Championship Playoffs - Lottery or Not?

Discussion in 'Prem talk, Those Other Leagues, and International' started by MicahMan, May 7, 2018.

  1. MicahMan

    MicahMan Administrator

    Mar 4, 2014
    In the closing weeks of the Championship season I often heard the playoffs described as a lottery – meaning any of the four teams has just as much of a chance as any other. This is not something any Fulham fan would want to be true this season. Having just missed out on automatic promotion on the last day, I thought for sure Fulham’s top tier finish and their recent form would give them a better than average shot at promotion.

    To find out if Fulham might have certain advantages (or a few disadvantages like losing out on promotion on the last day) I looked at the data going back 18 seasons to the 2000 playoffs (going beyond that was tricky since the data was harder to collect) and explored a couple different factors. Let’s see what the numbers say…

    Does Recent Form Make a Difference?
    The easiest question to answer is the importance of recent form. The table below shows how many points each team got in their last 5 matches before heading into the playoffs in each of the past 18 seasons.

    Shockingly, teams with 11 to 15 points in the last five matches have the worst promotion percentage and only saw two teams promoted. Since 2000 no team with 13 or 15 points in the last five has been promoted through the playoffs.

    For further proof that having the best form doesn’t matter, consider that only four times in the last 18 seasons has the playoff team with the most points in the last 5 gone on to win promotion.

    The teams that have the most success are those that finish with 10 points in the last five (only possible with 3 wins, 1 draw, and 1 loss). Those teams have been promoted 67% of the time. That is an incredible success rate, but it may even be better than that. In some seasons multiple teams came into the playoffs with 10 points, but of course only one can be promoted. That means that only one season since 2000 had a team with 10 points from the last five in the playoffs that didn’t win promotion – 2007 with Wolverhampton. Every other season with 10 point finishers saw one of them promoted.

    If you want a bright spot from Fulham’s loss to Birmingham it is that it gives Fulham that magic 10 point total over the last five matches. Unfortunately, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough also finished with 10 points in their last five. So the trend of the promoted team getting 10 points to close out the season will likely continue, but it doesn’t mean it will be Fulham that gets promoted.

    What About Losing the Regular Season Last Match?
    While recent form doesn’t make a difference there does seem to be some advantage to winning the last match prior to the playoffs. Since 2000, 61% of the promoted teams had won their last regular season match while 33% of the runners-up had won their last match. Only 17% of the time has the promoted team finished with a loss while the runner-up finished with a loss 39% of the time. Going into the 2018 playoffs only Derby finished with a win, so there is a good chance that this trend (unlike the 10 points in 5 trend) will be bucked this year.

    And Heartbreaking Finishes?
    There haven’t been many times when a team could have been automatically promoted if they had won their final match. It has happened three times since 2000. Most recently Brighton and Hove had a mini-playoff with Middlesbrough on the last day of the regular season in 2016. It ended in a draw, but based on goal differential Middlesbrough was promoted automatically and Brighton didn’t even make it to the playoff final. In 2013 Watford lost their last game of the season to miss out on promotion and then lost in the playoff final. In 2008 Hull missed automatic promotion with a last match loss but still earned promotion through the playoffs. In these three cases one team missed the final, one team lost in the final, and one team won the final so there isn’t much of a trend for a finish like the one Fulham just experienced.

    The Big Question – Finishing in a Higher Position Matters, Right?
    If the playoffs were a lottery then we would expect to see an equal number of playoff teams promoted from the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th place finishers. Here’s a chart that shows the percent of promoted teams came from each spot since 2000:
    Teams that finished in 3rd place had a much higher success rate than other teams, which would seem to indicate that rank does matter and it isn’t as random as a lottery – good news for Fulham. But then look at 4th place finishers – they have the worst promotion percentage of any rank in the past 18 seasons. That looks more like the outcome of a lottery. Where did the #4 teams go wrong?

    The chart below shows how many times teams made it to the final and lost (gray) and how many times they made it to the final and won (gold).
    The 4th place teams have made it to the finals just as often as the 5th place teams, but they haven’t been able to win the final as often as any other finalist. In fact, 4th place teams are the only ones MORE likely to lose in the final than win.

    You might look at that chart and think that maybe the 4th place teams have done worse because maybe they faced the 3rd place team more often than the 6th place team in the final, but that isn’t the case. Since 2000 the 4th has faced the 6th in the final three times while the 5th has only faced the 6th twice.

