MLB’s Better Way Forward: Summary and Conclusions (Part 5)

This week, I have progressively rolled out a radical realignment proposal for Major League Baseball.  I love baseball as it is, but I can’t help but think there are ways to make it better.  This series represents the current fruit from that ongoing thought process.

Summary – A Better Way Forward

If you haven’t been reading the whole series, I am proposing that MLB separate the regular season and playoffs into two separate competitions that would run concurrently throughout the calendar year, resulting in an MLB Cup (playoff) champion and an MLB (regular season) League Championship.

The MLB Cup will take on a new feel compared to the current playoff structure, as a group-and-knockout competition not unlike UEFA’s Champions League for soccer.  Placement in this competition is based on the prior season’s MLB League Championship results.

Sixteen teams would contend for the MLB Cup, starting with eight automatic qualifiers from the prior season, and eight teams contesting the MLB Cup Qualification Playoff (MCQP) at the two main Spring Training sites in March.  The result is three tiers of teams: Elites, Contenders, and Regulars, each of which play a regional group competition culminating in a championship series, which takes place over the last two weeks of October.

In this format, teams would play a minimum of 168 and a maximum of 183 games, with the difference representing the variable number of games in each Regional Championship series and the various tiers’ cup championships.  The entire season can be contested over the same time period as the current MLB season + one-half week, assuming the All-Star Break remains intact, and it will include more regular season off days than ever before (since over half the league currently won’t play at all in October).

Disadvantages

1. Tradition.  Nothing is easy about changing the way things have been done in MLB for years, and countless traditionalists will read this proposal and stop as soon as they realize I’m proposing the end of the AL, NL, and World Series.

I understand this completely.  I have grown up a fan of the Braves and the National League, firmly believing in the aesthetic superiority of a league that forces all nine hitters to play the field.  The World Series is an October tradition, and for the Braves of my youth, a team tradition.

Having said that, I clearly believe that there is a better way to handle the league in 2011 for the benefit of the most fans.  Baseball is a larger and more regional  (and national, and international) game than ever before, and I’m a firm believer in the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, make it as good as possible and highly unlikely to break in the future.”  That’s how it goes, right?

2. Less-instant gratification. The MLB League Championship, while determining placement for the following season’s MLB Cup, crowns only one champion.  This can seem anti-climactic for a seven-month-long season.

On the other hand, there are still conferences and divisions to be contested, although they have less importance than in the current format.  The cup competitions will serve as a season-long playoff, but they will be based on the prior season’s results.  Perhaps this won’t sit well with our culture that increasingly requires instant gratification, but I think we’ll adapt.

3. Unbalanced schedule.  If you’re going to have a 30-team league, you’d best accept the reality of an unbalanced schedule if you intend to maintain any semblance of rivalries and regional competition.  MLB currently understands this, so we have 18 games against division opponents and split the other half of the season across the rest of the league.  It’s still not the fairest way to declare a champion.

Advantages

1. Money, money, money.  Let’s face it: money talks.  MLB is not going to realign in a way that even begins to threaten the bottom line, so this proposal includes several different ways to minimize expenses and maximize revenues.

As we’ve discussed, the season increases from 162 games for most teams to 168, or in the eyes of owners, three extra home games.  Geographic realignment reduces travel expenses and maximizes fan and TV appeal with regional rivalries.

2. Scheduling flexibility.  The “free lunch” of more games and more off days is achieved by lengthening the part of the season in which everyone plays, from six to six-and-a-half months.  The result is more off days, which makes players and clubhouse managers happy, and it allows teams more chances to re-schedule games that are called off due to inclement weather without scheduling double-headers.

3. Quality of competition.  In the revenue sharing post, I explained how a Mariners team that entered 2011 with little hope of competing would perhaps be the favorite to win the MLB Cup Regulars Tier.  For weaker teams, this is a chance for fans and players to see more wins.  For Elites, the tougher schedule is balanced out by increased gate revenues from facing the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox more often.  As long as elite teams like those remain in the same tier, they can still expect to face one another 18+ times, or perhaps even more.  (Can you imagine an eight- or ten-game Regional Championship clinching series between those two at the end of September?)

