Monday, March 1, 2010

Divisional Realignment Is Not The Answer

As you've likely noticed, even though Spring Training is in full swing, there still isn't an awful lot to talk about just yet. Traditional media always has the "best-shape-of-his-life" or new pitch story lines to fall back on. We've resorted to filling space by making fun of Kevin Youkilis, writing about hockey, or just not writing much at all.

The indefatigable Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports filled his column inches last week with a radical divisional realignment proposal. Beyond the fact that involves Rosenthal, realignment talk is something that gets under my skin. I realize that it's extremely difficult for teams like Baltimore and Toronto to share a division with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, and play nearly sixty games a year against those three teams thanks to the unbalanced schedule. But rather than making reactionary realignment proposals that would be rendered moot when the balance of power inevitably shifts, there are more fundamental changes that baseball could undertake to level the playing field.

Consider that all else being equal, a team in the AL West has a one in four chance of winning the division, plus a one in fourteen chance of earning the Wild Card spot, for an overall 32.1% chance of reaching the playoffs. Meanwhile, a team in the NL Central has just a one in six chance of winning the division, plus a one in sixteen chance of earning the Wild Card spot, for an overall 22.9% chance of making the playoffs. Sure, the Pirates have been an extremely poorly run franchise for nearly twenty years. But compared to a club in the AL West, they have a nine percent handicap before the first pitch of the season is even thrown.

Beyond the disparity in league and division sizes, certain teams are also at a disadvantage when it comes to the gimmick of interleague play. Given the haphazard rotation of interleague matchups on a yearly basis, some teams luck into a cupcake schedule, while others have a more difficult row to hoe. Additionally, the designation of interleague rivals mean teams get an additional series against a predetermined opponent, usually geography based, regardless of the quality of that opponent. Yet all these things count equally in determining division and Wild Card winners.

The Wild Card presents another problem. All teams in a given league compete for a single Wild Card spot, yet all teams do not play equitable schedules. Aside from the inequities of interleague play, the unbalanced schedule makes it tougher for the second place team in say the AL East to win the Wild Card than it is for the second place team in the AL Central.

Lastly, the fact that division winners are guaranteed playoff spots creates the potential that more deserving teams miss the post-season. Last year, San Francisco, Texas, Florida, and Atlanta finished the regular season with records better than or equal to the Twins and Tigers. While the latter two clubs battled it out in an exciting play in game for the AL Central title, the other four clubs were off making tee times. Similar scenarios have the potential to play out every year. Before the '94 strike, the Rangers were on pace to take the AL West with a sub .500 record.

When divisional play was instituted in 1969, it made sense. Over the course of that decade, both leagues had expanded from eight to twelve teams. The fifty percent increase in size made another post-season berth worthwhile, and splitting the leagues into divisions was a natural way to identify two division champions as the post-season worthy teams. But moving to four playoff spots starting in '94 actually made the divisional system obsolete. Making those divisions unbalanced and awarding a playoff spot to a second place team was a less than ideal way of going about things. As laid out above, there are several systemic disadvantages to that system.

Baseball should do away with divisions. They should do away with interleague play. They should do away with the unbalanced schedule. Go back to the pre-1969 format. No divisions, just two leagues. The top four teams in each league make the playoffs. The top seed plays the number four seed in the first round, no more stupid rules that the Wild Card team can't play a divisional opponent in the Division Series. Having the best record in the league should have a reward, and it should be the path of least resistance to the World Series. Changes like that would do far more to increase competitive balance than changing around the divisions every time the balance of power changes.


  1. Absolutely agree. The current system, as far as I can see, diminishes the AL & NL pennants. I'm not old enough to know this, but when reading about the past, one gets the sense that the pennant meant something back in the olden days; it was a reward for being the best team over a long season, with the World Series being a very pleasant cherry on top. It seems to me that the AL & NL pennants nowadays simply mean you're one step away from a ring. And, that seems wrong. There really should be some reward for being consistently the best team in your league over 162 games.

  2. In judging Rosenthal's realignment; I like the idea of evening out the divisions and moving a team to the AL. However, teams have to want to be in the AL and pay a DH and Houston is probably not one of those teams. I HATE the idea of moving the Sox to the Central. Not only are they NOT a central located city but you cant take away that Sox/Yanks 18 games a year rivalry for 6 to 9 games instead. Thats just idiotic. If anything, move Tampa over in exchange for Cleveland.

  3. What Baseball needs is an expansion or contraction. Either go to 32 teams so that you can have an equal amount in each league, or get rid of two teams for the same reason. The only other fair way to do realignment is two divisions, not three with the Wild Card spots for the two next best records in either division. That way, division alignment won't eliminate deserving teams, and still provide some post-season excitement.

  4. I see your point Craig. Moving to the division system in 1969 devalued having the best record in the league. But it's even worse under the current system. The top team in both leagues should be assured of the easiest post-season paths.

    Bostowned - I'd actually like to see fewer Yankee-Sox games each year. 18 is too much for my liking. They're always great games no doubt, but as I said above, I think the unbalanced schedule should be eliminated.

    As both you and Anonymous point out, the two leagues should have the same amount of teams. But I'd hate to see the talent pool get further diluted by adding two more teams. And I see no scenario under which the MLBPA would agree to contraction. In fact, given that MLB is breaking revenue records year in and year out, I can't see any clubs willing to be retracted the way the Twins and Expos were a decade ago.

  5. Completely with you in your hatred for the unbalanced schedule. Sure, it's nice playing Baltimore 18 times a year, but honestly it seems like you see the same couple of teams far too much. And the media over-hype for every Yankee-Red Sox game...

    I'd much rather see everyone play a 'fairer' schedule with equal games against the same teams. We already have to put up with interleague for crying out loud!