mariners, they beat the #3 Tigers, the #2 Twins, and the #1 Yankees. They had a winning record against the top three AL teams (all playoff bound), yet missed the playoffs entirely. It goes to show you have to beat the bad teams, too.

2005 : #3 Red Sox vs. #2 Braves or #8 Brewers
Argh! Failed again! Milwaukee ended dead even with the Mets in the 3rd round, with 3 wins and 40 runs each. If they win, they beat the Braves for the title. If not, the Braves beat the Mets. This was the year of the upset. Besides the Brewers, the 67-95 Devil Rays take out the #4 Yankees, #5 Indians, and #9 Rangers (who beat the top-seeded White Sox) before succumbing to the Red Sox. But the bigger upset came when 67-95 16-seed Colorado beat the 100-win, top-seeded Cardinals by one run in the tiebreaker, 34-33.

2004 : #1 Yankees vs. #1 Cardinals
The first time a top seed makes it outright, though this year is not without excitement. #6 Texas makes it to the finals before losing 5-4. And a Dodgers/Brewers tie in the first round trickles into the finals before St. Louis ousts them all. The 71-91 Mets also make it to the third round by beating #5 Giants and #4 Astros.

So, what did I learn from this exercise, other than I have way too much time on my hands? Well, first, that I don't have enough time, for if I did, I'd have made a program that would download these records and compute the bracket for me. This way, I could tweak the tiebreakers, tweak the seedings, and even decide whether to re-order the winners based on seed or keep them in bracket (e.g. if a 16 beats a 1, do they play the #8 or the #2 next?)

And why doesn't MLB go to something like this? Well, other than the loss of revenue from playoff games and selling October as the big-time games, I can think of one really good reason. I can imagine a scenario in this bracket system where the last day of games determines the seeding. And, I can imagine that based on matchups, a lower seed may actually be better for a team. So, the worst-case scenario is if two teams are playing each other on the final day, and the LOSER will end up in the World Series. Imagine two teams each trying to throw the game. That's why this will only ever be an exercise for stat geeks like myself.

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