4. Important games spread throughout the season.  No doubt you’ve heard about the “dog days” of August, as teams slog through the heat with little day-to-day variation in the schedule.  In this format, the flexible schedule and high importance of the MLB Cup means that we’ll have incredibly meaningful baseball games spread across the calendar.  The importance assigned to league play should help keep the rest of the games fresh as well.  Perhaps we will see new strategies, as teams focus their energies on one competition or the other (or balance between both).

5. A season-culminating “event” for traveling baseball fans, held in a predictable location.  The Super Bowl is a tremendous media blitz and popularity boon for the NFL, so why not recreate the “event” atmosphere for MLB’s championship?  The proposed structure still allows for home fans to get in on the action (the benefit of there being vastly more games in MLB), while fans of all types can plan in advance to see anywhere from three to fifteen games at the MLB Cup Series site.

Finally

Do I realistically expect Major League Baseball to accept such a radical change to the current format?  No, but my goal is to show that there is a way to accomplish several main objectives better than MLB currently does:

  1. Reward the best team over the course of the season with a championship.
  2. Make the playoffs more than just a crapshoot.
  3. Make the seven-month season more interesting from start to finish.
  4. Put enough financial muscle behind the plan that it can’t be roundly dismissed by profit-first owners.

In my mind, there’s no doubt that this plan accomplishes these objectives and more.

The floor has been open all week for discussion, but if you have particular issues you’d like to discuss that haven’t already been addressed, this is the place for that discussion.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks go out to Doug Sparks for being a sounding board and inspiration for many of the ideas comprising this proposal.

MLB’s Better Way Forward: Revenue Sharing (Part 4)

The last post outlined the competitive structure of the MLB League Championship, which I will simply call the League or “league play.”  In forming one 30-team championship format separate from the playoff structure, the concern is that teams out of the MLB Cup Elites tier will lose interest, destroying fan attendance and franchise profitability.

Before we proceed further, let me suggest a few reasons why that might not be the case.

Regional is better.

The unbalanced regional schedule offers more geographically-relevant matchups.  That means more (or at least the same) local rivalries, where those exist (Cubs-White Sox, Yankees-Mets, Yankees-Red Sox, etc.), and more matchups within the same time zone.

For instance, the Giants play at least one road series against NL East teams in a given year, with perhaps one such road interleague series, totaling 21 or so East Coast road games starting at potentially awkward times for West Coast TV.  In the new regular season schedule, they would play 15 at most, unless they are lumped into the eastern group for cup purposes.

When the Giants are in contention, fans will almost certainly show up, but if they’re not, there will be fewer awkward TV times and more games against regionally relevant teams like the A’s and Angels (along with existing division rivals like the Dodgers and Padres).  Regional games would seem to be a win both for fans and TV, not to mention the travel schedule.

More winnable/competitive games.

Another win for the fans is having more games against teams of a similar talent level.  In a cup competition with the likes of Houston, San Diego, Arizona, and Kansas City, the Mariners have a competition in which they will be competitive in 2011, not to mention a few years from now when Pineda and Ackley will be in their respective primes.  All of a sudden, this becomes a team that can reasonably expect to play at least .500 baseball at home, and fans can react accordingly.

For more competitive teams like the Phillies, it’s an embarrassment of riches to see a schedule filled with games against the Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox, even if it is a very tough schedule to play through.  The Blue Jays, still stuck in a tough division for scheduling purposes, can hope to contend on a league-wide basis and use their cup competition as a springboard to future success.

Revenue Sharing

The last of these reasons is a new proposal for MLB’s existing revenue sharing system.  I’m not a huge fan of MLB’s revenue sharing in general, as there is no reason that the Pirates should be able to rake in the profits without having seen on-field success since the Barry Bonds era.

