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Fitz: How much does the regular season matter in each of the four major sports?



© Kyle Terada | 2018 Jun 8

Sometimes things are said so frequently that people tend to believe them without ever actually looking into any factual data. Certainly, this happens in our political landscape where outright lying has just become a way of life.

But usually in sports there are actual scores, outcomes, and stats, and the conversations tend to be more tethered to reality. Except in a few cases. Most notably in a phrase that is uttered regularly, despite having no basis in fact for one sport, but which probably has some truth in three others. However, the sport in question will surprise most uniformed urban legend believers due to the frequency it is erroneously mouthed.

“The regular season doesn’t matter.”

This is interesting because the NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL regular seasons are very long evaluations of quality that should have some bearing on eventual champions. At least that would seem to make sense.

But the playoff systems utilized by the four major sports either render their regular season in large part meaningless or in one case validate regular season excellence.

If you start with the premise that finishing with one of the top four regular season records in your sport would qualify as an excellent regular season, and use that threshold to evaluate eventual champions, the results are very interesting.

Picking a time period where player movement and free agency have infiltrated pro sports is important and a large enough sample size is a must.

Since 1996 actual results indicate quite clearly that there is only one sport where the regular season “matters”. And it’s the NBA. Eighty-two games and four seven game series to win a title has virtually eliminated any “horseshoe up the a—” teams that call themselves champions.

Now you can debate whether you enjoy random outcomes vs. long term quality and achievement but that is not the point. But for some reason actual facts seem to be blatantly ignored apparently because many sports fans must be too lazy for a history lesson.

Since 1996 there have been only two NBA champions that did not finish with one of the top four regular season records. The 2006 Miami Heat (5th) and the 2004 Detroit Pistons (6th). Twenty-one of the top 23 other title winners parlayed top four regular season success into the NBA title. Eleven times since 1996 the team with the best record became the NBA champ. If you don’t have a quality regular season in the NBA you are NOT winning the championship. The Warriors finished 3rd, 1st, and 1st in the regular season resulting in three recent titles.

The NFL has had six non-top four Super Bowl champs in the last 22 years. Regular season success earns division titles and bye weeks as well as home field advantage that is very valuable. However, with only singular playoff games and injuries playing such a huge role in football there is a chance for upsets. But the recent trend is interesting, the Super Bowl champ has had the best regular season record in four of the past five seasons.

The NHL’s chase for the Stanley Cup seems like an entire second season. Four series of seven games are needed and home ice advantage seems to matter very little in the sport. Eight of the last 23 Stanley Cup champs did not have a top four regular season record, including this year with Washington finishing 6th in the regular season. Hockey is trending opposite the NFL in that six times in the last 10 years the Stanley Cup champion has not had a top four record in the regular season. If you are saying the NHL regular season matters little towards identifying the eventual champion the numbers are on your side.

You would think that the MLB’s arduous 162 game, six month grind would clearly identify the best teams in the sport. You would be wrong.

Eight times in the past 22 years the winner of the World Series did not have a top four regular season record. Now this has something to do with playing nearly one third of your games within the division, but mostly due to MLB having the dumbest playoff system of any of the four major sports.

After playing 162 games having two wild card teams have a one game playoff is asinine. The absurdity continues with only a five game Divisional series. The one game scenario gives a huge advantage to a team with a singular dominant pitcher. A five game series doesn’t really test the depth of a team. It’s not surprising that baseball’s regular season matters the least. The entire 162 game exercise is to just somehow qualify as one of the top 10 teams in the sport to enter the “tournament”, which bears little resemblance to the regular season.

Of course, this could be fixed quite easily if baseball went back to a 154 game regular season, had a three game Wild Card series and then three seven game series to become a champion. Certainly you would see more top regular season teams become champions. You would also see more interest in the post season, higher TV ratings, and more revenue for the sport. But why would any business want to improve itself? It’s Baseball, the most poorly run of all the four major sports.

Now the existing format and desire for randomness has produced World Series “Champions” like the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals that finished 83-78 with the 13th best record in the sport. That doesn’t happen in the NBA or the NFL. It did happen in the NHL in 2012 as the “Champion” LA Kings also had the 13th best record in the regular season. Closer to home the goofiness of baseball’s playoff structure has had a happier outcome as the San Francisco Giants won two titles without a top four regular season record — 2014 (8th), 2010 (5th). The Giants hope for 2018 is to do more of the same. Just somehow get into the tournament where dominant starting pitching, excellent bullpen management and a cavernous ballpark can work in dynamic fashion towards titles with low scoring games and previously unforeseen power hitting.

So the next time you hear “the regular season doesn’t matter” you are now armed with reality. In two sports it surely does. In two sports, not so much.

Where the champs in the four major sports have finished in the regular season since 1996