Forced to Choose? Picking a Playoff Opponent

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|The Volokh Conspiracy |

In the VC back in 2004, I proposed that sports leagues let their playoff top seeds pick their opponents. I am happy to see the news that Major League Baseball is floating a proposal to let some teams (the top teams who play in the first round) do just that. I think this is a great idea, and I would apply it in all leagues for all the playoffs. As I wrote in 2004 using as an example the NBA (which has 8 teams in each conference going to the playoffs):

Why make this change? It truly rewards the teams with the best records, and it avoids the problem of a top team having the bad luck to be pitted against another top team while teams with fewer wins have weaker opponents. Maybe the 7th seed slumped at the end of the season or has just suffered injuries, whereas the 8th seed ended the season strongly and would have had a better record if its star had not been hurt in the beginning of the season.

My proposal would make for better matchups. Leagues like the best teams to meet deep into the playoffs, and this makes it more likely that that will happen – because the team with the best record will avoid playing the stronger teams until late in the playoffs.

A lot of the reaction so far has been negative. Sam Miller at ESPN lays out the most obvious argument against picking your opponent:

I don't think playoff teams actually want to pick their opponents. They would like to face the worst opponents, to be sure. But actually picking them inevitably ends up looking like an act of hubris. You pick a team, fire them up, give them all the bulletin board material they could ever hope for, and then if they actually beat you (which—it's baseball, so of course they will), you get taunted for your arrogance?

But that's not a bug, it's a feature! As I noted back in 2004:

[Choosing your opponent] should also greatly increase fan interest. Fans of the choosing teams can debate who their team should opt to play in a given round of the playoffs. And it would create a new element for the chosen teams and their fans. If the 1st seed decided to play the 7th seed rather than the 8th, the 7th could use the choice as a motivating tool ("They chose to play us because they thought we were weak. Let's show them.") and the 8th seed could boast that the best team was afraid to play them. And if the 8th seed met the 1st seed later in the playoffs, the story line would be irresistible ("The 1st seed must now play the team it sought to avoid.") …Woe to the coach who chooses to play a higher-seeded team and then loses. But that woe translates into fan interest – "Can you believe he chose to play Team Y when he could have played Team Z?" – and a new set of story lines.

So, yes, this will add a new level of tension for whoever chooses the opponent (the manager/coach), and maybe for the teams more generally. More tension and a new level of strategy in the playoffs – the horrors! But seriously, this seems like a choice worth choosing.

P.S. No, I'm not claiming that the MLB was aware of, much less influenced by, my 2004 blog post.

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  1. I believe that the transformation of Reason into Time magazine is now complete.

    1. Time for clingers, maybe.

  2. “A lot of the reaction so far has been negative.”

    Duh. Its a stupid idea designed by Rob Manfred who hates baseball.

  3. A lot of the reaction so far has been negative.

    That’s because it is a stupid idea. Adding this gimmick isn’t going to improve it. By having few teams make the playoffs, MLB makes the entire season much more important. So when you get to August, people have reason to pay attention to 30+ games.

    But if you go to this participation-trophy system, you don’t really have any reason to watch September baseball. Sure, maybe if your team is on the verge of getting a bye. But once you’re likely in, who cares? Especially since your record doesn’t affect seeding anyway.

    Unless you’re going to be a top seed, why not just rest your best players for the last few weeks? You’re still in, it doesn’t affect who you ultimately play, you save your players up, and you make it harder for the picking team to get an accurate gauge on your strengths and weaknesses. As it is, MLB should get rid of that stupid one-game playoff. Play 162 games, then just one to advance (in the sport that’s least likely to be predictable)? Just dumb.

    1. I was initially opposed to it when I first read it yesterday, but it’s growing on me. Still, it seems to be more of a solution in search of a problem.

    2. Agree completely.

      The one-game wild card playoff is dumb. Expanding the playoffs to include half the teams is even dumber.

