Solving the monster of interleague play and MLB competitive imbalance

I was planning on writing about something else today, but I ran across a great article by Studes at THT about interleague play.  He concludes that if anyone should have a beef with the schedule makers this year, it’s the Braves, who faced four tough teams: the Red Sox twice, the Tigers, the Indians, and the Twins.  4-11 still is not a good record, even against good teams, but he concludes that this made as much as two games’ difference in the standings just because of the schedule disparity.  Obviously, those two games could make the difference between first and third place in such a close division.

I’ll take the opportunity today to do the following:

1) Agree with Studes and his reasonable suggestion
2) Suggest some more radical scheduling/alignment ideas

The Voice of Reason

Studes makes a solid suggestion: reduce interleague play to two series, with one against a natural rival (if such a rivalry exists) and one other series.  Use the rest of the games to make up the schedule imbalance against other divisions in the same league.  I would be completely on board with this, even though I like the opportunity to see some of the AL teams at Turner Field.

The major obstacle to making this necessary reduction to interleague play is attendance.  Each year, attendance goes up during interleague play, resulting in more revenue for the teams.  For the same reason that the NBA plays a ludicrous 82-game regular season, MLB will continue with interleague play as long as it keeps bringing in extra money.  Then again, the impact on attendance might be overstated, because attendance generally rises in June anyway, so it’s not really clear how much of a boost it provides over a typical intra-league opponent.  I’m sure someone out there has crunched the numbers for this, but I haven’t.

My early obsession with interleague play (I went to the first interleague game of each season from 1997-2000, even though I only go to 2-3 games a year) was based more upon the timing of interleague games in June, the first month after school let out for the summer.  As a result, it was really less of an obsession with the AL than it was a desire to see the Braves as early in the season as I could.  I would venture a guess that this is true of most of the people like myself who come from out of town to see the games.

I like Studes’ suggestion because it would be a good start toward regaining some balance to the schedule.  While scheduling may be a big deal for NCAA football and the NFL, it shouldn’t be problematic for a 162-game baseball season, aside from the logistics of cramming in six games a week.

Taking it to the next level

There are a couple of other alignment/equality issues that Major League Baseball could address if they could get the support of the fans.  First, there is an obvious problem with the current no-salary-cap-with-revenue-sharing situation.  The poor teams have little incentive to improve their on-field product in the existing system, so we’re left with a handful of juggernaut teams like the Yankees and Red Sox and a handful of bottom-dwellers like Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

1) One way to dramatically shift that mindset would be to introduce a relegation system like in the Premiership.  I won’t try to explain the system here (thus the link), but a “relegation league” of 6-10 teams would provide some incentives to the management of small-market teams while increasing the importance of late-season games between those teams.  This might require revamping the minor-league system as we know it (allowing teams to be more autonomous), and its possible that the detrimental effect to the relegated teams would overshadow the benefits for the overall quality of play.

2) If you could implement it at the same time as relegation, I would also suggest the idea of fluid divisions for traveling purposes.  By that, I mean that the teams are assigned East-West geographical rankings from 1-14 or 1-16 (or 1-15 if you want to make the leagues even again).  Six-team relegation would presume 12 remaining teams in each league, which could be grouped in two divisions of six, with the six easternmost teams in one division and the same for the west.  Alternately, you could have three divisions of four teams, if you wanted to keep the current playoff format.  Most of the traditional geographical rivalries would also stay intact, which would be a plus for this system.

3) Alter the length of playoff series and perhaps the entire playoff format.  It would seem to me that the best team ought to have the best chance of emerging from the World Series victorious, but that’s not always the case.  The current playoff series are too short to legitimately determine the better team when the two teams facing one another are usually withing about 5% of one another in winning percentage for the season.  Lengthening the division series to 7 games would be a good start, and making the LCS or WS 9-11 games would be even better, from the standpoint of giving the better team a real chance to show it is better.

3a) Without lengthening the current series, one way of rewarding the top regular-season team would be to introduce a second wild-card team in each league and have the two teams play a one-game series to advance to the division series.  These teams would be forced to use their ace for this game, which would handicap them for the series against the #1 team.  Then again, teams might realize this effect and start the #3 or #4 SP in that game anyway, hoping for a decent chance to beat the #1 team.  Obviously this would be frustrating for the wild card team, but you’d have to ask what’s more important: frustrating the WC or rewarding the regular season champ, which gets no other reward than facing a WC team (sometimes a streaky-hot WC team) in the first round.

These suggestions are only meant to liven the debate about what’s best for the league in terms of competitive balance.  Take them with a grain of salt (except the first one – the interleague play imbalance should be addressed now), or push for wholesale change.

