Last night the Yomiuri Giants won the Central League title for the third consecutive year and thirty-sixth time overall. Unlike major league baseball, where the division championship means a slight home-field advantage, the NPB playoff rules tilt things heavily in the league champion’s favour. Here’s a look at the NPB playoff format. Sorry the graphic is so small. It’s the best I could do on short notice! I’ll work on a better one for next season!
In the MLB, only one wild card team (out of sixteen, counting the two who were eliminated in a one-game playoff last season) in the past seven years has won the World Series: the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, who are actually had the worst regular season record of any World Series champion in history! Those Cardinals won 5 of their 9 road games en route to the championship. Since NPB teams are required to win 6 of 9 road games (2 of 3, then 4 of 6) just to win their league, it could be said that the Cards only won the NL Pennant because they played some of their games at home.
In the NPB, two teams have managed to win it all despite not finishing first in their division: the 2007 Chunichi Dragons and the 2010 Lotte Marines. The Marines actually finished third and had to win 6 of 9 on the road against “superior” teams to win the crown. Twelve of the 14 Japan Series finalists since 2007 have been league champs after the regular season, but only 5 of those won it all. In that same span, though, there have been 28 non-league champs in the playoffs. Just two have gone on to win the Japan Series. You do the math. OK, I’ll do it for you. Mathematically and historically speaking, if you win the division you have a 35.7% chance of winning the Japan Series. If you finish in second or third, you have a 14.3% chance of winning it all. Though the odds are definitely in the favour of league champs, the underdogs still have a chance. I won’t be betting any money on the Hanshin Tigers this year, whether they finish second or third, but I also won’t count them out until they are eliminated.