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Go Back   The Trek BBS > Entertainment & Interests > Sports and Fitness

Sports and Fitness It's football, not soccer.

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Old December 22 2014, 02:17 AM   #1
JirinPanthosa
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Which major sport has the greatest chance of the best team winning?

Every sport has some randomness involved, as much as the networks like to play it down because statistics make a less exciting narrative. But in some sports it's more so than others, and also depending on the structure of the playoffs. Series obviously have a better chance of the best team winning than single elimination formats.

Let's look at the average winning percentage of the best team in the league for the last five years:

NBA: 76.3%
NHL: 72.2%*
MLB: 60.7%
NFL: 86.3%**

*Due to overtime losses and shootout losses there's about a 5% inflation in this because unlike other sports games are not zero sum.

**Due to the fewer amount of games per season this is inflated because there are not enough games to regress toward the mean.

Soccer/football fans, I don't know enough about which leagues to count to include it in this analysis but I'd like to hear your input too.

So between the four popular American sports, I would rank likelihood of the best team winning as follows:

1. NBA

This is pretty easy. It both has a high win percentage for the best teams and a seven game series in the playoffs. Just look at the frequency of dynasties. Celtics with 11 championships in 13 years, Bulls with 6 championships in 8 years, only six of which happened to feature Michael Jordan, only six different champions between 1984 and 2005 and eight between 1984 and today.

To win a championship you have to either be the best or be on a shortlist of comparably great teams.

2. NFL

The NFL is the league where in any given game the best team is most likely to win. But the playoffs are single elimination, so that reduces the chance a bit.

3. MLB

Between the NHL and MLB the playoffs are basically a crapshoot. But the NHL has four playoff rounds and the MLB has three so fewer teams have the opportunity to take advantage of randomness.

4. NHL

How many times do you see 8 seeds beat 1 seeds, or 6 seeds make it to the finals? Truly any team that gets to the playoffs has a shot.

If you expand the list to include golf and tennis, they'd probably fall between 2 and 3.

Last edited by JirinPanthosa; December 22 2014 at 02:35 AM.
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Old December 22 2014, 10:01 PM   #2
Scout101
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Re: Which major sport has the greatest chance of the best team winning

I don't like the way you broke it out. My vote would be NHL, I think.

Football has too much randomness due to the single-game elimination format, so that has to go way down the list.

Basketball is just suspect as a league. Everything's too subjective, the stars get the calls, refs flat out shaving points, just seems like a big show without the standards. Guess I'd agree it's towards the top, although seems most of the time it's just whoever has more stars; it's rarely the best *team*.

MLB takes a good swing at it just due to the sheer number of games. Really do sort themselves out pretty well, and then with 7-game series, you get a good look. Don't like the 1-game WC play-in format, though. Baseball in general seems to be subject to a dominant pitcher taking over a short series, too, so that's a factor. Not sure we've seen a lot of years where the best team doesn't win, though. Seems to sort itself out well.

Hockey, imo, seems to be the most equal here. All 7-game series, outside of a goalie going nuts for a game or two it's tough to say it's not overall team play. They change lines so quickly that everyone's involved and no one really takes over. Long series get the best team out usually, or show that they were even but for lucky bounces. All that 8 seed beating 1 seed shows is that there really isn't that much difference at the top over 82 games, so if you're a good team, you have a chance.

NHL, MLB, NBA, NFL I guess is my order for which league is most likely to have the best team win the championship
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Old December 22 2014, 10:09 PM   #3
Mr. Laser Beam
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Re: Which major sport has the greatest chance of the best team winning

Scout101 wrote: View Post
I
MLB takes a good swing at it just due to the sheer number of games. Really do sort themselves out pretty well, and then with 7-game series, you get a good look. Don't like the 1-game WC play-in format, though.
Baseball probably got closest to the 'best team winning' before there were any playoffs - i.e. 1968 and previous, when the best team in each league went straight to the World Series.

