Proposing a Third Option for MLB’s Schedule

Under this proposal, the 2006 Cardinals wouldn't have made it to Shea Stadium for the NLCS. (via Laura)

Under this proposal, the 2006 Cardinals wouldn’t have made it to Shea Stadium for the NLCS. (via Laura)

Every year, the baseball playoffs roll around. Nearly every year, people observe the unfairness of it all—the teams that make the playoffs aren’t always the ones that deserve it the most, and the less deserving teams have a nasty habit of doing pretty well once they get to October. This didn’t start with the second wild card, or the wild card in general—when there were only two divisions per league, much weaker teams could sneak into the playoffs and win the World Series (as happened with the Twins in 1987). Even going back before divisional play some of the results seem cosmically unjust, like Cleveland winning 111 games in 1954, getting swept by the Giants, and not making it back to the postseason for 50 years.

Baseball occasionally adjusts to try to make things more fair, conspicuously making all divisions five teams following the 2012 season. Ultimately, though, no adjustment is going to handle the central conflict baseball faces in this regard: Short postseason series don’t necessarily reward the best teams, and so any system that relies on short series is going to lead to unsatisfying outcomes (from a competitive fairness perspective). The fairest way of resolving this would be to have a perfectly balanced schedule and a single regular season champion (as is done in European soccer). The team that plays the best over the course of the season gets the trophy.

However, even disregarding the practical issues with a perfectly balanced schedule in baseball, having a designated set of high leverage games is good for the league and fans for a variety of reasons. Just to name a few, they increase fan engagement (leading to more ratings and more dollars), build a community by having everyone focusing on the same games, and give us the opportunity to watch a different form of baseball, one featuring aggressive tactics, more opportunities for stars, and greater specialization. Thus, any schedule proposal that gets rid of playoffs altogether would be not only unworkable from a business perspective but also probably makes things worse for the fans.

What follows is my proposal for a third option that preserves most of the things to like about the current system while also making the championship a bit more meritocratic—and mitigating a couple of other issues to boot. While this departs pretty substantially from the current system, I did my best to make it practical and something that MLB could conceivably do in the near future. For this reason, I ruled out expansion, contraction and substantial changes in the length of the season or the structure of individual games.

I should be clear that the relative merits of systems are largely matters of taste and preference. While I think this system has some clear advantages over the current one, reasonable people can certainly disagree about what level of change is necessary (if any).

Here’s the proposal, in brief:

  • Teams will be split into a top conference and bottom conference, each with 15 teams, and use promotion and relegation to move between the two (we’ll use conference to refer to these, since division and league already have meanings in baseball).
  • Each team will play every other team in the league in a way that yields an approximately balanced 143-game schedule.
  • The team with the best record in the top conference over those 143 games will be the champion for the year.
  • Each team will play an extra 20 games scattered throughout the course of the year against its current divisional rivals (regardless of which conference they are in).
  • The team in each division with the best record in those 20 games advances to the playoffs, along with up to two other teams; the playoffs winner will win a separate title (analogous to the FA Cup in English soccer).

Surely, you want more details.

Promotion and Relegation

Each year, the bottom two or three teams in the top conference will be moved to the bottom conference, and the top two or three teams in the bottom conference will be moved to the top conference. This accomplishes three things:

  • As we’ll see, it permits a reasonably straightforward system where each team plays a balanced schedule.
  • It dramatically complicates tanking and keeps things interesting and competitive for teams that aren’t within a reasonable distance of the championship. Nobody cares about the difference between being decent and mediocre in the current system, but if playing too poorly means that your team is eliminated from title contention next year, the finer differences matter—so besides the race for the championship, there are relegation and promotion “pennant” races as well.
  • It provides opportunities for high-stakes, meaningful playoff games without interfering with how the championship is awarded. Have the 12th and 13th teams in the top conference play a three or five game series to determine who has to drop down the next year, or the third and fourth finishers in the bottom conference do the same. Since playoff-style baseball is a Good Thing — broadly speaking — adding some more of it in a way that doesn’t mess with the championship is almost a no-brainer.

A Balanced Schedule of 143 Games

Each team plays each other team in its conference seven times (a four-game series and a three-game series, home-and-home) and each team in the other conference three times, totaling 143 games. This isn’t perfectly balanced, since not every team will have the same number of home games (some teams will play 70, others 73) and which teams play which at home won’t match up perfectly, but every team competing for the same thing will play the same teams the same number of times, which is a big improvement over the current system. No more concerns that the Mets and Nationals get to play the Phillies, Marlins and Braves 57 times while the Brewers and Reds have to play the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates 57 times.

This setup and the 143-game total seem sort of strange, but the length and the balance make it highly unlikely that a champion—the champion of the season—will seem inappropriately deserving. (In the event of a tie, a three-game playoff can determine the champion.) For whatever it’s worth, I couldn’t come up with a better number that would let the combinatorics work out so easily.

This system dramatically increases the probability that the best team wins; using some simplifying assumptions and running some simulations, I estimate that the chance the best team wins the championship goes from roughly 20 percent to roughly 40 percent—a huge jump in the right direction. Even better, in my eyes, is that all the games are worth the same amount, and you don’t have to observe the unsettling optics of a team being eliminated by a team with a much worse record (as in 2006, when the Cardinals finished 14 games behind the Mets and beat them in the NLCS). The winner in this system will always be a deserving team.

A Divisional Schedule of 20 Games

Each team would play five extra games (a two-game series and a three-game series) against each of the four teams in its division, using the current divisional alignment. These games would be scattered throughout the regular season but would not count toward the overall championship. Instead, the division champion would be chosen from the team with the best record over those 20 games, using single-game tiebreakers.

This may seem even more suspect than the 143-game proposal. However, it accomplishes the following:

  • Pads the season out to 163 games and gives teams more games against their natural rivals, preserving some of the practical and financial advantages of the current unbalanced schedule.
  • Provides an opportunity for more high-leverage games, again without compromising the overall title structure.
  • With a tiny, high-variance sample, allows underdogs to succeed and makes it clear that the uncoupling of the playoffs from the process of determining a champion is a conscious decision.
  • Allows for more interesting strategy by giving games different values to different teams. For instance, this past year the Phillies could have made the conscious decision to focus on the division rather than the conference. By shuffling their rotation accordingly, they could have Cole Hamels pitch seven or eight of the 20 division games, and the strategic choice involved would make games more exciting and provide more fodder for discussion and analysis.

