Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Forced to Choose? Picking a Playoff Opponent

By Stuart Benjamin - February 11, 2020 at 08:36AM

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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