A look into the prospect of MLB realignment.
I was flipping, one morning, through the sports section of my local newspaper to where the Major League Baseball Standings sat near the back. Upon reaching the page, something caught my eye while studying at each division. Surely the paper made a typo. There were six teams listed in the National League Central and only four clubs in the American League West. Thinking this was an innocent mistake and seeing as neither division housed my favorite team, my ten-year-old self dropped the matter.
But a few days later it happened again. This time I was watching SportsCenter and the standings popped up on the television screen showing one extra team in the NL Central and one team missing from the AL West. I had to investigate. Luckily I needed to look no further than my dad sitting on the couch right next to me. He confirmed the newspaper and ESPN were correct, that was just how the big leagues worked he said. But this oddity perplexed me, why are some divisions different than others? How come the National League holds two more teams that the American League? That doesn’t seem fair! At ten, I was able to understand this unjustness!
Pre-1994, there were two divisions in each league, an Eastern and a Western. The two division winners in each league would face off in either the ALCS or NLCS. The ALCS and NLCS winners would then meet in the World Series. Easy. Simple. Fair. Then baseball got greedy and wanted another round of playoffs so it made the split to three divisions in each league. Now each league had the three division winners plus a wild card team qualified for the postseason. Problem was, there were only 28 teams in baseball, 14 in each league, meaning there were four divisions with five teams and two divisions (AL and NL West) with four. Cut to 1998, two expansion teams join the big leagues. MLB decides to place one in the NL West (Arizona Diamondbacks) and one in the AL East (Tampa Bay Devil Rays… now Rays). This led to the Detroit Tigers moving from the AL East to the AL Central and the Milwaukee Brewers bouncing from the AL Central to the NL Central. Essentially, instead of sending one team to the AL West and the other to the NL West, MLB added teams to the NL West and NL Central. Thus beginning the inequitable baseball world we live in today.
Fast forward to 2011, Buster Olney broke a story reporting that realignment ‘discussions’ have started between the players association and Major League Baseball. Finally! Someone else cares about this glaring inequality! People at long last have realized this is one of the darkest periods in baseball history! Hold on. People already recognize the late 1990’s and 2000’s as a troublesome time for baseball. In fact they have a named picked out and everything: the Steroid Era, a period in baseball when juiced-up players gave themselves a competitive advantage over clean ones while Commissioner Bud Selig stood idly by. But the ‘roided athletes weren’t the only ones with the competitive advantage, every team in the American League, especially the AL West squads, entered each season with a slightly higher probability of making the playoffs than teams in the National League. In an effort to end this trying time, Selig decided to go after the players on steroids, a move he absolutely needed to do, but even with stricter drug tests he failed to even out the playing field.
Imagine someone told you your life long dream of being an Olympian will come true along with added financial incentive, all you had to do was run a marathon and finish ahead of a group of other participants. The size of the group you are to run against will either be 3, 4, or 5 people. Obviously you are going to hope for only three other opponents. You’re not a coward for doing so, you’re playing the odds. Now I’m about to drop a lot of statistics so bear with me. Four divisions (AL East, AL Central, NL East and NL West) are each made up of five teams. Therefore, without including anything else into the equation, each one of these clubs has a 20% chance of winning its respective division every year. The four AL West teams all have a 25% chance every year to be atop their division and the six clubs in the NL Central only should win their division 16.7% of the time. The 8.3% difference between the AL West and NL Central is by no means a small one, and it only gets worse… Now factor in that American League teams who do not win their division still have a 9.1% (1/11) possibility of capturing the wild card, National League squads’ chances are 7.7% (1/13). That means, of the four divisions with five teams in them, the clubs in AL East and AL Central’s likelihood of reaching the playoffs is 29.1% while NL East and NL West teams have a probability of 27.7%. Not quite equal but also not drastically different odds for any of these teams vying for postseason play. The real discrepancy is, of course, between AL West (34.1%) and NL Central (24.4%). It’s time to feel bad for Pirates fans, the chances their team is making the playoffs is already almost 10% less than the AL West clubs. And that’s before even looking at their roster! I refuse to believe a single player on steroids increased his team’s likelihood of making the playoffs by 10% over other club. Or 5% for that matter, which is the difference between the AL West and any other team in baseball. Realignment must to happen in order to balance the odds.