    The team in 5th place has seen more promotions than the 4th because those in 5th win more often against the number 3 team. In the six times a final was 3rd v 4th, the 4th seed only won once. However in the seven times a final was 3rd v 5th, the 5th seed won four times. That’s right, in a 3 v 5 matchup the lower ranked team has won more often. What does all this mean? Based on recent history Fulham would much rather see Aston Villa than Middlesbrough.

    Head to Head Matchups
    It would seem that Fulham has an advantage going into the playoffs since Fulham defeated all of the other playoff teams on aggregate in the regular season.


    Most teams in the top tier load up on points by beating down the lower level teams. Fulham on the other hand managed to regularly beat upper level teams. Against the top 7 teams Fulham earned 22 points over the season. Aston Villa got 18 points, Middlesbrough just 9, and Derby 18 as well. (As a side note on Fulham's crazy season, Fulham only got 25 points against the bottom 7 teams compared to Middlesbrough that got 36 points versus the bottom) Sadly, I wasn't able to find easily accessible data with the head-to-head results over the past 18 years to draw any conclusions. The impact of head-to-head matchups will remain a mystery.

    What Would Playoffs Results Determined By Lottery Look Like?
    Finally I had to ask, what would playoffs look like if it really were a lottery drawing? To do that I used formulas in an Excel worksheet to simulate 18 years of playoffs with winners determined by random selection. Then I ran that simulation 100 times to see what the results of true lottery playoffs look like. And here are the results for all 100 simulations:
    In this sampling of 1,800 seasons, each ranking had an even share of promotions. The 3rd place team got 25%, 4th got 26%, 5th also go 26%, and 6th got 23%. This even share is what you’d expect out of a lottery.

    This sampling tells a few things about what we should look for to determine if the playoff results are more like a lottery. The chart below shows the share of promotions out of 18 seasons each position got over the 100 different simulations (for example, the peak of this chart shows that 86 times a position got 22% of promotions over 18 seasons in the lottery - the highest amount wasn't 25% because in an 18 season scenario it is impossible to get exactly 25% because it isn't a whole number).
    The highlighted area shows coverage of the middle two standard deviations – a range covering 15% to 35%. What this means is that 75% of the time in the 1,800 simulated lottery seasons any finishing position got between 15% and 35% of promotions. So, if we live in a universe where promotion is like a lottery we might expect to find each position winning promotion between 15% and 35% of the time. Let’s go back to the original pie chart to see how it lines up:
    The teams that finished in 3rd place got promoted 44% of the time - outside of the typical random range 15% and 35%. This might give us some hope that the playoffs aren’t a lottery and Fulham can go in with a higher level of confidence than any other team.


    The pie chart above shows results since 2000 because I could get easily get data in that range for things like finishing form. Going back a few more years some data is lost, but we can still plot which positions were promoted since 1992. In the past 26 season the promotion rate looks like this:
    That’s a lottery-like distribution with all positions between 15% and 35% of promotions. The difference between the distribution of the past 26 years and the past 18 years is due largely to the fact that between 1992 and 1999 not a single team finishing in 3rd place won promotion.

    What Does All This Mean? Is It A Lottery or Not?
    So maybe it is all a lottery. It depends on how far back you want to look. What this means is that all the teams in the playoffs are good and they all have a legitimate shot at promotion. To get to the Premier League Fulham will need to play like they did in February and March when they took on the top competition in the league and outplayed them all. All that Fulham accomplished in the second half of the season will have very little influence on the remaining three matches.
  2. HatterDon

    HatterDon Moderator

    Mar 18, 2006
    Peoples Republic of South Texas
  3. SoCalJoe

    SoCalJoe Well-Known Member

    Sep 5, 2006
    Walnut, CA

    @MicahMan, damn Micah that was an incredible post.
    Last edited: May 8, 2018
    encorespanish and MicahMan like this.
  4. astroevan

    astroevan Well-Known Member

    Aug 5, 2013
    Virginia Beach
    Can someone confirm that there is no away goal rule for the playoffs? I thought I saw that somewhere but am not sure.

    This sort of analysis could probably be done for any sport's playoffs. That's why the American adage of "anything can happen in the playoffs" exists and why nearly half the teams in American professional sports are allowed to make the playoffs.
  5. MicahMan

    MicahMan Administrator

    Mar 4, 2014
    Section 2.4 of the EFL Playoff Rules states:
    Away goals carry no extra value.
    HatterDon likes this.
  6. HatterDon

    HatterDon Moderator

    Mar 18, 2006
    Peoples Republic of South Texas
    BarryWhite likes this.
  7. jumpkutz

    jumpkutz Well-Known Member

    Sep 24, 2011
    Louisville, KY
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