The St. Louis Cardinals are playing the Texas Rangers in the World Series this week, marking the 10th time in the last 12 seasons the World Series Champion will not have the most wins during the regular season. The Cardinals, who only got into the playoffs by nature of an epic collapse from the Atlanta Braves, are now being looked at as some sort of "gold standard" in the National League after winning their 18th pennant and third in the last eight seasons.
If the Cardinals win the World Series, they'll do so with the fewest regular-season victories since, yep, the Cardinals, who won it all in 2006 with an insanely-mediocre 83 wins! Yay playoffs!
Look, this is not a defense of the virtue of the regular season or a knock of the American playoff system, per se. But I was listening to Philly radio the other day and the hosts were talking about how this season will be remembered – after a record-setting 102 victories and first-round playoff exit for my hometown Phillies. The consensus is that this season in Philadelphia was a failure. Sure, the regular season run was nice, but it just led to ultimate disappointment and resentment after getting the fans' hopes up. The regular season in Philadelphia – 102 wins and just 60 losses – now means nothing.
In New York, earning the best record in the American League means absolutely nothing either after losing in the first round to Detroit. Sure, 97 wins are great, but it's the 45th time in team history the Yankees won 95 or more games and just the 11th of those seasons in which they didn't make it to the World Series. Bust.
It's not just baseball. Looking at every season since 2000 in MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS and NCAA Basketball will show that, in most cases, being the best regular season team does not translate to winning a championship. Maybe the BCS is doing something right. (I'm kidding because the BCS is terrible and should be destroyed as soon as possible and everyone knows that.)
Focusing first on Major League Baseball, I already mentioned the World Series champion will not have the best regular-season record for the 10th time since 2000. In fact, we have 11 of the last 12 years where a team with the best record will not win the World Series, taking into account the fact that the Red Sox and Indians both had 96 wins in 2007. Obviously the Indians did not with the World Series that year.
What's even more interesting is that in the last 12 seasons, the World Series-winning team had the most wins in its league just three times. Since 2000, the American League representative in the World Series had the most regular-season victories in the AL just four times while the National League representative had the most regular-season victories in the NL just twice.
In the sport where so few teams make the playoffs and the regular season means so much for getting into the playoffs, it's striking to realize how little the regular season actually means for winning, especially when you consider that before the World Series, the team with the best record gets home field advantage which has the biggest edge – last ups – of any sport. It just doesn't seem to matter at all.
In the NFL, winning the most regular season games has proven to mean just as little as in baseball when it comes to winning in the playoffs. Since 2000, the Super Bowl winner had the best record in football just one time, back in 2003 when New England finished the regular season 14-2 en route to their second Super Bowl. In 2009, the Saints had the best record in the NFC when they defeated the Colts (who had the best overall record), but outside of those two years, the Super Bowl champion did not even have the best record in its own conference in nine of the last 12 seasons.
Let's not deny the fact that there have been some really good Super Bowl champions in the last 12 years. In 2004, the 14-2 Patriots beat the 13-3 Eagles to earn their third Lombardy Trophy in four years, but the Steelers actually had the best record, going 15-1 during the regular season that included a win over the Patriots. In 2000, the Ravens finished the season 12-4 and had the second-most wins in the entire league – tied with the Giants who had the most wins in the NFC – but the Titans had the best record in the NFL at 13-3. Again in 2008, the Titans had the best record in the NFL but were unable to get to the Super Bowl, let alone win it.
We all remember 2007, when the Patriots went undefeated until losing in the Super Bowl to the Giants. What some people may not remember is that the Giants finished that year 10-6, tied for the seventh-best record in football with five other teams, one of which didn't even qualify for the playoffs. The Green Bay Packers, looked at as the best team in football right now, finished the regular season 10-6 last season, tied for eighth in the league with five other teams, before going on a playoff run and winning the title.
Things have been a little less chaotic in the NBA; a league that has seen six teams win the last 12 championships. Having said that, the NBA champion won the title with the best regular season record just three times since 2000. The Celtics won the title in 2008 with 66 regular-season victories, facing off against the Lakers who had the most wins in the West that season. In 2003, the Spurs and Mavericks tied for the most wins in the West, with San Antonio holding the tie-breaker for the first seed en route to winning the title. In 2000, the Lakers had 67 wins in the West, beating the top team in the East, Indiana, in the Finals.
In 2009 and 2010, the Lakers won the title with the best record in the West, but not the best record overall. That honor went to the Cavaliers, who failed to make the finals in either season. In fact, when the Cavs did make the finals back in 2007, they did so with the second-best record in their own division.
Since 2000, the team with the best record in the East has gotten to the finals just four times, including just once since 2003. Since the turn of the century, the West has placed the team with the best record in the Finals five times, four of those times being the Lakers.
The NHL is more of the same. Since 2000, the Stanley Cup was awarded to the team who won the President's Trophy three times, but just once since the league lost the 2005 season to a lockout.
The top seed in the Eastern Conference has gotten to the Stanley Cup Finals just twice since 2000, with the top seed in the West making the finals just three times. In 2010, the Flyers represented the East in the Finals with 88 regular-season points, 33 behind the Washington Capitals. With so many teams making the playoffs, it looks like it's called the "second season" for a reason.
Speaking of so many teams making the playoffs, the MLS expanded its "second season" to include 10 of the 18 teams in the league. It makes little sense and further serves to water down the importance of the regular season. In most foreign leagues, there are no playoffs, with the top team in the regular season being crowned the winner. This logic makes a lot of sense.
Having said that, there's something anticlimactic about watching a season culminate in Manchester United clinching another title by beating the likes of Swansea City, or waiting 8-10 months so fans of Chelsea can scoreboard watch during a match against Blackburn as Manchester City hosts QPR to decide who wins the Premiership.
I'm not knocking the structure. For the EPL, I actually think it works better than a playoff system, especially when you consider placing in the top four qualifies teams for the UEFA Champions League, which is, in its own right, the best playoff tournament in the world. But there is a predisposed mindset of a "playoff payoff" in American sports that MLS rightly shouldn't ignore. Having said that, there are just too many darn teams in those playoffs.
Since 2000, the winner of the Supporters Shield for best overall record (most overall points) has won the MLS Cup just three times. Since the league began in 1996, teams have won both trophies just five times.
You can make a case the NCAA does the best job of crowing a champion of any playoff system. Despite the most chaotic set-up of all playoff tournaments, the NCAAs have given us eight champions in the last 12 years that have been a No. 1 seed. Having said that, all a No. 1 seed means is that they are one of the top four teams, not the best overall team. If you look at the other sports, in most years the champion has been one of the top four teams. So really, we should look at each region.
Of the 48 Final Four teams since 2000, 18 have been No. 1 seeds. Despite eight of the last 12 champions coming from the top line of the bracket, two top seeds have faced off in the finals just three times in that span. After a closer look at the numbers, chaos reigns.
I don’t want this to sound like I think American playoffs are unfair, per se. Playoffs are just different. Like most sports fans, I like the finality of a championship tournament. I wish college football would create a playoff system, even if that means the champion each season isn't one of the universally-recognized two best teams. Playoffs are part of what make sports so much fun to watch, but clearly, they're a terrible indication of which teams are actually the best.
Not that a regular-season title means much of anything. Do I sound bitter?