Realignment Proposal: Conferences

 

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:

Eastern:

Toronto, NY Yankees, Baltimore, Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, Miami, Mets, Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay

Western:

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.

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12 comments

  1. Pingback: Baseball Blogs Weigh In: A’s, McCutchen, Molina, Yu | Columbus Sports Radio
  2. Zootus

    What’s the point of 7 team and 8 team divisions if the top 4 teams get in the playoffs. In your scenario the west champ could be the fifth best team in the conference and not get in the playoffs. Not good. The beauty of the 6 division, 5 teams per format is that it sets up this: 21 games per divisional opponent, 6 games versus the other 10 teams in the league and 18 interleague games. (21 X 4) + (6 X 10) + 18 = 162. All played in 3 game series’. This also makes winning the division mostly dependent on how you play within it versus outside it. The interleague can become fairer fair with all teams in the same division playing the same 5 teams in the other league with 3 interleague games set aside for rivals. They can go back to rotating the divisions for interleague play so every team visits each other every 6 years.

    • A-Hume

      That’s not much different than what the league has now. Except the current arrangement has 18 games per dividional opponent. The odd number of games with an opponent would upset the players. The method you have for maintaining interleague fairnness doesn’t work. Some divisions are clearly stronger than others. Could a division champ not make the playoffs? Yes. There is no reason for that to be bad though. It is far worse when weaker teams make the playoffs because they finish atop a division, while strong teams in a strong division that finish third, or even fourth go home. Remember, I offered divisions mainly as a concession, preferring the conference method. The playoffs need the best teams, regardless of where they are located.

  3. Brian

    A few of the suggestions you posted above are very awkward.
    1) In your article you explained that 18 interleague games per team per season is a good number. However, you provide no rationale as to why would MLB change that number to 30. In fact, if anything, MLB could decrease the number of interleague games per year!

    26 week schedule = 184 days, of which 4 days are unused due to the All-Star Break.
    180 games / (30/2) = 12 games

    So at minimum the MLB could operate its schedule with as little as 12 interleague games per team, per season.

    2) An East/West conference never works for the cities with two teams.
    Examples:
    NHL: Rangers & Islanders –> nobody cares about the Islanders
    NBA: Lakers & Clippers –> nobody cares about the Clippers

    In the case of MLB, you don’t want the Yankees & Mets facing each other 18 times a season.

    Apart from that reason, the leagues are really just symbolic figures, but necessary to keep in tact.

    • A-Hume

      You raise some interesting points, but I doubt the MLBPA would approve a 180-game schedule, when the season is long enough as it is. MLB already struggles to avoid November play, adding 18 games would have the season pushing December. The only way that would work is for playoff games to confined to domed stadiums. Either most teams would need new parks, or less than half the teams would be eligible to host playoff games. That would never fly with the owners, players, or league. For the record, Jayson Stark of ESPN.com addressed the potential 30-game interleague schedule. http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/7247519/major-league-baseball-some-major-changes

      The examples you cite of having two teams in the same city in the same conference not working have one major common theme, which is being ignored: one of the teams has been bad for a long time. The Islanders have been bad for several years, while the Rangers have flourished. The Lakers have won multiple championships in the last decade in the Shaq/Kobe Jackson era, while the Clippers are headed for to the playoffs the fifth time since 1985. Going into this year, the Clippers were 762-1420 (.349) all-time in Los Angeles. This has been a major factor in lack of interest, but the Lob City Clippers have drawn much interest, as they have performed very well.

      Also of note, I proposed temas playing 11 times a season, not 18.

      The leagues were a great thing for baseball for many years, but in the direction the game is heading, the inconvenience of the leagues (which are already nothing more than symbolic) outweighs any possible benefit.

  4. Irv Adelman

    While I in general terms agree that regional realignment would be warranted at this time, it is also very very OBVIOUS that this “plan” was offered up SOLELY to get the Blue Jays away from the Yankees and Red Sox. Also, what sense does it make to split the two Florida teams into separate divisions? Only to satisfy your Blue Jay bias!!!

