Getting Lucky in a Playoff Series
Sports have a constant uncertainty and randomness in every aspect of the game including determining champions. This is one area you wouldn’t expect to have a lot of variability, since you would want the team that has the best roster composition and played the hardest to win the championship. This concept is usually brought up in the arguments against the one-game Wild Card round that MLB introduced in 2012 saying there’s too much that can happen in one game to determine the fate of a season. [The counter-argument to this specifically is the division winners now have a reward for winning the division, besides having cool sweatshirts.]
The Sports Side
The basis for championship series in MLB, NBA, and NHL is the an odd-numbered of games series with the champion being the team that wins the majority of games in those series. Most sports use a 7-game series; so for example the Boston Red Sox had to win 4 games to win the World Series last year. Using an example of randomness I got from Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, I can illustrate how a team that’s clearly an underdog can win a playoff series against a superior opponent. Mlodinow has a recorded lecture where he explains what he wrote in his book. [It’s a good book, you should read it.]
Let’s use two teams; one is the Favorite, and it is assumed they will beat the Underdog 55% of the time [given enough games]. This also means that the Underdog will win 45% of the time. This represents win probabilities more uneven that you are likely to find in a playoff game since teams are typically much more evenly matched [at least in baseball]. The last assumption of this example is that the teams win probabilities don’t change with a different starting pitcher or home field/court/ice advantage. These are terrible assumptions if you wanted to project real playoff series, but the underlying principle of random sequencing will still hold true.
In order to win the playoff series, a team has to win a certain number of games before the opponent wins that number. To model this distribution based on pure randomness, you can use the negative binomial distribution to determine the probability that the Favorite will win a 7-game playoff series in 4, 5, 6, or 7 games. If you wanted to design a playoff series to minimize the chances that the underdog will win, you’d want to choose a number of games which would have the smallest probability of the underdog winning the series.
This chart shows the probability for all 8 possible outcomes of a 7-game playoff series based of a 55/45 winning percentage split and pure randomness with no home-field advantage. As you can see there’s a substantial chance [39% probability] that the Underdog will win a 7-game series. 39% is rather large, and this is a 7-game series. Baseball also employs a 5-game series for their division series (LDS) and a one-game playoff for the the Wild Card round (WC). The chances of an upset becomes more likely as the number of games decreases. I’ve also added another set of teams (60/40 split — greater disparity) for comparison’s sake.
It should be obvious that the 1-game series has the greatest chance of an upset, hence the objections to its use in baseball. Though my contention would be that a 3-game series does not offer much more certainty that the best team will win.
The Math Side
I first calculated these probabilities by writing out all the possible combinations then adding up those probabilities. I have since realized there was a much easier way to determine these probabilities, and that is by using the negative binomial distribution (NBD). If you want to familiarize yourself with what the distribution represents please read the count data primer. In short, the NBD will determine the probability that a team will lose a certain number of games [0-3] before the other team wins 4 games. The NBD is defined by the following function:
where X is the random variable whose probability we are calculating, k is number of Team A losses [this will vary], r is the number of Team A wins [for the 7-game series, it will be 4 games], and p is the probability of Team A winning. In the case of this example we will be determining the probability of Team A winning a 7-game series, when Team A has a 55%/45% advantage over Team B.
This is the probability for just one possible outcome, Team A wins the series in 6 games. To determine the probability that Team A wins the series, you add the probabilities for each outcome Team A wins in 4, 5, 6, or 7 games. So this calculation then repeated for every loss possibility:
From these calculations, there is a 60.83% chance that the Team A wins just by randomness. Conversely, there is a 39.17% [100% – 60.83%] chance that Team B, the inferior team, wins because of random sequencing.
The MLB Wild Card game rightfully gets criticized for being too susceptible to having a bad day or getting a bad bounce. I wanted to illustrate that any playoff series has a lot of randomness in it. Beyond the numbers, people remember the bad bounces way more than they remember the positive or neutral events that occur [negativity bias]. A bad bounce or a pitcher having a bad day could easily benefit the team you are rooting for. The only real way to root out the randomness you would need to play hundreds of games, and somehow I don’t think that is feasible.