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).
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.
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.
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:
- Reward the best team over the course of the season with a championship.
- Make the playoffs more than just a crapshoot.
- Make the seven-month season more interesting from start to finish.
- 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.
Many thanks go out to Doug Sparks for being a sounding board and inspiration for many of the ideas comprising this proposal.