A Playoff of Division Winners

You may have noticed that I have thus far mentioned only six of the eight proposed playoff teams, with no details about how to select two other teams. That’s because there are at least a few reasonable ways to go about this, and I don’t think one is a clear winner.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

My distinct preference is to have the final two slots go to the Japanese and Korean champions. Those are high-quality leagues, and I would find it immensely enjoyable to watch the meeting of different playing styles and baseball cultures under the bright lights. It would also partially make up for MLB’s hubris in calling its championship the “World Series” despite including teams from only two countries.

That said, a number of obstacles would likely make this a non-starter. The Korean Series and Japan Series aren’t typically completed until well after the end of the MLB regular season, and so either the KBO and NPB or MLB would have to alter their calendars, which is unlikely. One could potentially solve that by using All-Stars made up from the eliminated teams in those two leagues, but that wouldn’t help with the fiscal risk: MLB’s TV partners would be wary of showing games with only one built-in fan base, as well as the substantial risk of having a World Series with no MLB teams. (MLB probably also wouldn’t be thrilled by the fact that the KBO and NPB would have to play home games at neutral sites, dragging down attendance.)

Assuming that foreign teams are a no-go, then, what else could be done? A simple option that I’m partial to is giving the previous year’s playoffs winner a bye into the second round, then having three divisional series followed by semifinals and finals, all best of seven. (If the previous year’s winner wins its division, either the second place team from that division or the runner-up from the previous year could take the first round slot.) Other options that are workable but less appealing: choosing one or two second-place teams, choosing one or both conference champions, or playing a round robin to eliminate teams before going to a bracket. Each of these has benefits and drawbacks, but they all work.

One other fundamental issue with the playoff that I’ve left undiscussed is what the stakes are. Why should people care if the championship’s already been determined? I personally don’t think that’s an issue—if there’s playoff baseball on and a trophy at stake, fans will watch, and the players and teams are competitive enough that they’ll welcome another shot at a trophy. It’s not a problem in soccer, where parallel competitions are pretty common, or in college football, where most of the postseason is pointless, and so it should be fine here. However, to sweeten the deal, MLB can offer incentives to teams that do well. For instance, it would be very simple to give playoff teams an extra allotment to spend on the amateur draft—maybe the winner’s cap goes up by $2.5 million, with smaller bonuses for the other playoff teams.

Drawbacks

As with any fairly drastic proposal, there are some potential drawbacks to this plan. Many of these relate to the difficulty of anticipating fan behavior. Will ratings be affected for playoff games when the championship is no longer at stake? Will the new system be perceived as contrived or excessively complex? Will attendance suffer too much among teams in the lower conference? To my mind, there’s reason for optimism, given that college football and basketball have not been harmed by changes large and small to their postseason and conference structure. In spite of that, though, or any other market research or analysis based on past and current behavior, ultimately there’s no avoiding the uncertainty that stems from a change this large.

There are also risks of unintended consequences in team and player behavior. Careful thought would need to be employed in setting up some of the exact details: important off-field aspects of the game like revenue sharing, the luxury tax, the trade deadline, waivers, and allocation of picks and money for amateur player acquisition would need to be adjusted to make sure that the new league structure doesn’t create perverse incentives.

One other objection that might be raised is that building teams for the regular season is different from building them for the postseason, given the increased importance of depth relative to star power, and that the latter approach is preferable. I don’t think there’s any real rebuttal for that, given that it’s a value judgment, except perhaps to note that there’s limited reason to believe current GMs are deliberately building a roster that trades regular season wins in favor of a possible postseason edge.

Finally, there are the smaller cultural costs that occur with big transitions. People would have to learn new benchmarks for team and player statistics, and given the baseball world’s attachment to history, numbers and historical numbers, that’s something that will trigger strong feelings. To the chagrin of many, we’d be forced to relitigate the DH question. To my mind, these aren’t good reasons for rejecting any proposal that would improve the game, but they are important to many people, and so I don’t dismiss them entirely.

Conclusions

Abstracting away from the details, what is this proposal really about? It’s an effort to ensure that the teams that play the best over a large sample are the ones that win championships. To me, that’s important enough to be worth the decreased status of the playoffs, the risk of turning off fans, statistical complications, and the other drawbacks. You might disagree; ultimately, as with so many other structural questions, this is a question of aesthetics that can’t be argued in objective terms.

Do I think MLB is going to implement this proposal? Of course not. But what I would love is for baseball to take a holistic approach to fixing the playoffs, because there’s no reason to be bound by the current system and stuck making small tweaks. Big format changes are possible, and the league should be open to them because some of them make sense.


Frank Firke crunches numbers for a tech company. He writes about baseball at The Hardball Times and irregularly about other sports at his blog, Clown Hypothesis. Follow him on Twitter @ClownHypothesis.
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Bpdelia
6 years ago

Interesting but far far far too radical to ever gain any real support.

A much more reasonable and simple option is to simply weight the playoffs.

Teams are seeded by record.

When the one and eight play 7 of the eight games are at home.

With a more even distribution in the middle tiers.

Make the final round a 9 game series, which had historical precedent and adds huge ratings games rather than eliminating them.

Obviously there has to be a balanced schedule which is actually quite simple to achieve through any number of ways.

Bpdelia
6 years ago
Reply to  Bpdelia

That should say 6 of the 7 games at at the first seeds home.

All series will be 7 games aside from the finals which are nine games allowing for at least a series that requires an entire rotation.

Also no off days aside from travel. Only one travel day.

In the first example the first 6 games would be in the #1 seeded teams stadium. If a game seven is required there is one travel day with the 7th game at the 8 seeds stadium

Frank Firke
6 years ago
Reply to  Bpdelia

Thanks for commenting. I have some practical and conceptual issues with that system (which is an interesting suggestion), but the main idea driving my proposal is that a playoff is not a good way to pick a champion in most sports, especially professional baseball. Given how even teams tend to be, I think a short series (even using HFA to skew things a little bit) is always going to have the potential for results that are less than ideal.