    • A-Hume

      I think your assumption is invalid. Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh are far closer than Boston or New York. Having Milwaukee and Chicago isn’t perfect, but having the Yankees and Red Sox replace them would severely unbalance the divisions. The splitting of the Florida teams, is a result of geographic team distribution. Many more teams are in the East than anywhere else and you would have a massive division and a small one if it was perfect. Besides, as I mentioned to anonther commenter, I preferred the conferences, offering up the divisions as a concession.

  5. Saul P

    Until such time as the MLB inevitably expands, I think the best course of action is to do away with the divisions entirely. By moving to an East/West ‘conference’ alignment, which I’ll refer to as the National and American Leagues, respectively, and with baseball playing multi-game series throughout the year, divisions really aren’t needed to save on travel costs.

    Instead, I’d divide the teams as follows:

    National League- Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros, Anaheim Angels, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, Colorado Rockies, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks, St Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers

    American League- New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Miami Marlins, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates

    Each team would play each other team in its league 9 times, with either two home series and one away series, or vice versa. It would switch each year for each team, so if the Yankees play 6 games in Boston in 2012, the Red Sox would have to play 6 games in the Bronx in 2013. This accounts for the vast majority of the schedule, and 126 games in total.

    The other 36 games each year would be comprised of twelve 3-game series against opponents from the other league. As such, in any given year, each team would play against 26 of the 29 other MLB teams, and by rotating between home series, away series and no series, each city would be visited by each team at least twice in any given five-year period.

    As an example, say the Toronto Blue Jays were to play in San Francisco in 2012, then the Giants played in Toronto in 2013, then the Jays played in SF again in 2014, then the teams didn’t play each other in 2015, and then the Giants came back to Toronto in 2016. Which teams do and don’t play would just rotate through until each team has played twice in a given city, had that team visit their city twice, and had one year with no series in every five-year span.

    By doing this, I think there would be a strong balance between travel distances, interleague play and fair competition, and each team would be given a fair and equal opportunity to make or miss the playoffs, with much less emphasis being put on strength of schedule or being in a particularly strong division.

    History has suggested that with more divisions comes more unfairness in regards to which teams make the playoffs. For the past 15 years or so, this has occured in the AL East, and at time, it has affected each of the NL divisions. For a very long time, too, the AL Central was terrible from top to bottom, and perhaps none of the teams deserved to qualify for the postseason some years. It certainly appears that over the next 5 years, very good teams could miss the playoffs in the NL East and AL West, too, simply because all the strongest teams are packed into one division.

    By returning to single-table leagues, this problem is erased. Blue Jay fans won’t be able to complain that they didn’t get a fair shake against the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox, and a terrible team won’t qualify for the playoffs by winning a division when they’d amass a losing record in a stronger division. Instead, the 8 best teams would qualify for the postseason.

    My proposal would include an eight-team playoff, where the top four teams from each league qualify. The playoffs would work just like they did up until and including the 2011 MLB season, with a 5-game Division Series (or League Semifinal now), a 7-game League Championship Series, and a 7-game World Series to decide the champion.

    **As a side note, it is difficult to divide up the Midwest teams, but I did the best I could. I had to choose between the White Sox and Brewers to be the odd team out, and I went with the White Sox. I felt that, despite being in the same city as the Cubs, they weren’t currently in the same league as the Brewers/Cardinals/Cubs anyways, so they wouldn’t be losing their chief rivals in the realignment. After reading some of the comments on Hume’s original blog, I felt compelled to explain my reasoning for this decision.

    Thanks for the read, and Hume, I hope you don’t mind my hijacking your blog.

    • A-Hume

      Hey Saul. I have no problem with your post. I meant to post some of this crediting you at an earlier date, but I got wrapped up in things. I underwent a cardioversion eight days ago and I’m swamped with university work. Thanks for dropping by.

      Cheers!

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