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.

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