David Scott
6 years ago

The simplest way to get to a balanced schedule might be to eliminate divisions. To do so, however, one would have to replace the lost playoff games so that MLB does not lose the money it currently makes on them. Here’s what I would propose:

1) Eliminate divisions, and move to a balanced schedule for each league. Eight games against everyone else in your league gives you 112 games. Two games against every team in the other league (necessary because of the odd number of teams in each league) brings each team to 142 games. Four games can be set aside for geographic or historical rivalries. That’s 146 games. The remaining sixteen games will be determined as set out in point 2.
2) Over the last sixteen games of the regular season, convert to a round-robin so that the top four teams in the AL play each other, and the top four in the NL play. This guarantees that the best teams in each league will square off to end the regular season.
3) Split the sixteen games into four-game series in the following manner:

1 plays 4, 2 plays 3
1 plays 3, 2 plays 4
1 plays 2 (at 2’s ballpark), 3 plays 4
1 plays 2 (at 1’s ballpark), 3 plays 4

After every four games, reseed the teams based on their records so that the final eight games will pair the top two teams in the league.

This format would guarantee sixty-four games of playoff-caliber baseball at the end of the season; we won’t have to sit through the slog of watching playoff contenders face doormats over what should be the most exciting part of the regular season. This would also be much better than the paltry twelve games of divisional and wild-card baseball we now get. If you want to talk about revenue, imagine the media packages that could be sold for this sixty-four-game format as well.

4) The rest of the teams will also be placed into a round-robin format to end the season: teams 5-8 and 9-12 from each league would play; teams 13-15 from both leagues would play each other.

5) Declare the winner of the regular season (the team with the best record in each league) the pennant winner–as it should be. Having the best record would mean something again.

6) First round of playoffs: pennant winner of AL faces team 2 from NL; pennant winner in NL plays team 2 from the AL. These series would be best of seven, of course, as would the World Series. This format would guarantee the chance that the best two teams by winning percentage, regardless of league, might play for the championship.

tz
6 years ago

I’d love for folks to seriously mull over this proposal. There’s a lot to like here, especially for those who want regular-season excellence to be rewarded.

The big issue in making this work would be getting the general public to recognize the regular-season champion of the “Premier League” as the true MLB champion, including a trophy ceremony from the commissioner and of course the requisite visit to the White House. There should also be a pool, similar to the post-season pool, that gets split say 60/30/10 for the top 3 finishers in the Premier League, built from revenues on regular-season games.

To make the “Babe Ruth Cup” more appealing to the fans and players (because of it not leading to a championship), I’d make the overall prize very substantial: (1) 100% of the postseason revenue pool to the players (2) the #1 overall pick in the next amateur draft (3) a two-year exemption from the salary-tax rules. This would provide a nice immediate award for the players and also help the Cup winner move up the ladder closer to a true MLB championship.

Frank Firke
6 years ago
Reply to  tz

I think those are great ideas; the luxury tax exemption in particular is an interesting incentive. I can imagine the owners objecting to the players getting 100% of the Cup revenue given that the Cup is replacing the lucrative playoffs, but there should be some middle ground where the players do get a large share or bonus of some sort.

Binyamin
6 years ago

Unbalanced schedules came about only because of that terrible idea called interleague play. Problem solved.

Death To Flying Things
6 years ago

I’ve never understood the criticisms of the current postseason format. It consistently produces entertaining Septembers and Octobers, and every once in a while gifts us with a season that ends as great as 2014. What’s so “cosmically unjust” about putting two teams on the diamond with a level playing field and letting them settle it? What’s so bad about a system where the winner, although always a very good team, is so hard to predict? If I were going to change anything, it would be to expand each league to 16 teams (hello Montreal and Inland Empire) and do away with interleague play. Otherwise the necessary tweaks are adjustments to improve individual games (pace, strike zone), rather than the overall structure.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago

To me, the problem with the current system is that it devalues the regular season. You can be mediocre all year (whether because of injuries or just poor play) and get hot at the end and beat teams that have been good all season. Aside from it being “unjust”, I personally don’t like seeing mediocre teams battling for the championship and, with the risk of offending SF and KC fans, that’s what we saw in 2014. I don’t want the same teams winning every year, but I don’t like the idea that the championship is largely random, depending on the fluctuations of play or the dominance of a single player. As it is, the World Series has become far less of an event than it was when I was growing up. There are many reasons for this, but it’s hard for me to get excited about seeing a series matching the 7th and 10th best teams (by record with tie breakers) as we saw in 2014. Plus, having been a Braves fan in the 1990s, it was increasingly hard to get excited about the regular season when all it meant was that the Braves would likely lose to a much lesser team. I don’t have a solution for it; reducing the number of teams in the playoffs isn’t going to happen. I’m not saying the better team should always win, but under the current format, you can’t really call it an “upset” if an 85 win team beats a 100 win team.

Death To Flying Things
6 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

There is always a trade-off between regular season relevancy and postseason relevancy. Take college basketball: I would say that it has the best postseason of any American sport, but at the cost of one of the worst regular seasons. The addition of more clubs in the MLB playoffs has increased my enjoyment of it. I don’t mind two hot teams making the World Series in 2014. Very many fans loved the dramatic comeback of the Royals against the A’s and enjoyed their Cinderella status. And then there was Madison Bumgarner! No complaints from me about all that, even though my team sat out the postseason.

My hunch is that interleague play has diminished the value of the World Series. Back in the day, there was a real rivalry between the NL and the AL. When the league pennant-winners squared off, that rivalry added to the drama. Back then, even the All Star game meant something, without the artificial inducement of home-field advantage in the WS. Interleague play has sort of homogenized MLB, despite the DH. Sure, the Subway series is cool, and some of the other so-called “natural rivalries” are ok. But then you have the drama of Houston versus Arizona, or Texas versus Colorado, or Toronto versus Atlanta. I don’t like it. To me, baseball has tried to juice up their regular season at the expense of their postseason with interleague play. The only way to get rid of it is to have even numbers of teams in both leagues. You either have to put the Astros back in the NL, or expand to 16 teams in both leagues. I’d prefer the expansion.

Paul G.
6 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

The pennant winner always has some randomness to it even when it was the regular season winner. Quite a few pennants have been decided by only a handful of games. Yes, sometimes some team will destroy the league and win by 20 and would almost certainly always win no matter how many times you replayed it, but really any pennant decided by 5 games or less could have easily have gone differently, and even 10 game wins could have been overcome with some luck.

A lot of this is picking the randomness you prefer.

Kyle
6 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

If you think the regular season is devalued now, wait until you have a team running away with best record with two months to play and there’s 20 teams with nothing to play for.

