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The NHL and the NBA are often criticised for employing a system in which more than half (16 of 30) of the teams qualify for the postseason.But at the cost of letting in the occasional team with a losing record, is the fact that a more deserving team is rarely left out in the cold.
In the last 10 years, only 10 NHL teams missed the playoffs with a record better than a team that was in the postseason. Thanks to a system in which each conference takes the best eight teams, this can only occur if a team has a better record than one of the playoff teams in the other conference.
During that same period, 15 teams in the NBA and 15 teams in the NFL missed the playoffs with a better record than a team got to keep playing. One of the most egregious examples was this past season when five teams in the NFL were kept out of the playoff party despite a better regular season than the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks.
But by far the worst system, as far as fairness goes, is Major League Baseball. In the last 10 seasons, 23 teams missed the playoffs despite a more deserving record than one that was in the playoffs.
Baseball’s inequity is due in large part to the unbalanced leagues (14 teams in the AL, 16 teams in the NL), unbalanced divisions (4 teams in the AL West, 6 teams in the NL Central), and unbalanced schedules. The result is situations like the 2008 season, where an 84-win Dodgers club wins their division, and six teams with more than 84 wins had to watch the postseason on their televisions.
The addition of a second Wild Card team next year will help to a certain extent. But it won’t make much of a difference when a weak team wins a weak division.
Here is a year-by-year breakdown of the number of teams getting screwed each year in the four major sports…
Data via ESPN.com; The NHL did not have playoffs in 2004-05; Baseball seasons correspond to the first year listed on each line (e.g. 2010-11 = 2010)