I also can’t take credit for the last set of suggestions.  I spent a lot of time discussing them with Doug Sparks, and I think he came up with the idea on several, if not all of them.  His ideas aren’t confined to baseball, and I fully expect his killer computer ranking system for NCAA football to (finally) be out this year.  If you know him, I hope you’ll pester him to release it (and aggressively market it) as soon as possible.  He’ll appreciate that, I’m sure.

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4 thoughts on “Solving the monster of interleague play and MLB competitive imbalance

  1. I’m not a big fan of interleague play or the unbalanced schedule, but to me, the issue that needs to be fixed first is the fact that there are 16 teams in the NL and 14 teams in the AL. It’s ridiculous, that (based on probability alone), the Rangers have a 1 in 4 chance of winning the AL West while the Reds have a 1 in 6 chance of winning the NL Central.

    After we fix that, we can deal with the other issues. And take care of the DH and aluminum bats in college while we’re at it.

  2. Thanks for the mention. I’ve coincidentally been giving a lot of these things some thought lately too.

    First, a couple of other ideas on the interleague situation:

    1. MLB is being extremely stupid to do all the interleague games at the same time. Yankees-Mets, Braves-Red Sox, Cubs-White Sox, or any other big-time interleague matchup would ordinarily be the main event on any given night in the regular season. Instead, MLB takes them and puts them all at the same time. There’s only so much national TV coverage to go around. Spread interleague play out over the entire season.

    2. I think the best way to do interleague would be by doing something parallel to the NFL interconference scheduling, where, say, the whole AFC South plays the whole NFC West, or whatever. That would reduce almost all of the schedule disparity among division teams. And I suppose they could add one additional “rivarly” series per year as well (which would mean two series against your rival in some years).

    I like the idea of relegation too, but there’s no way it would work, for two reasons:

    1. As you pointed out, it would probably disrupt the minor league system pretty thoroughly.

    2. The financial hit to the teams that get relegated would probably be severe enough to ensure that they continue to fail to compete for several years to come.

    And finally, realignment. I absolutely agree with Luke’s thoughts about different division sizes. So let’s fix the whole thing as follows:

    1. Just contract the Nationals and Devil Rays.

    2. Move an NL team to the AL. I’d go with the Rockies, because it needs to be a western team, and even though the DBacks are a newer addition, they do have a WS win as an NL team.

    3. Realign into four divisions of seven as follows:
    NL East – Mets, Phillies, Braves, Marlins, Pirates, Reds, Brewers.
    NL West – Dodgers, Giants, Padres, DBacks, Astros, Cardinals, Cubs.
    AL East – Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays, Indians, Tigers, Twins.
    AL West – Angels, A’s, Mariners, Rangers, White Sox, Royals, Rockies.

    4. For interleague play, your whole division plays one whole division from the other league. That makes seven interleague series instead of six, but I don’t have any problem with that.

    5. For the playoffs, the division winners qualify for the Divison Series. The second-place teams get to host one-game “play-ins” against the next two highest finishers in each league. So 12 teams make the postseason. And as a special provision, if any would-be qualifier finishes .500 or worse, they forfeit their playoff spot, and whoever would otherwise play them gets a bye.

    6. Sure, let’s lengthen the playoff series. I haven’t really thought about that issue too much, though, so I don’t know how long to make them.

    Okay, that’s plenty for now.

  3. I think the financial effects of relegation would probably be exactly as you said, but there’s probably some research to be done in that area. It’s more of a hunch than anything, at least for me.

    I like the division alignments you suggested, especially with the nice touch of putting the Brewers in the NL East to keep the Cards-Cubs a divisional rivalry.

    So, with that playoff format, there would be four teams entering the playoffs feeling pretty good about themselves for winning the division in the regular season.

    Then, you’d have 8 others fighting for their playoff lives in a do-or-die game, which would probably make for the most exciting day (or 2 days, maybe) in baseball history. That has potential for a March Madness-style atmosphere.

    In the end, the division winners are rewarded by facing a short-handed rotation in the Division Series (now a true division series in the strictest sense).

    I love exploring these realignment scenarios.

  4. One thing I forgot to mention about that realignment scenario was that each team has its interleague “rival” opposite from it, in the same division:

    EAST
    Mets-Yankees
    Phillies-Red Sox
    Braves-Orioles (I like these last two better than the current setup, but whatever)
    Reds-Indians
    Brewers-Twins
    Pirates-Tigers (meh)
    Marlins-Blue Jays (yuck, but with the Devil Rays gone, is there anything better?)

    WEST
    Dodgers-Angels
    Giants-A’s
    Padres-Mariners (I guess)
    Astros-Rangers
    Cubs-White Sox
    Cardinals-Royals
    Rockies-DBacks

    And schedule as follows:
    Division opponents – 16 games (x6 = 96)
    Other division, same league – 6 games (x7 = 42)
    One division from other league – 3 games (x7 = 21)
    Interleague rival – 3 games (x1 = 3)
    96+42+21+3 = 162

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