Wes
6 years ago

I don’t get the reason so many people in the USA want to adopt relegation. Look at the annual league tables for the Premier League. There’s a lot of churn among the bottom teams, but essentially, one team that won between 7 and 9 games is replaced by a different team that ends up winning between 7 and 9 games. And relegation doesn’t seem to prevent an unbalanced league–during the 2000’s four teams (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Man. U.) took 38 of the possible 44 top four finishes.

Also, try selling relegation to owners who have paid $750 million or more for a franchise (or who anticipate selling their team for $1+ billion). And relegation likely means no windfall profits to current owners from new owners during expansion.

Historically relegation makes sense and works in the UK (although as the value of teams grows in European football more voices are starting to be heard that are against relegation). But I’m not so sure that it makes sense in the context of the USA.

Frank Firke
6 years ago
Reply to  Wes

As is mentioned below, I suspect the parity issues in European soccer come from the greater leverage players have in forcing transfers and the vast disparity in team budgets, much more than they do from pro/rel.

If the “pyramid” only has two levels, then there’s much less of a risk associated with promotion/relegation from the owners’ perspective, as there’s no chance that your team pulls a Leeds United. This is especially true given that a) the two conferences will not be nearly as separate as divisions in Europe are (a team in this system will play 45 or more interconference games) and b) there need not be changes in how revenue sharing works, which is one of the things that makes relegation such a big deal in Europe.

Shawn
6 years ago

A different idea for the cup competition:
Teams: 90 (30 MLB teams plus 30 AAA and 30 AA affiliates)

Round 1: Last week of July
MLB teams and four best AAA teams receive byes
56 remaining teams randomly paired for five-game series (2-3). Winners advance.
MLB plays regular season while this goes on in the minors.

Round 2: Last week of August
64 surviving teams drawn against each other for 5-game series (2-3).
Teams in same system cannot be drawn against each other until semis. Otherwise draw random.

Rounds 3-7: End of September–October
32 surviving teams play out the bracket. Rounds of 32 and 16 maybe 5 game series (2-3). Quarterfinals onward, 7-game series. Some people suggest 9-game final. That’d be fun.

Yehoshua Friedman
6 years ago
Reply to  Shawn

The system of promotion and relegation in British soccer can’t be applied to US MLB and MiLB because of the affiliation system. A AAA or AA team is controlled by a MLB team. Also the economic base of the city where the MiLB team is located is way too small. If a monster AAA farm club of some team is destroying its competition, it’s doing it not with its own players but with players from the parent club. If they were promoted they would be the equivalent of an expansion team without the money to acquire decent players to compete. In order for your proposal to work, any AAA and AA teams which wanted to be in the competition would have to be independent operators who could own their own players and be prepared to handle the expenses of MLB if they were to be promoted. It is a cute idea. How would you work it out?

bisonaudit
6 years ago

The problem with unbalanced leagues in European soccer hasn’t come about because of relegation. It’s the result of capitalism. The American sports leagues employ explicitly anti-capitalist constraints on teams and players in order to artificially level the playing field to the general benefit of a closed community of owners.

Shawn
6 years ago
Reply to  bisonaudit

Most German teams are co-ops owned by the memberships.
Many Spanish teams too.

Eric VT
6 years ago

I was always curious what would happen to the popularity of baseball if there were only 16 regular season games – like in the NFL. Casual fans complain about the boredom of so many pitches now – but would they be on the edge of their seat with each and every pitch if the games meant so much more?

What is you took those 20 games and turned it into the qualifier for Wild Card positions in the playoffs? I would actually keep alignment the same and make it into a 3 game series against each divisional opponent. That would make 12 games out of the season. I would line those games up so there are as many weekday national TV night games as possible – try to get a Monday Night Football atmosphere for baseball – every single weekday night!

There would be a lot to figure out – mainly what happens if the division winner is also the “Wild Card” winner – how to add more teams to the playoffs – and how to bring more meaning to winning the league pennant.

I think the winner of each league’s pennant (the team with the most wins in each league) should get a heavy advantage come playoff time – make it something worth striving for and playing for until the final game of the regular season. The two that come to mind are home ballpark advantage and a bye. Some might say a bye would only hurt a team’s momentum – but I think any team would be willing to take it.

I think something like this might be more interesting to MLB – especially if they can capture the importance of those “Wild Card” games. Not to mention, it could keep the fans of even lousy teams interested for most the season maybe. Strategy would be huge too – saving your best pitcher, resting your starting catcher, etc… for the “Wild Card” games.

Now is the time for MLB to strike with something like this. The NFL is ever popular but with former players suffering with severe health problems, if MLB ever wanted to capture some of that “gameday” feel – they need to try something like this.

Whatever they do though… keep the damn nets where they are! 🙂

Sean
6 years ago

I think this suggestion missed an extremely crucial element:

The travel aspect of the relegation/promotion schedule would be insane. One of the main reasons divisions are still a big deal in MLB is because they are oriented towards travel schedules.

Imagine if 14/15 of one conference was on the east coast and 1 team was Seattle (lol). The amount of travel in this situation would be borderline insane.

Frank Firke
6 years ago
Reply to  Sean

Yes, that’s a concern; teams would probably have to take longer road trips than they currently do. Having the 20 divisional games and having 45 games against the other division mitigates the effect of the exact scenario you propose, however.

Splits
6 years ago

You mentioned that the 20 divisional games would be scattered throughout the regular season. This would be confusing for the fans. There would be two records to keep track of at once. It would feel arbitrary that some wins would count toward a championship and others would not.

Overall, I think it would be better to place those 20 games at the end of the season. This would function as the beginning of the playoffs, like the round-robin portion of the World Cup. It would decrease confusion all around.

Frank Firke
6 years ago
Reply to  Splits

It’s possible that that’s confusing or seems arbitrary, though having different records with different meanings doesn’t seem to be an issue in college sports (or in the NFL, given the tiebreakers). My reason for splitting them up is that it provides the opportunity for more strategic decisions—a team in a relegation battle might not use its ace in a divisional game, whereas a team that is more secure in its position can shift its rotation so it maximizes its chance at winning something that year.

