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.