There are two ways of looking at Tuesday night’s American League wild card playoff game between the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics. If you’re a Royals fan — or a fan of baseball in general, with no real stake in the outcome — it was an instant classic. If you’re an A’s fan, though, it was cruel reminder that for everything Billy Beane brings to the franchise, his “shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.”
Whatever the perspective, Tuesday’s game once again brought to the forefront the issue of letting a single do-or-die game determine a team’s postseason fate in this era of expanded MLB playoffs. Critics have noted the inherent unfairness of a six-month, 162-game regular season boiling down to one game. One-and-done postseasons are fine for a sport like football, so the argument goes, but NFL teams play but a tenth of the games their MLB counterparts do. In the long-haul sport of baseball, it seems unnatural for playoff matchups to not be in a series format.
Even among those in MLB, the NFL comparison is unavoidable: “I think a lot of people like this one-game deal, because it’s kind of a Super Bowl-type thing,” San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy told the San Jose Mercury News this week. “I will say that one game [playoff], I’ve enjoyed watching it. But now that I’m in it … um, I think I’d like to have two out of three.”
So, it seems as though purists are OK with single-game playoffs in football but not baseball. Is this legitimate, though? Does one game of football tell you any more about the relative quality of the two combatants than one game of baseball?
We can test this by going through a tried-and-true exercise, such as the one conducted here by Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Doug Drinen many years ago. The idea is that we need to generate randomly assigned talent ratings for a pool of teams based on the theoretical distribution of real-life talent in that league. We can then plug those talent ratings into the league’s schedule and track how often the team with the better talent rating wins a given game. (The reason we can’t do this using actual MLB and NFL results is that we can never know for sure which team has more true talent in a given game. But when we set up a simulation, we know all of the variables involved and can say for certain whether the better team won in any matchup.)
Doing this for MLB, the team with the higher talent rating won 57 percent of its games; by contrast, the better NFL team won 65 percent of its games in the simulation. In other words, the better team does prevail more often in a given football game than in baseball.
And, practically speaking, it is a fairly significant difference. Plugging that 57 percent figure into an odds calculator for best-of-seven series, the typical MLB favorite would have roughly the same chance of winning a seven-game series (66 percent) as an NFL favorite would have of winning a single game (65 percent). When baseball is in the later stages of its postseason, its format is generally calibrated to equal the NFL in terms of giving the better team an equivalent chance of advancement. But that balance was disturbed when MLB expanded its postseason to include a round of one-game playoffs, such as Tuesday night’s thriller in Kansas City, Missouri.
This isn’t to say the extra randomness inherent to a single baseball game doesn’t make for a more entertaining MLB postseason. It does, however, lend credence to the argument that the “footballification” of baseball injected an element of disarray into its playoffs. Statistically, the one-and-done format is better suited to the NFL than to MLB.