RichW
6 years ago

A key issue with baseball playoffs is too many days off. I like a 9 game series but it should be 5-1-4 or 4-1-5 where 1 is the only day off. Baseball is a daily game and it should be that way in the playoffs.

ray miller
6 years ago

Interesting article, wildly flawed plan that has no chance of being implemented–and that for lots of good reasons. I’ll divide my argument into two parts: 1.) specific problems connected with the plan, and 2.) the urban legend that the current system is horribly wrong. (Death to Flying Things: I’m with you! And, great handle–my favorite nickname of all time!)

I have been avidly following the Barclay’s Premier League for several years now. That, of course, is England’s top soccer league, and (in part) the model for Frank’s plan here. It is a 20-team league, no divisions, perfectly balanced schedule, best record is the champion. The question that immediately comes to mind when hearing that set-up is, of course, “Why would anybody come out to watch games from about mid-season on between clubs that have no chance at the title?” This question isn’t just about the predatory capitalistic instincts of the club owners, as we always tend to slyly suggest when discussing stuff like this (e.g., “This would lead to more ratings and more dollars”): sports, ultimately, is entertainment and wouldn’t be at all if no one watched. In the BPL, the lack of divisions is compensated for to some extent by the fact that the top four teams in the league get to play in the UEFA Champions League, a highly prestigious European league consisting only of the top clubs from a variety of national leagues. The fifth-place team gets to play in the Europa League, which (evidently) no BPL team likes, because of scheduling issues. So, there is a real incentive finishing higher than fifth, but that also carries some clout. Then, of course, the bottom three teams get relegated down to the lower leagues (not “the minors”, in the baseball sense, but leagues considered by all to be minor relative to the BPL). That means the five or six worst teams have something to fight for, too. So, realistically, you have maybe five teams with a shot at the championship, maybe three more with a shot at the top five spots, and five or six more fighting for their BPL lives at the bottom. I’ve always thought: what about those six or seven clubs with no chance of winning the championship or going to Europe, but also in no danger of relegation? What do they have to play for? Why do their fans show up for their games at all? They are in limbo, in purgatory: they can’t go up, they can’t go down. That is partly compensated for by the FA Cup competition, which is technically open to every football team in England and completely separate from the BPL. (So, BPL teams can in effect be playing in up to THREE leagues simultaneously: the BPL itself, one or the other European league, and the FA Cup tournament . . . ) But also important is the fact that these are all old clubs, representing not cities but neighborhoods. London alone has five teams in the BPL. There is no danger whatsoever that Crystal Palace is going to pull up stakes and move to another city or fold if they don’t do well: they are always going to be right there, in South London, whether they’re in the BPL or one of the lower leagues. We don’t have that kind of arrangement, for better or worse: except for some individual teams (my Cubs, for instance), there is no tradition of coming out to watch a team that is not that good and has nothing to play for. Consequently, you are being ‘way overly optimistic when you claim that things would be “interesting and competitive” for all the teams. Who is going to come out to watch the middling (or bad) teams in the “Second Division”, who don’t have a chance to get into your ersatz “playoffs”? Yes, Cubs fans, Red Sox fans, Cardinal fans, some others, are going to come out to the game in any case, but teams like the Pirates and Blue Jays can’t seem to draw unless they’re in contention, and others (the Florida teams, for instance) have a hard time drawing even if they are. In addition, no amount of reeducation is going to convince people that winning the “playoffs” means anything if it isn’t automatically attached to the MLB championship. That has “booby prize” written all over it. Given the real conditions of sports in America, that “Second Division” of yours would be viewed with derision as a “semi-major league” that no team wants to be in, but only three can escape in any give year: again, the teams with no real chance of getting out of it would, I fear, draw like the ’30s-era Browns (three years with annual attendance under 100,000) and then simply go the way of the Worcester Ruby Legs and Syracuse Stars. The BPL set-up is based on over 100 years of tradition, and has thus been hard-wired into the head set of every English football fan; my guess is it would not travel well over the Atlantic, given our own traditions and expectations. Bottom line: without the equivalent of “going to Europe”, a playoff system that has real prestige attached to it, and a country-wide tradition of supporting “our club” no matter what, this idea, as creative as it is, is a howling non-starter.

Now, let me ask a deliberately provocative question: Why the hell do we always say that the current system does not crown the “real” champion? Why are the Cardinals (the team with the best regular-season record) more deserving of this year’s title than the Royals, who got through the three rounds of playoffs to win the World Series? St. L. finished with more wins, but was clearly not the best team when the season ended, even in their own division: there was a real chance that the Pirates or Cubs could overtake them; then they couldn’t even get through the divisional round of the playoffs. They were not the best team in MLB in late September/early October. The current system, however imperfect, takes into account the ebb and flow of the long season: it says, essentially, “Okay, you have the most wins, but a lot of those wins came in the first part of the season. How good are you now? How do you match up against only the better teams in the league at the end of the year?” It’s not like the teams who make the playoffs are stiffs (well, most of the time). THAT is what really can happen in the NFL, where mediocre teams in Washington and Houston are about to enter the playoffs with a guaranteed home game simply because they finished first in lousy divisions; and since the NFL playoffs are one-and-out, “randomness” and “luck” (the weasel words used by a few sabermetric Sheldon Coopers to denigrate the Royals’ achievement this year) actually can really determine who comes out on top (2007 NY football Giants, anyone?). You can cite Madison Bumgartner all you want, but the SF baseball Giants still had to get through the NLDS, the NLCS and the WS in order to be crowned champions in 2014; he certainly helped a lot, but the team still had to win crucial games without him. In the end, it is ridiculous to use words like “unfair” to talk about the vagaries of championship ML baseball: “unfair” would be a set-up that allowed an outfit like the Phillies to win this year’s title. (That sort of thing can happen in the FA Cup, by the way; to my knowledge, nobody in England calls it “unfair”.) As it is, the team with the most wins is asked to prove itself as truly the best at the end of the season by testing its mettle against only good teams. It is given a chance to win a best-of-five and then two best-of-seven series. If it can’t hack that–and nobody has cheated, the dog hasn’t eaten the manager’s line-up card, or a thunderbolt hasn’t blown up the ball before it travels over the fence for a series-winning home run–then why the hell should it be viewed as “unfair” if they aren’t officially the MLB champions? Look, no system is fool-proof–not even the BPL system: a lot of commentators declared that Chelsea last year was lucky to have won a lot of games early, because they were clearly not the best team in the league in May. That doesn’t mean, though, that we need to blow it all up and replace the imperfect system we have with another, especially when that other one is so alien to what we are accustomed to.