That being said, if MLB expanded by two more teams, both leagues could go to a 4-division setup with no wildcard, so that'd be a start...
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Old December 23 2014, 01:27 AM   #4
Alidar Jarok
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Re: Which major sport has the greatest chance of the best team winning

I'm trying to find the link, but there was an article on fivethirtyeight about how many games a team has to play before their success is attributable to something other than chance. Of the sports, Baseball required the most games. While they make up for that by having a long regular season, it creates complexity in the playoffs where you play a series instead. Certainly, one game isn't enough (although, I'm not necessarily sure the Wild Card teams are the best teams anyway).

Basketball seems to be the one that splits the difference well. Long playoff series and a season that's long enough to make sure the best teams are at the top. Bottom seeded teams rarely do well in the playoffs, which seems to corroborate this.

ETA: Found it

This underscores two of the major differences between baseball and other sports — the relative compression of team records and the lack of information conveyed in any single-game result. Baseball famously plays the longest schedule (by far) out of the four major North American professional sports, a 162-game sample size which naturally reduces the presence of outlier performances. But as we saw above, even within a smaller chunk of games, baseball teams have more difficulty pulling away from the pack.

This goes back to research I conducted two years ago, comparing the NBA’s season structure to those of other sports. Using an unbelievably useful methodology from arch-sabermetrician Tom Tango, I calculated the number of games necessary in each sport to regress a team’s record halfway to the mean — meaning, we’d know half of its observed outcomes were due to its own talent (while the other half results from randomness). For pro basketball and football, the numbers are similar: In the NBA, it takes about 12 games; in the NFL, 11 games. But in baseball, it takes a whopping 67 games for half of the variance in observed winning percentages to come from the distribution of talent and half from randomness.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate these differences is to use them to set up equivalent schedule lengths between sports. For instance, if the NBA wanted to convey as much information in its team records as the NFL does in its 16-game schedule, they’d have to play a 17.5-game slate. (As an aside, this underscores how incredibly long the actual 82-game NBA schedule is; in terms of information provided, it’s almost five times too long relative to the NFL.)

MLB’s 162 games provide about as much information as a 27-game football season would (meaning the NFL’s 16-game slate is the equivalent of roughly a 98-game baseball season). That’s nothing compared to the NBA, whose 82-game schedule is equivalent to a 458-game baseball season! (If the NBA wanted its standings to provide as much certainty as baseball’s, its teams would only need to play 29 games apiece.)
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Old December 23 2014, 06:38 AM   #5
JirinPanthosa
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Re: Which major sport has the greatest chance of the best team winning

It's true the stars get the calls in the NBA and that's a problem, but I don't think it's as big an impact as you say because most of the best teams have stars. It's something that you notice the one time it happens but don't register the hundred times it doesn't.

In NHL there's often a ten point difference between second place and ninth place. In MLB the best team in the league has the same winning percentage as the 6th or 7th seed in most other sports. In the NHL the sixth or seventh seed winning a championship isn't even a big surprise.

Last season the best record and worst record among teams that made the MLB playoffs was a difference of 10 games in a 162 game season. Standard error is 6 games. And MLB still has those stupid five game series in the first round, further increasing the randomness.

I would argue, mathematically, the higher scoring a sport is the greater a chance the better team will win. Just like, if a die is weighted, you have a better chance of detecting it with a hundred rolls than you do with ten.

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Old December 29 2014, 11:50 PM   #6
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Re: Which major sport has the greatest chance of the best team winning

JirinPanthosa wrote: View Post
Every sport has some randomness involved, as much as the networks like to play it down because statistics make a less exciting narrative. But in some sports it's more so than others, and also depending on the structure of the playoffs. Series obviously have a better chance of the best team winning than single elimination formats.

Let's look at the average winning percentage of the best team in the league for the last five years:

NBA: 76.3%
NHL: 72.2%*
MLB: 60.7%
NFL: 86.3%**

*Due to overtime losses and shootout losses there's about a 5% inflation in this because unlike other sports games are not zero sum.