The current revenue sharing system, as I understand it, works like this: 31% of all team revenues go to a shared fund which is then redistributed equally among teams.  The primary result of this practice is lower player salaries, since it artificially creates lower marginal returns for investing in players.

What I propose instead is that teams are awarded revenue sharing dollars on the following bases:

  1. Total player salaries, coach salaries, and player development expenses — in other words, money spent on improving the on-field product.
  2. League standing and cup finish relative to major league player salaries — succeeding on the field on a per-dollar basis.

The system can still be based on team revenue, but at least there will be an incentive for owners to reinvest in the product quality year after year, rather than simply pocket other teams’ profits.  Set a minimum requirement for both of the above criteria, and you have a firm incentive for continued success.

If possible from a legal standpoint, I would try to enforce this with a further opt-out requirement for owners who fail to invest in their teams.  Put more simply, kick out the owners who remain in the MLB Cup Regulars Tier for an extended period of time (say, seven years).  Owners should be able to collectively agree on this provision, since the other owners’ poor management devalues the MLB product overall.

With this as a backbone for revenue sharing, teams in all tiers will have to focus on their league result, or they will risk falling further behind their rivals.

Tomorrow, I will wrap up this series with a summary of advantages and disadvantages to the entire realignment proposal.

MLB’s Better Way Forward: MLB League Championship (Part 3)

The MLB League Championship should have a familiar feel.  The new wrinkle we’ve added with the MLB Cup, though, will force a shorter regular season, at least in number of games.  It will actually be longer in terms of the calendar, since the two competitions run concurrently.

Scheduling

This seems as appropriate a time as any to discuss the schedule.  One complaint lodged against playoff expansion in MLB is that the season is already too long.  “No more November baseball!” is the cry we hear from some, and it’s a valid complaint to the extent that it’s uncomfortable for everyone to play in 40-degree weather and virtually impossible to play in snow.

One of the beautiful things about a concurrent playoff and regular season format is that, even with the championship series standing alone at the end, there are two extra weeks when everyone can play.  That has at least two major implications:

  1. More games can be played by non-MLB Cup Elite teams.
  2. There can be more off-days between games during the season.

This is huge, because it allows us to make both players and owners even happier, and it gives us as fans more baseball to watch.

My proposal is a 138-game regular season, with all 30 teams in one group for the purpose of determining the final league standings.  The MLB Cup allows this to work aesthetically.  It’s not as though the 24th-best team has nothing to play for; rather, they can shoot for 20th and make the MLB Cup Contenders tier for the following season, leading to more games against good teams.  We’ll get into incentives a little more in a later post, but here’s how the schedule would break down.

Unbalanced Schedule

With 30 teams in MLB, the schedule almost has to be unbalanced in order to work.  Otherwise, you end up with teams facing one another just once or twice a year outside the cup format.  Instead of the traditional AL and NL, I think the new league should be organized geographically to make the most of regional rivalries in what has become an increasingly-regional game.

I know traditionalists are going to balk at ending the traditional two leagues, but other than the DH difference, do baseball fans as a whole really care about the league championship anymore?  At least, do they care about it more than they would, say, an MLB Cup Regional Championship?  I think the answer is no.  The casual fan especially doesn’t care, and you and I can get over our affinities (mine for the NL), since we’re already used to a heavy dose of interleague play.

I propose that we break the leagues into three geographic regions.  We’ll call them Conferences for simplicity’s sake: an Eastern Conference, Central Conference, and Western Conference.  These conferences are then broken into two Divisions of five teams each.  The final result is below.