All that being said, I have one idea that really is doable, and would mirror the BPL in a way: create a trophy for the team that finishes the season with the best record. (This is what the NHL does: they have the President’s Trophy for the team with the best regular-season record and is thus a separate honor from the Stanley Cup.) MLB could present it with great pomp at the first playoff game the team plays in, and generally could go all-out to make it a big deal. “Booby Prize”, if the team doesn’t win the Series? Sure, at least at first–but it would be the PR department’s job to change that impression. In any case, this would be easier to do on top of the system we already have than trying to sell what would be seen as a hollow playoff victory in the new one you propose.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago
Reply to  ray miller

But a champion shouldn’t, IMO, be the team that is simply the hottest at the end of the season. The entire season should count for something. Yes, the team that is the best at the beginning may not be the best at the end, but those beginning games should count. I can think of several teams that were, effectively stiffs: the 2006 Cardinals, the 2007 Rockies (.500 most of the year until a hot last three weeks), 1973 Mets (82 wins, albeit under the old 2 division set up) and, I would argue, the 2014 Giants (10th best record in MLB and, really, only one pitcher). Yes, the NFL has issues like that, but with one difference-there is little chance that Washington or Houston will win the Super Bowl. The whole point you make about the “ebb and flow” of the season is exactly what bothers me about the current set up. During the season, it’s quite possible that, at any given time, the worst team in the league will win a series against the best team. During the playoffs, any team can win because none of the teams are awful. So, the ebb and flow of the season, to me, argues against the current set up. Of course, it’s a matter of personal preference and I certainly understand the reasoning behind liking the current system. I just don’t personally like it.

Frank Firke
6 years ago
Reply to  ray miller

There’s a lot to respond to there, and a lot of it is taste. One thing I will comment on is that the championship and promotion/relegation races are going to encompass a lot of teams. If you take last year’s final MLB standings as a proxy, there were only 3 teams in the top 15 (the “top conference”) that were neither within 5 games of being relegated (13th) nor within 5 games of being in first, so mid-table isn’t particularly large. (As I have some code that simulates seasons under the new system, I can also estimate how many teams will be close to at least one of the different benchmarks.) Promotion/relegation also reduces the incentive of teams to punt on the last couple months of the season to try to improve their draft position. (For instance, the lineups the White Sox ran out the last week of the season to try to nab a protected draft pick were pretty shameful, but if they’re only a couple of games below the promotion line, they don’t throw in the towel nearly so soon.)

As to the potential irrelevance of the bottom conference: as it stands right now, each year there are a few teams who are pretty hopeless at the beginning of the year (Braves, Rockies, Phillies, et al.); if those teams are in the lower conference, I don’t think much changes from a fan’s perspective.

njguy73
6 years ago

After 1954, the Indians didn’t get back to the postseason for 41 years, not 50.

Frank Firke
6 years ago
Reply to  njguy73

Thanks for catching that!

Mr Punch
6 years ago

Relegation doesn’t work in the US franchise system. The closest US analogue to European soccer leagues is actually college football. On the other hand, keeping the 2006 Cards, who would have finished fifth in the AL East (yes they would have) out of the postseason would have been great.

njguy73
6 years ago
Reply to  Mr Punch

And good luck trying to get the player’s union to sign off on it.

Frank Firke
6 years ago
Reply to  Mr Punch

While I like promotion/relegation as a way of mitigating tanking and enhancing pennant races in baseball, I actually view it as being much less conceptually important to a good system than a balanced schedule and a regular season championship. A very large part of the reason it’s included here is that (at least from where I sit) it’s hard to come up with a 30-team balanced schedule that determines a single champion and doesn’t deviate substantially from current scheduling principles. You could do a 145 game schedule where each team plays 5 against each other team, but that’s 10% fewer games and a substantial increase in the amount of travel needed.

Mike
6 years ago

MLB probably expands at some point

what do you do with the new system then?

I am just curious if that has been worked on

Frank Firke
6 years ago
Reply to  Mike

The simple way to do it is to promote five teams instead of three the year before expansion (or four instead of two), and then add the two new teams to the bottom division.

Blake
6 years ago

Remind me about what’s wrong with the current format.

Bob
6 years ago
Reply to  Blake

Well the biggest problem is the 1 game play in. The Pirates won 98 games (in the toughest division) and then got sent home after losing a 1 game play-in and it’s just bc they are arbitrarily in the toughest division. They’d have easily won the NLE or NLW and not be subjected to the randomness of the play-in game.

In addition, there are way too many days off in the playoffs which allow teams to re-shuffle rotations and so rarely need to use 4th or 5th SPs. But that’s driven by the television gods, so I don’t see that changing, unfortunately. But if the powers that be really care about playoff integrity, they would configure the playoffs with baseball every day as it is played during the season.

Kyle
6 years ago

This doesn’t discourage tanking. It makes it even more desirable and really encourages teams to go all-out with their tank job.

As it is, you have a chance at winning a title if you can get yourself to the 85-win true talent mark. A couple of extra wins by luck or a weak division and you’re in the coin-flip playoffs.

With this system, you really have to be one of the top two or three teams on paper to have a meaningful chance, so you’re just going to tank even harder to make sure you get a superteam going.

tz
6 years ago

The best way to avoid tanking is fairly simple, whether it’s MLB or the NBA.

The team with the worst record gets the 20th pick in the first round, and the second-worst record gets the 10th pick as disincentives for tanking. The third-worst team gets the #1 overall pick, fourth-worst gets #2, etc.

Put this into play and watch the teams near the bottom actually try to maintain a respectable roster so they don’t slip out of contention for the next Bryce Harper (or LeBron James).

gc
6 years ago

Ray Miller may have gotten some of these points in his long comment but my take is:
– stats from inferior AL or NL years still carry weight. Stats from 2nd division will always seem to be asterisked. What if Ralph Kiner hit 61 HRs for a lousy Pirate team facing the Browns etc, would he have eclipsed Babe’s record or played a career as unable as Josh Gibson to be the HR king?
– Lots of people buy single game tickets or packages based on the opposing team. Without the big draws, the second division teams inherently stay at a disadvantage, which is supposed to make owners pay free agents more than they are worth (to play where they don’t want to be) out of their limited revenue to get out of the second division?
– Given some predictability in the regular season schedule allows multi-use stadia to schedule events further in advance than what a supercomputer could spit out after the end of the season and relegation. You may hate having rock concerts, tractor pulls, soccer and US football matches take place on your diamond, but it does provide the municipalities with revenue to justify maintaining the ballpark and infrastructure.