      The regular season is probably more important in baseball than in the other major sports, and it should be. Teams play every day. Roster construction and lineup decisions are influenced by that. There’s an ebb and flow to a team’s fortunes, and there’s pleasure in following a team all summer. Don’t diminish that by making it a bunch of exhibition games.

      The owners are awful. They think only about the short-term dollar, and have no concern for the future of the game.

    3. “By having few teams make the playoffs, MLB makes the entire season much more important. So when you get to August, people have reason to pay attention to 30+ games.”

      You mean, fans of three or four teams have a reason to pay attention to 30+ games. The rest of the fans have already seen their team eliminated from contention or effectively clinch. Last year all of the American League teams clinched their division by at least 7 games, and the Dodgers clinched the NL West by 21 games. Even the Nationals had to go 9-1 over their last 10 games to pull within 4 of the Braves. Only the Cardinals and the Brewers really battled it out until the end.

      1. The playoff spots were closer than you suggest. Yes, the final standings shows bigger differences, but Cleveland ended with 5 straight losses while the Twins went 12-4. Even then, they were competing with Oakland and the Rays for a wild card spot right up until the end.

        Sure, this may keep a few marginal teams keeping playoff hopes into September. But do any of those marginal teams really think they’ll make a run at the World Series? Not really. Not with 7-game series.

        1. “Even then, they were competing with Oakland and the Rays for a wild card spot right up until the end.”

          I glad you agree that adding more teams to the playoffs kept the fans of more teams interested longer.

          1. Sure, I’ve never said otherwise. But interest at what cost? If number of interested teams interested in the playoffs is the metric, then why not expand the playoffs to all 30 teams and keep them all interested? It’s because it would render the regular season largely meaningless (it’d be useful for seeding).

            If MLB expands the playoffs to 14 teams, sure, teams at seeds 12-16 will be slightly more excited than under the current system. But the reward for making the playoffs goes down (since you’re likely to be ousted regardless), and the interest for seeds 6-10 goes down because they know they are locked in.

            1. “the regular season largely meaningless”

              As it already is for most teams for much of the season. Baseball can continue to do nothing in the face of a 12 year decline in attendance, or it can try something new.

              “sure, teams at seeds 12-16 will be slightly more excited”

              Slightly? I think you undersell how much people like to see their teams in the playoffs. And it wouldn’t be 12-16 because the seeding is still by league and only 7 teams per league make the playoffs under the new proposal.

              “But the reward for making the playoffs goes down (since you’re likely to be ousted regardless)”

              That doesn’t follow at all.

              “the interest for seeds 6-10 goes down because they know they are locked in.”

              How do seeds 3-5 know that they are locked in? Even if they might be certain to qualify for the playoffs, there’s still the matter of seeding (or getting to pick first) and home field advantage.

              Plus, it makes winning your league even more important because you get the only bye, not just home field advantage.

  4. The pick your opponent component may have some merit in limited cases to avoid tanking. The rest of the playoff proposal is awful. The reality TV style selection show idea is awful. Extending the playoffs without reducing the regular season is awful.

  5. What next? A blog post of travel tips?

    Oh, wait, they did that already.

    How about a “Dear Eugene” weekly advice column?

  6. Lawyers United to Ruin Baseball?

    What a HORRIBLE idea!

  7. I oppose this idea and will stop watching baseball if MLB adopts this concept. Baseball is unique because of its long season and this gimmick would dilute the meaning of regular season games.

  8. I thought most sport leagues already pitted best vs worst in the playoffs.

    Assuming seeds 1-N where N is an even number and 1 is the best team and N the worst. The brackets for the first round are: 1 vs N, 2 vs N-1, 3 vs N-2….

    Assuming in top seed’s choice assuming seed 1 gets to pick first, I don’t see how it makes a difference.

    1. Because the last seed may not be the weakest. They may have had injuries in the regular season that gave them an artificially bad record. Think if Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were suddenly ready to go for Golden State, currently the worst team in the NBA. They’d be a danger for a deep playoff run, if not another championship.

      Or there may be some particular match-up that works better or worse for a team (something that you frequently see in the NFL).

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