In a perfect world baseball would copycat the NFL, basically the golden league of professional sports until its current lockout. Make two leagues consisting of four divisions with each division comprised of four teams. This way the playoff format could remain the same, four teams from each league (adding the additional division winner while eliminating the wild card). However, implementing this design would require two expansion team to be introduced into the American League, two new divisions created (one in each league) and completely redoing the existing divisions, things that Commissioner Bud Selig appears to have no interest in. So let’s keep it simple and work with what is currently being discussed; take one team from the NL Central, the Houston Astros being the likely choice, and moving it to the AL West. We did it! Against all odds we were able to evolve and revolutionize a 30-team league and give each club an equal shot at winning their division (20%) and making the playoffs (28.3%)! And now the Rangers closest division rival isn’t a twelve-hundred-mile, three-hour flight away (I went through the standings since the last expansion in ’98, seeing where the NL Central’s 2nd place finisher would have stacked up in the AL West. The Central team would have finished atop the AL West 3 times in 14 years (21.4%). Yes, the teams played a completely different schedule. But still, interesting…). But wait. What’s that? The NHL and NBA both consist of 30 teams and use the exact divisions setup we just proposed, and have been doing so for years! Come on baseball! You’ve waited this long to acknowledge the problem and the damn fix has been sitting in front of you the whole time! It can be that easy, but in the end it all comes back to Interleague.
MLB is made up of two leagues, the NFL, NBA, and NHL are each comprised of two conferences. Interleague play is a big deal, interconference play is not (in fact, interconference isn’t even a real word). Why? Football, basketball and hockey all have one set of rules by which every game is played. Baseball has two, one with and one without a designated hitter. There’s an easy fix, introduce the DH into the National League or cut it from the American. It’s been thirty-eight years since the DH was adopted by the AL in 1973, plenty of time for the MLB to make up its mind. This is a whole other debate that is not as black and white as realignment, each side having strong arguments, but in the spirit of fairness on the field it is time for Major League Baseball to once again appoint one set of rules for both leagues.
But let’s say for arguments sake that baseball wants to go another thirty-eight years with only one league allowing the DH. We’ll work around it and still concoct an unbiased schedule for the new 15-team leagues. A MLB team plays 162 games a year, usually in 3-game series, ergo, the team plays 54 series in a season. Right now, clubs in the five-team divisions play eighteen games, or six series, against a divisional rival (three series at home and three on the road). Holding true to that format, let’s have each team play its division rivals for six series a year. Let’s also arrange it so a club play the other ten teams in its respective league for two series, one home and one away. We now have twenty-four series devoted to division rivals (4 x 6) and twenty series committed to the other league opponents (10 x 2).
That leaves us with ten series and two options. Play two series, one home and one away, against every team from ONE division in the opposite league. Or play one series, mixing and matching home and away, against every team from TWO divisions in the opposite league. Rotating who plays whom every year so, either way, an AL city will host a NL team once every three years, and vice versa.
I’d choose the latter option for two reasons; one for business, one for pleasure. First, clubs can’t complain as much if they lose out on the wild card. The schedule can’t be perfect and divisions can fluctuate year to year. So let’s make sure clubs in the same league face as many of the same opponents as possible. Teams in the same league, different division will play all the squads in their league (including each other), plus five of the same teams in the other league (Five opposite league opponents will be different). Example, the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners are in a battle for the AL wild card. As an unbiased third party who only cares about fairness, would you rather have the Indians play six games against the each NL East team and the Mariners play six games against each NL West club. Or have the two teams play three games against each team in the divisions mentioned above and then both teams play three games against every NL Central squad (now minus the Astros). Second, if my favorite team is playing against twenty-four of the thirty clubs every year, I get to enjoy watching players and teams I usually wouldn’t.
Currently, the Interleague schedule for most teams is six series, or eighteen games, constituting 11.1% of their schedule (Note: some NL teams only play fifteen Interleague games). Bumping it up to ten series would lead to teams playing Interleague games 18.5% of the time. Not a huge jump, NFL and NBA teams play 25% and 36.6% of their games, respectively, against the opposite conference. Plus, baseball clubs would only be using the other leagues rules for five of those series (9.3%). This may even prepare teams and managers better for the World Series.
So there you go baseball. All it takes are some minor tweaks and everything can be repaired. Keep the wild card, and even add another one if you really want to Selig, just even out the leagues. It’s been a long time coming and we’ll probably have to wait at least another year or two, reports say chances of realignment actually happening, as of now, are ‘less than 50-50’. But realignment has finally entered into the conversation and that is the first step. My best argument for it: If an average ten-year-old can instantly spot out the problem, it’s probably a good idea to fix it.