Bill Bell
6 years ago

A system in which half of the major league teams are put into a lower conference would
never work because the owners and fans of the bottom 15 teams would never put up with
having to play a whole season with no possibility of being crowned champion. Worst yet,
under the proposed system 12 of those bottom 15 teams would also be stuck in the lower
conference the following year as well, which means two consecutive seasons with no possibility of a championship.

If there’s going to be relegation and promotion, I’d suggest having only 9 teams in the
bottom conference. They’d play each other 19 times each for a 152 game season and the
top 4 teams would be promoted the following season.

The 21 teams in the upper conference would be split into 3 divisions of 7 teams. They’d
play 156 games (72 in division, 84 out of division), with the 3 division winners and one
wild card advancing to post-season play.

The last place teams from each division, plus the worst 6th place team would be relegated the following season.

Advantages include:

1) More teams (21 instead of 15) in the hunt for championship each year.
2) A larger percentage of lower conference teams advance (44% instead of
20% get to advance each season, meaning the fans of teams in the lower conference
have much greater hope that their team’s stay in the lower conference will be a
short one!

Frank Firke
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill Bell

Having different sized divisions is an interesting wrinkle that might mitigate some of the concerns other people have suggested, but there’s a big issue with the exact system you suggest: if you have an odd number of teams in a league and no interleague play, then there’s always one team off, which is a huge problem in baseball (no way anyone signs off on having a team have Friday-Saturday-Sunday as off days).

One of the things that’s appealing to me about my system is that every team plays every other team each year (and hosts 22 or so of them).

Barney Coolio
6 years ago

Relegation is tough for baseball since say, the Padres get relegated, then they make a big push, that just gets them back in the first division. Ordinarily, that big push would get them into the playoffs, but no, they’re just back in the first division, which is quite disapointment.

Chaim Mattis Keller
6 years ago

It’s not hard to come up with a 30-team balanced schedule. The obstacle most can’t seem to get past is the binary league structure. When the leagues were completely separate entities, this made sense, but now, with shared umpires, interleague play, and the occasional team moving from one league to another for the overall convenience of MLB, the idea of two distinct leagues is an anachronism, and is unnecessary.

So how do you balance a schedule with 30 teams? Solution: 5 divisions of 6 teams each, divided geographically (details on request). Each team plays other teams in its own division 18 times a year, 9 at home and 9 away, for a total of 90 in-division games, and plays teams in other divisions 3 times a year, half of the teams at home, half on the road, alternating home/road annually, for a total of 72 out-of-division games, total of 162 games in all, like you have now. Post-season would be the 5 division winners and 3 best runners-up as wild cards, seeding determined by regular-season record among the division winners, followed by regular-season record among the runners-up, simple 3-round tournament.

Result: Every team gets to play every other team over the course of a season, results weighted somewhat (but not overwhelmingly) toward in-division games, making regional rivalries important, hope for second-place teams even when a division winner is dominant, clear advantage for winning a division over being second place (because 2 of the 5 runners-up don’t make the playoffs).

Frank Firke
6 years ago

In my view, you shouldn’t ever have two teams that have played different schedules competing for the same spot in the postseason. Your suggestion is an improvement over the current MLB system, but to be balanced, any system with wild cards has to have every team in a league playing the same teams the same number of times, and that’s where things get hairy.

Bob
6 years ago

The only problem is that this “balanced schedule” is not balanced. Other than that, it’s interesting.

Paul G.
6 years ago

Interesting concept. I see two big problems.

First, baseball has tried the large division concept before, both in the 1890s (the 12 team “big league”) and in the 1960s after the first expansion. Neither worked and were replaced. What you are suggesting here are two 15 team leagues, which seems rather optimistic. Relegation games in the first division seems like paltry prize in exchange. Americans are generally not impressed with “we’re not as bad” events unless they are funny.

Second, baseball is a sport that lives by the motto “Wait until next year.” It sometimes happens. If your plan was implemented, the first time that the second division winner has the best record in baseball, the outrage that the team was robbed of the championship will be loud. If the team has a very good record against the first division or especially if they win your Cup tournament, it will be deafening. This will be especially bad if the team in question has been a doormat for a long time and found a small window of competitiveness which was wasted on a promotion that they cannot follow up because of free agency losses. It is one thing when a mediocre but not bad team, like the 1987 Twins, wins the World Series. It is another when a great team is blocked from winning the championship before the season even starts. Sports fans tend not like to watch sports that are rigged from the beginning.

Frank Firke
6 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

You’re correct that the biggest risk is that we don’t know how Americans would react to this system–it’s certainly possible they wouldn’t care as much about relegation battles as fans of European sports do.

With respect to the second point, that certainly wouldn’t be ideal, but I don’t think that it would happen particularly frequently. Since expansion, there have only been 6 teams that have finished with the best record in the league after finishing outside the top 12 the previous year (i.e., in danger of being relegated), though most of those 6 have come within the last 15 years. Teams in the second division are also less likely to be dominant, as they’ll be less likely to sign top free agents or make win-now trades.

Paul G.
6 years ago
Reply to  Frank Firke

It does not need to happen frequently. It only needs to happen once. One bad result will be the end of the system. Heck, I’m not sure I would want to watch baseball if half the teams are barred from the championship on day 1, even if the most likely result is all 15 teams would not make the playoffs under the old system. That seems less fair than the 1987 Twins. At least the Twins were not guaranteed a championship.

And do remember that the small window teams tend not to be signing lots of big free agents. They tend to be economizing by developing their own players, who tend to hang around only until the free agency big paycheck comes around. Sometimes you only get a couple of years with all your home grown stars together. Furthermore, if the second division teams are not going to be signing top free agents or making big trades, that will make them a lot less competitive when they get promoted.

The 1890s big league resulted in 3 teams becoming more or less farm teams to other teams with another team a permanent doormat with no talent worth buying out the team. I have a strong suspicion is that all this will do is effective create a 10-12 team major league – an already failed experiment – and a permanent AAAA. And when you have big cities without major league teams, all you are doing is opening the door to the next American Association, Federal League, or Continental League.