**Due to the fewer amount of games per season this is inflated because there are not enough games to regress toward the mean.

So between the four popular American sports, I would rank likelihood of the best team winning as follows:

1. NBA

This is pretty easy. It both has a high win percentage for the best teams and a seven game series in the playoffs. Just look at the frequency of dynasties. Celtics with 11 championships in 13 years, Bulls with 6 championships in 8 years, only six of which happened to feature Michael Jordan, only six different champions between 1984 and 2005 and eight between 1984 and today.

To win a championship you have to either be the best or be on a shortlist of comparably great teams.
Very interesting. For years I have toyed with the idea of starting a thread asking which pro league has the hardest championship to win. I have felt for years that it was the NBA, evidenced partially by just what you write above, the prevelence of dynasties like the Celts, Lakers, Bulls and Spurs (to a somewhat lesser extent). This is the reason there are such huge battles over certain superstar players -- having one or two of them can mean the difference between being an 8th seed and a champion.
Scout101 wrote: View Post
Basketball is just suspect as a league. Everything's too subjective, the stars get the calls, refs flat out shaving points, just seems like a big show without the standards. Guess I'd agree it's towards the top, although seems most of the time it's just whoever has more stars; it's rarely the best *team*.
As Jirin pointed out, most NBA teams have a star player who might get the benefit of the doubt on some calls, especially against rookes or journeymen, so the calls even out over the long season. Similarly, veteran, star receivers in the NFL get the benefit of PI calls especially against rooks. Star MLB pitchers get parts of the plate and strike zone against rookies or lesser players all the time. The NBA had one incident of a ref point shaving and that ref has been out of the league for several years now.
MLB takes a good swing at it just due to the sheer number of games. Really do sort themselves out pretty well, and then with 7-game series, you get a good look. Don't like the 1-game WC play-in format, though. Baseball in general seems to be subject to a dominant pitcher taking over a short series, too, so that's a factor. Not sure we've seen a lot of years where the best team doesn't win, though. Seems to sort itself out well.
I wonder what weighting winning MLB teams' over the years by the quality of players' illegal drugs would do to the MLB "best team" stat.
JirinPanthosa wrote: View Post
In NHL there's often a ten point difference between second place and ninth place. In MLB the best team in the league has the same winning percentage as the 6th or 7th seed in most other sports. In the NHL the sixth or seventh seed winning a championship isn't even a big surprise.
It's what happened to the Kings a couple of years ago. They went into the playoffs with a "hot" goalie and rode him from the 8th seed to a dominant performance in the Stanley Cup Finals, leaving some of the league's "best" teams in their dust (or ice shavings). I can't remember the last time (if ever) an 8th seeded NBA team won a championship.
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Old January 1 2015, 09:51 AM   #7
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Re: Which major sport has the greatest chance of the best team winning

I agree with the idea that basketball has the greatest chance of the best team winning. I actually consider that a drawback for basketball compared to other sports, because upsets are so rare. Sports would be boring if the best team won every time.
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Old January 18 2015, 06:14 PM   #8
Lexx Shrapnel
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Re: Which major sport has the greatest chance of the best team winning

JirinPanthosa wrote: View Post
It's true the stars get the calls in the NBA and that's a problem, but I don't think it's as big an impact as you say because most of the best teams have stars. It's something that you notice the one time it happens but don't register the hundred times it doesn't.
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Old January 18 2015, 08:26 PM   #9
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Re: Which major sport has the greatest chance of the best team winning

When you make the playoffs, seeding doesn't matter. It's a whole new game in the Playoffs, and that's why I say the NHL. I mean look at the Kings last year. They made it to 7 games in all the series they were in and you're going to tell me they were not the best team despite winning it all?

I would probably place the NFL second as it's always a one and done situation.

The worst would probably be Baseball because it's such a long season that it really is about what is the hottest team at the time.
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