With the announcement of expanded playoffs for the 2012 season and the movement of Houston to the American League in 2013, the baseball landscape has undergone its’ most drastic change since the 1994 strike. Each league, starting next year will feature 15 teams in three divisions of five teams each. The division winners will reach the playoffs, while the two best of the remaining teams will have a one game play-in. Having such a format in a game like baseball, which prides itself on truly selecting the best playoff teams due to the long schedule, is simply absurd. Baseball’s biggest advantage in playoffs over basketball and hockey is that mediocre teams (with very few exceptions) simply do not play in the postseason. Hockey and particularly basketball have been plagued by sub-.500 playoff teams for a few years now, making the first and often second rounds of the playoffs lopsided, thereby decreasing entertainment value. The baseball season is not a sprint. It is a marathon, where depth and attrition breed success. One or two stars cannot carry a team. Yet, the league has largely abandoned this in favour of artificially replicating the excitement of tiebreaker games, that were played each year from 2007-2010 and the dramatic last day of the 2011 season, which was considered by many to be the greatest day of regular-season baseball in history. Instead, the decision ultimately required the Houston Astros to switch to the American League in 2013 to balance the leagues into the new format.
Due to the series nature of baseball scheduling, interleague games must be played year-round to prevent teams from taking up to five days off at once at various points throughout the season. This will result in 18 randomly distributed (most likely three three-game series each home and away) for 2013 with the possibility of an increase to 30 such games in future years. This could mean 15 games a year where AL pitchers have to bat, despite not doing it otherwise and an imposition on National League teams to find designated hitters (expensive players with typically neutral to negative defensive value) to start in 15 games and potentially struggle mightily on defense in others. The other option they have is to use a player off the bench, who is likely on the bench for a reason such as below-average power or hitting ability; creating a hole in the lineup. The obvious solution would be to implement the designated hitter across all baseball. I personally hate the DH, but it is a cash cow for the players as it has the highest average salary by position and allows many players who would have had to retire due to fading fielding skills to extend their careers – needless to say, the DH is here to stay.
If the DH becomes a universal fixture in baseball, differences between the two leagues will become non-existent. Both leagues would play with the same rules (except for some absurd difference over how long an umpiring crew had to wait to suspend, or postpone a game in a rain delay – I have no idea why that was so). The leagues are no longer autonomous whatsoever and are already symbolic “conferences” for the most part, like the American and National Conferences in the National Football League. Since the leagues have little meaning anymore, why not reorganize the “conferences” into an alignment that reflects geographic convenience instead of arcane tradition. Major League Baseball would be split into the Eastern and Western Conferences as outlined below:
Toronto, NY Yankees, Baltimore, Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, Miami, Mets, Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay
LA Dodgers, LA Angels, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Texas, Minnesota, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Houston, Arizona, St. Louis, Chicago White Sox, Colorado
It could even be split into divisions if that is what people wanted:
West: Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco, LA Dodgers, LA Angels, Arizona, Seattle
Midwest: Colorado, CWS, St. Louis, Houston, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Minnesota, Texas, Houston
East: NY Yankees, Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, NY Mets, Miami
Mideast: Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, CHC, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay
In either format the top four teams in each conference would make the playoffs. The schedule would be balanced with 11 games against each divisional opponent, with the team winning the previous year’s head-to-head series gaining the extra home game. That would account for 154 games. Unless MLB wanted to cut back on games (unlikely), or extend to 168 games (very unlikely), the remaining eight games would be “flex games” consisting of two four-game series against randomly drawn non-conference opponents. This leaves 95.1% of the schedule balanced – not perfect, but a far cry better than what we have now.
While this method has some flaws, I strongly believe it would offer a more accurate picture of league talent on team-by-team level, while reducing the needs for cross-country treks. It supports MLB’s initiative of “going green”, all while developing a competitive field where balance is finally restored.