Eastern Conference

Northeast Division: Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies
Southeast Division: Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Florida Marlins

Central Conference

Mideast Division: Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh Pirates
Midwest Division: Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals

Western Conference

Frontier Division: Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners
California Division: San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, San Diego Padres

Notice the similarity to Jim Bowden’s idea.  I would disagree with much of the rest of his plan, but dividing the teams by geography works remarkably well for this purpose.  In this alignment, major rivalries are maintained: Yanks/Red Sox, Cubs/Cardinals, and the like.  Many of the current divisional rivalries are maintained, at least within the conference, if not the division.  When we “unbalance” the schedule in this fashion, we end up with a lot more interesting regional matchups.

138 Games

Here’s how the schedule would work:
Division games: 4 teams x 12 games (2x home-and-home series of 3 games) = 48 games
Conference games: 5 teams x 6 games (1x home-and-home 3-game series) = 30 games
Non-conference games: 20 teams x 3 games (home series alternating yearly) = 60 games
Total of 138 games (46 3-game series, played over 23 weeks)

Notice that playing 138 games over 23 weeks allows for 23 off-days, an increase of 8 compared to the current schedule of 162 games.  The result is more days for travel and rest, which is something players and teams alike should love.

The final schedule, when combined with MLB Cup games, will increase the number of home games for each team to a minimum of 84: 69 league home games, and at least 15 in the MLB Cup.  At most, a team will play 183 games (compared to 181 currently), but all teams will see an increase from 162 to at least 168, meaning more revenue for all teams.

Due to the concurrent scheduling, all of this is accomplished within the current calendar structure, extending it by a mere half-week on the front end.  See the Schedule Example tab in the accompanying Excel File for a more detailed example.

Qualifying for the MLB Cup

Now the elephant in the room is this: if we’re splitting the playoffs into another competition entirely, how do we make the regular season important?  I’ve already addressed one of these ways briefly, saying that we divide teams into three tiers for the MLB Cup based on regular-season finish from the prior season.  Let’s go into a little more detail about how that might work:

  1. The top eight teams in the MLB League Championship automatically qualify for the MLB Cup Elites Tier for the following season.
  2. Two more teams qualify for the MLB Cup Elites Tier based on what we’ll call the MLB Cup Qualification Playoff (MCQP for short).
  3. The next ten teams not qualifying for the Elites Tier are in the Contenders Tier, and the last ten teams are placed in the Regulars Tier.

The result is a stratification of MLB teams for the MLB Cup based on the MLB League Championship.  Before we dive into that aspect of it, how is the MCQP going to work?

MLB Cup Qualification Playoff (MCQP)

In order to keep things interesting among the lower tiers, those teams will be allowed to “play in” to the MLB Cup Elites Tier based on their performance in the prior season’s cup competition.  The MCQP will take the first eight teams from the following group, based on the prior season, excepting those who have already qualified by finishing in the League Championship top eight or by a previous step in the process below:

  1. (Max. one team) Winner of the MLB Cup Regulars Tier
  2. (Two teams) Regional winners of the Contenders Tier
  3. (One team) Winner of the MLB Cup Series
  4. (One team) Runner-up from the MLB Cup Series
  5. (Two teams) Teams with the best record in their MLB League Championship conference
  6. (Three teams) Teams with the best record in their MLB League Championship division
  7. (Five teams) Top remaining teams finishing 9-13 in the MLB League Championship

These eight teams will be grouped by region, and because this competition would take place toward the end of Spring Training, they would be grouped by Spring Training site, four teams at each location (Florida/Arizona).  Preference would be granted to teams with a higher league finish, in the event that there are more than four qualifying teams from one site (lower finishers travel).

The MCQP would be a preseason “event” to take place at either Chase Field, for Arizona teams, or Tropicana Field/Miami (as yet unnamed) Ballpark for Florida teams.  The format would be the same as the College World Series regional tournaments: double-elimination among the four teams.  Winners at each regional site advance to the Elites Tier, and the remaining teams are placed into the Contenders and Regulars tiers.

There will be a lot of dynamics in play over the course of the season as a result of this format.  Teams will have to choose whether to burn their ace pitcher on a League game, or go for it in the cup competition with the hope of having more games against good teams in the following year.

