Barber: A’s and baseball fans were robbed by MLB’s one-game wild-card series
The A’s season was over too quickly. I’m not being wistful here. I’m being literal. The A’s season ended too soon.
Tonight should be Game 2 in a best-of-three series with the New York Yankees, or a travel day after two games in a best-of-five. The A’s deserved that much. Everyone who loves baseball deserves that much. We should be watching Khris Davis get another crack at Dellin Betances. We should be waiting to see if Matt Chapman can turn in a defensive play at third base to match Adeiny Hechavarria’s.
I grew up rooting for the A’s, but this is not a partisan beef. I’d feel the same if the A’s had bullpenned the Yankees into submission in Tuesday’s American League wild-card game, and hopped on a train up to Boston for a division series against the Red Sox.
There are a lot of great things about Major League Baseball right now. The one-game wild card isn’t among them.
This isn’t the NFL, in which a team can prove its dominance in a single three-hour game. Yeah, there are upsets in football, too. But when they occur, you tip your cap to the victorious underdog, because it feels like they earned that win. You could argue that a one-game playoff would make a small degree of sense in the NBA, too. With everything on the line, the more talented and better-coached hoops team should be able to assert itself.
But baseball? A one-game playoff series ignores the basic nature of the sport.
I hesitate to use the word “luck” here, because athletes earn what they get. But there is no denying that baseball has a randomness you don’t find in other major sports. A hot pitcher, or a struggling pitcher, can reset the course of a game like no other athlete — and his heroism or failure can be pretty unpredictable. The difference between a line drive right at the second baseman and a line drive in the gap between first and second can be a win vs. a loss. The difference between either of those line drives and a routine fly ball can be millimeters on the bat.
For these reasons, and others, the gap between the better baseball team and the lesser baseball team is much smaller than in other sports. The Boston Red Sox had a brilliant season in 2018, their best in 72 years. Their winning percentage was .667. Last year, seven NFL teams, four NBA teams and four NHL teams exceeded that win rate.
In his book “A Drunkard’s Walk,” mathematician Leonard Mlodinow demonstrated that if Team A were able to beat Team B about 55 percent of the time — a pretty big difference, by MLB standards — it would require a 269-game series for Team A to prove its superiority in a statistically significant sense.
What’s the point? Randomness. You just can’t rely on the better baseball team to win a single game, which is why the later rounds of the MLB playoffs are best-of-five or best-of-seven.
Look at the A’s, for example. As most people know, because baseball media beat you over the head with the fact, Oakland had the best record in MLB after the middle of June. But in the 30 series the A’s played starting June 15, they won the opening game of those series 18 times. That’s a pretty good winning percentage of .600, but it’s far short of their .726 percentage in the other games of those series. I mean, the A’s lost consecutive series openers to the Giants, for goodness sake.