MLB’s Better Way Forward: Introduction (Part 1)

Everyone has a realignment plan for baseball these days, or so it seems, and I’m no different.  For the uninitiated, word has leaked that Major League Baseball may be considering a realignment plan that would even the two leagues at 15 teams each.  Further, there is some speculation that the leagues would do away with the divisions as we know them and simply keep one table, awarding playoff spots to the top five teams (a five-team playoff was prior speculation).  This change in particular would be a positive move for clubs like the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays, who are caught in the AL East arms race year after year.

I can understand such reasoning, although watering down the playoff field is something I would only do for a very specific purpose (maybe to reward the top playoff seed), since it is already kind of a crapshoot.

What I want to propose, though, is something even more radical.  Every now and then, I’ve toyed with realignment ideas and changes to the playoff format.  I suppose I’m a bit of a tinkerer anyway, but there are certain negative aspects of the modern game that I think could be corrected with a few changes to the league structure:

  1. Scheduling.  Teams and players alike don’t seem to like two-game series.  They also don’t like weather-forced doubleheaders that cost teams money and players rest.
  2. Rewarding lesser teams with championships.  This wouldn’t seem to be a problem in baseball, but in a game where the difference between the best and worst teams is a mere 20% in winning percentage, a large number of games are required to determine which are the best teams.  Teams with the best regular season record should be rewarded with more than just home field in a crapshoot five-game series.  While exciting, an eight-team playoff is simply too big to consistently reward the best teams with championship silverware.  Only the Boston Red Sox have won multiple World Series in the last ten years, in which the MLB regular season has been mostly dominated by that team and their Gotham archrival.
  3. Meaningless regular-season baseball.  For teams with little hope of reaching the postseason, their existence works like this: work on your farm system and hope your prospects reach their potential at approximately the same time.  If that doesn’t work out, start over.  In a given season, there are 12-15 teams that realistically hope to contend for the eight playoff spots, and perhaps one surprise team makes the field.  It’s tough to be a fan of a team like the San Diego Padres, who even in a “go for it” year like 2010 still fell short of October baseball.
  4. Small-market owners pocketing revenue-sharing money rather than investing these shared profits in player development and salaries.  Financials leaked in the last few years show bottom-feeding teams such as the Pirates happily taking money from the Yankees and Red Sox without bothering to spend it on their on-field product.  Call it baseball’s version of welfare if you want.  These owners love it because they remain profitable despite little effort on their parts.  However, this is a bad deal for fans, not just for these teams, but for other teams that have to host these terrible teams and watch their attendance disappear.  Some degree of revenue sharing is probably inevitable and necessary to prevent the largest clubs from shrinking MLB into a six-team league, but it should work differently and offer incentives for practices that make the league better as a whole.
  5. The designated hitter.  I’m only slightly kidding here, since I strongly dislike the idea of the DH.  Realignment isn’t going to solve this problem, but it could force a league-wide decision on the matter.

So, keep an open mind as I describe this plan, and understand that I’m not suggesting changes simply for the sake of change, but to fix real problems and create a better game for fans, players, and owners.  I’ll start with a brief overview and introduce other concepts in subsequent posts.  If you can’t wait, a spreadsheet explaining it all can be found here (xls download).

First, let me explain what it means to win a championship in the new version of Major League Baseball.

MLB Cup and MLB League Championship

The World Series is steeped in tradition, but MLB’s playoff system doesn’t do enough to reward the teams who survive the regular season on top of the league standings.  As explained above, a five-game or seven-game series, especially when stacked into three rounds, is not long enough to separate the very best teams from the rest of the pack.  Sure, someone is going to win the World Series and be able to say they played well for 11+ games, but is that team the best?

My answer is no, they’re certainly not.  Remember, the worst team in the league should expect to win 40% of the time.  Between the top eight teams, it should be no surprise that the 2010 San Francisco Giants beat out superior teams like the Phillies on a fairly regular basis in MLB’s current playoff structure.

On the other hand, the playoffs are exciting, and they provide an element of finality to the season that simply doesn’t exist in a league like the English Premier League, whose champion is simply the team finishing at the top of the league table after 38 matches.

American sports leagues get that people want an exciting finish, so let’s do this: split the regular season and playoffs into separate competitions.  We’ll call them the MLB League Championship, which goes to the regular season winner, and the MLB Cup, which would be the successor of the MLB Playoffs and World Series.

In the next post, I will explain the idea of the MLB Cup.

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One Response to MLB’s Better Way Forward: Introduction (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: MLB Realignment on Freakonomics « John Wright's Weblog

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