With qualification for the Elites tier reaching down to the 13th-placed team (or below), most teams will have something to play for, even late into the MLB League season.  Winning the Division or Conference will still have meaning, as those winners will qualify (based on overall record) before it is simply treated as an extended Wild Card.  Championship teams facing a decline from one year to the next will also still have a chance to defend their title in the MLB Cup.

Of course, there are some competitive consequences that would arise from stratifying the MLB clubs further into Elites, Contenders, and Regulars, even if hope remains in the cup competition for lower-tier teams.  In the next post, I will specifically address that concern with an idea to revamp MLB’s existing revenue sharing program.

MLB’s Better Way Forward: The MLB Cup (Part 2)

I’ll explain the MLB Cup next, since the League Championship follows a familiar structure.  This is a little different.  Taking a page out of the UEFA Champions League, the MLB Cup is a season-long competition that is based on the prior year’s league result.

A “Group Stage”

Teams are grouped into three tiers of ten teams based on their prior finish.  We’ll call the top tier the Elites, the second tier Contenders, and the third tier Regulars.

The MLB Elites would be the only teams playing for the MLB Cup in a given season, having already earned their spot in the competition.  They would play a group stage early in the calendar year against fellow Elites in two regions of five teams each, based on geography.

If you take the 2010 MLB standings, you end up with regions that look like this (2010 wins):

East: Philadelphia Phillies (97), Tampa Bay Rays (96), New York Yankees(95), Atlanta Braves (91), Boston Red Sox (89)

West: Minnesota Twins (94), San Francisco Giants (92), Cincinnati Reds (91), Texas Rangers (90), San Diego Padres (90)

The regions function as a “group stage” of the competition, where teams play six games against every other in-region team (three home, three away), for a total of 24 games in eight series.

Regional Championship

The Regional Championship is a unique series designed to finalize the group stage with an appropriate regional champion.  The top two teams in the region will meet for a series that functions like a short pennant race.  The leading team after 24 games will take its advantage in wins and divide by two (rounding up) to determine how many wins the trailing team will need in order to win the region.  Then, we add four games to make it a proper length.

Taking our example from the previous post, suppose the East finished with the following group standings.

16 –  8  Tampa Bay Rays
14 – 10  New York Yankees
12 – 12 Philadelphia Phillies
10 – 14 Atlanta Braves
8 – 16 Boston Red Sox

The Regional Championship will be contested between the Rays and Yankees, with the Rays taking a one-game lead into the series: 1 =  (16 – 14) / 2.  The Yankees will need to win five in order to take the region, while the Rays need just four.

This series will alternate two games at each home site, starting with the lower finisher, until a possible clinching game is reached.  All clinching games are played at the home site of the team with a chance to clinch, or at the site of the previously-leading team if both teams can clinch.

The beauty of this format is that not only do we get a lot of games between contending teams, but also we get a real head-to-head element of finality to the regional competition.  Next is the MLB Cup Series.

MLB Cup Series

The regional champions will face off in the MLB Cup Series, the most prestigious head-to-head event in the new version of Major League Baseball.  Since seven games are not enough to separate the teams, we will play nine, which is a little better while still keeping the total number of games for each team within reason.

The MLB Cup Series will take place over the last two weeks of the year, with the first four games played two at each home site.  The final five games warrant an “event” atmosphere and will be played at a neutral site, along with the championship series for the two other MLB Cup tiers (possible 15 games).

This is admittedly a bit awkward for fan scheduling, since there’s no way to know whether there will be one or five games until the first four are played, but with three separate series being played out at one site, the thinking is that fans who make it a point to attend will get a several-game fix for their effort.  The home fans also get their chance to participate, with two guaranteed home games.

The next post will address the more-familiar structure of the MLB League Championship (regular season) and how it will relate to the new MLB Cup.

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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