Dr. Strangeglove: Fairness vs. Excitement

Posted by Michael Baumann, Fri, July 22, 2011 11:46 AM | Comments: 11
Dr. Strangeglove, Posts

One thing it’s important to remember sometimes is that most of us who write for this site have no more access or information than the average fan. Pat and Jay, for instance, do interviews and cultivate sources and might actually learn things about the Phillies before the public. I say “might” because they tend not to pass this information on to me, so I know just as little about potential stretch run acquisitions as the average fan, or, stated better, I am privy to no more information.

But despite that, and not knowing which relief pitcher, or outfielder, or other type of player the Phillies might come away with by either trade deadline. But here’s my suspicion: I think the Phillies would enter the playoffs as the overwhelming favorite no matter what moves they make, and while adding Heath Bell or Carlos Beltran would help, for sure, but not as much as you might think. Here’s why: being the best team isn’t enough, and that’s the point: the playoffs are designed to be unfair.

If we wanted fairness in determining our athletic champions, we’d have as large a sample as possible. It goes down to the old aphorism that keeps popping up after big playoff upsets: “If these two teams played 10 times, the team that lost would win 8 or 9 of them.” This is a cliche, but it’s actually instructive as to the way we look at sports–our athletic leaders and fans are willing to sacrifice fairness for excitement. If we were truly interested in awarding the championship to the best team, MLB (and the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLS) would be set up like the Barclay’s Premier League, the top soccer competition in England: no divisions, and every team plays ever other team once, with the winner being the team with the best record at the end–it doesn’t get more fair than that. The problem, of course, is that it’s phenomenally boring. The BPL has existed for 19 seasons, and Manchester United has won the title 12 times. Thanks to promotion and relegation, 44 teams has competed for at least one season, and only four have ever won. It’s almost a foregone conclusion going into the season that Manchester United and Chelsea will finish 1-2 and Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool will finish from 3-6 in some order. I think it’s boring and I root for one of the good teams.

The upside of our playoff system is that we get exciting moments like the Giants’ improbable run to the World Series last year, and watching the 18-0 Patriots get snuffed out at the last moment in Super Bowl XLII. The downside is that the best team hardly ever wins, but that’s the sacrifice we make, and judging by the number of Super Bowl parties I’ve attended and the number of times I’ve lost my voice screaming at playoff baseball and hockey, I’d say that sacrificing fairness for entertainment is worth it.

But back to the original point: no matter what the Phillies do in the next week, they can’t guarantee anything but their own involvement and seeding in the playoffs, and with Coolstandings giving La Furia Roja a 78 percent chance of winning the division and a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs going into today’s games, it’s all but guaranteed anyway.

All that adding Bell, or Beltran, or Hunter Pence would do is provide some sort of limited insurance against the kind of freak occurrence and small-sample-size randomness that characterize North American postseason sports. If Beltran’s playing left field instead of Raul Ibanez, maybe that bad hop off the wall doesn’t cause Mike Stutes to give up that four-run eighth inning that loses an NLCS Game 5 in Milwaukee, for instance, but as it has been proved to Phillies fans in 2010, the difference between victory and defeat can be precisely that razor-thin, even if there’s a marked difference in quality between the two competing teams.

So if and when the Phillies make the big trade, don’t make the mistake of thinking that having the best team guarantees anything come playoff time–the very qualities that make playoff baseball exciting can make it heartbreakingly unfair.

Avatar of Michael Baumann

About Michael Baumann

Michael Baumann has written 229 articles on Phillies Nation.

Michael is a graduate student at Temple University who lost his childlike innocence when, at the age of 6, his dad let him stay up for the end of Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. Unsettled by the Phillies' recent success, he has threatened over the years to leave the team he loves if they don't start losing again, but has so far been unable to follow through. Michael spent 4 years as an undercover agent in Braves territory at the University of South Carolina, where he covered football and soccer for The Daily Gamecock before moving back up north. He began writing for The Phrontiersman in June 2009 before moving to Phillies Nation in January 2010.

  • Posts: 0 Danny

    well played, baumann

  • Posts: 0 TheDipsy

    What the?

    The Dipsy

  • Posts: 427 Publius

    Avatar of Publius

    I know about this all too well. I’m also a Mariners fan, and the 2001 season STILL breaks my heart. To win 116 games in the regular season, only to lose to the Yankees in the ALCS was incredibly heartbreaking. Yet, it is what it is, and it’s what makes the playoffs so damn exciting, and the World Series titles mean so damn much.

  • Posts: 0 Geoff

    The team with the best record in the majors in the Wild Card era has only won the World Series 3 times. The 1998 and 2009 Yankees. The 2007 Red Sox. That’s it.


  • Posts: 0 bigmyc

    Sigh….the teams that ultimately win ARE the best teams. Everybody knows it’s about the post season. If you are able to knock off the team with the best record in the post season, chances are that you deserve the spoils.

    Sports seasons exist for the sake of pasttimes, stats and conversation. Post seasons serve to bring reckoning and closure to the pageant.

    Besides, if that great team with the great record can’t get it done when it really counts, how great can they really be?

    • Posts: 0 Ryan H.

      gotta disagree. the giants were most definitely not the best team last year. the phillies were far superior in every measurable way. the best team does not always win. the 18-0 patriots were maybe the best football team of all time and they didn’t win the bowl.

  • Posts: 0 Ryan H.

    this notion of knowing whats going to happen and what the GM’s and the brass are talking about and with whom is such nonsense. trades often come together last second and they pull the trigger. even Ruben Amaro doesn’t know who they’re going to get. some team and player could emerge out of nowhere to make a deal. there’s no telling

  • Posts: 0 Schwalmy

    Speaking of the mariners I read a couple of places that everyone on there squad except for the cat is available!
    Can anyone say ICHIRO!!!

  • Posts: 0 bart shart

    Let’s go full steam after Melky Cabrera. He will serve us well for five years. He is a late bloomer and younger than John Mayberry. Give up Cosart and Singleton and let’s stop farting around.

    Switch hitter, base stealer, excellent defender with about as much power as Victorino. He will thrive in Philly. GUARANTEED. He also has post-season experience and a World Series ring.

    Tell Ruben Amaro that Bart Shart gives his blessings on this trade and he should be doing it NOW !!! KEEP WORLEY.

    • Posts: 0 Matt

      This Phillies team reminds me of those 2007 Red Sox with Beckett,Schilling and Dice K .They added Lowell to put them over and the Phillies are going to add the same last piece.Melky would be good but Pence would be best.Tough call but not if Houston isnt asking too much.

  • Posts: 0 bigmyc

    How could the Phillies have been the best team in ’09 if they didn’t even get to the Fall Classic?

    This defies simple logic. I will repeat; to be the best team in any given year, you simply have to do it when it all counts.

    Excuses are for losers. Woulda, coulda, shoulda, yada, yada, yada.

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