Matt Finnigan
6 years ago

I think you’re trying to achieve too much fairness by weighting the regular season so heavily over the post-season. The beauty of post-season games in American professional sports is the agony of one team and the ecstasy of another. Post-season baseball is not just about teams gettting hot at the right time. It’s also about teams, or even just specific players or managers, not performing under pressure. If the Cleveland Indians could win 111 games in 1954 and then lose 4 straight – which they only did once during the regular season – in the World Series, then maybe they shouldn’t have been champions. That may sound harsh and not fair, but that’s what makes it great.

JM
6 years ago

I’ve thought a great deal about how to reward the best regular season teams come playoff time, and I’ve settled upon a surprisingly elegant solution.

The regular season is essentially a way to earn lottery tickets. Under the current system there are 8 lottery tickets available in each league (each worth a 1 in 8 chance of making the World Series). 2 go to each of the division winners, and 1 goes to each of the wild cards.

My proposal: distribute the 8 tickets (I call them Playoff Points) proportionally to teams in each league based on wins above .500.

Here’s how it would have played out this past season:

National League
Cardinals: 100 wins, 2 playoff points
Pirates: 98 wins, 2 playoff points
Cubs: 97 wins, 2 playoff points
Dodgers: 92 wins, 1 playoff point
Mets: 90 wins, 1 playoff point

American League
Royals: 95 wins, 3 playoff points
Blue Jays: 93 wins, 2 playoff points
Rangers: 88 wins, 1 playoff point
Yankees: 87 wins, 1 playoff point
Astros: 86 wins, 1 playoff point

The playoff format would not be set in stone. Instead it would vary depending on how the playoff points are distributed. I can explain how the various formats would work in another post.

Andy R
6 years ago

How about…. Expand to 32 teams (Montreal/Charlotte?) Two eight-team divisions in each league (no interleague). 15 games in the division, eight outside the division for 153 games. Four divisional champs and two wild-cards in each division. The goal is to crown a divisional champ, so the two wild-cards play a one game knockout, winner to play the divisional champ. The wild-card gets only Game 3 in to best of five against the champ. No more interleague, and the schedule can be massaged to a 24 week season, hopefully eliminating possible bad postseason weather. There are probably flaws, but it’s off the top of my head…

Trp In Pa
6 years ago

There is no guarantee that the “best team” is always going to win the championship in whatever sport. The New York Giants were not the best team in the league in 2007, but they beat the “unbeatable”Patriots in the Super Bowl after making the playoffs on the last day of the regular season(as a 4 seed, I believe) The 2008 Phillies won the World Series after coming back from six games? back with three weeks in the season and beating the Dodgers in theLCS. The Rays made the World Seriesthat year, as a wild card and beating Boston in the ALCS, who won the division. The 2013 Super Bowl had two teams who won their conference championship games on the road as underdogs. One more example: The 2014-2015 Kentucky basketball

steve
6 years ago

it took a few years but Ive actually come around to the idea or relegation/promotion when it comes to European Soccer. I’d love to see it implemented somewhere in sport in the U.S but baseball would be the least likely sport to ever consider it. Maybe the NBA oh NHL where the gulf between the top and the bottom of the league is much larger. At any rate regarding the original proposal…a few key things should be altered in your next version to make it workable

first. the playoff trophy should be played at the beginning of the following season not the end. this will make it a truly separate entity from the the season championship fight and the relegation/promotion battles. besides that each team would have an offseason to prepare either for a playoff or to make a run at the league title or promotion. this would make such playoff series far more interesting than throwing 7 teams that just lost the championship trophy in a battle for some sort of consolation prize against the winner of the championship .

Also…if your gonna do relegation/promotion right there has to be more than 2 levels. 4 levels of 10 maybe? this would require expansion of course. 10 expansion teams could all begin in the bottom rung…which would make sense. top two/bottom two get relegated/promoted

Paul G.
6 years ago
Reply to  steve

If you are going to have 10 levels, how many teams is that going to be? 80? 100? 150? 200? Then you more or less have to eliminate the current farm system arrangement and go back to the old days where the minors were independent, or you will have a farce where most of the teams that are supposedly trying to compete are actually not competing by contract and the major league teams need to rearrange their affiliates every year thanks to their AA team now playing in AAA or A. (I suppose some other arrangement could be devised, but it would have to be fairly radical.) And then the travel arrangements get hairy. You know that scenario above where 14 teams are on the East Coast and the other in Seattle? Replace Seattle with Spokane or Modesto or Honolulu in the lowest division and see how many teams remain liquid.

I still don’t know why anyone thinks that New York or Los Angeles or, perhaps most relevant given past history, Chicago would tolerate a situation where they have no eligible teams for the championship due to relegation. You are just begging for a competing league to move into those markets. It’s somewhat difficult to argue that the interloper is not the major league when it has teams in Brooklyn, LA, and Chicago, and the “real” majors has teams in Omaha, Providence, and Toledo. That’s pretty much how the American League managed to succeed. “National League, you no longer have teams in Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, and Detroit? Thanks. We’ll move in.” The Continental League forced expansion since they could exploit markets like New York, Toronto, Dallas, Houston, the Twin Cities, Denver, and Atlanta.

Kevin Walker
6 years ago

Leave it at 162 games. Put in some traditional double-headers in the schedule , go back to just east & west divisions, and scrap inter-league play. Playoffs should be 6 teams, each league (12 total teams) the top 2 seeds in each division/ league get a bye. Remaining 4 teams in based on W/L- 3 plays 6, 4 plays 5, in best of 3 round. Next round is best of 5, Championship is best of 7, World Series best of 7, and be completed be fore November.

Rio Grande
6 years ago

This reminds me of all the people pushing for voting reform to make voting “more fair.” I don’t like it, and I don’t like this. I don’t see why we should change a perfectly good system. Maybe make the playoff series a little longer (3, 7 and 9, perhaps) and the regular season a bit shorter. That’s it. Why do we need to mess around with this? A team that beats another team in 4 out of 7 games is already “more deserving” than the team they beat. It isn’t like the NFL, where the better team or more deserving team doesn’t always win because of the fact that there are no series, just one game.

This proposal strikes me as too complicated, just like all these other voting systems. Keep It Simple Stupid. It is easier to understand, follow, and best of all: it keeps with tradition. Nothing is more important than that.

Antonio Bananas
6 years ago

Is there any empirical evidence that the unbalanced schedule increases interest? I would think that the long-standing rivalries would still hold up, but interest would stay.

In fact, I think the reason playoff baseball has such low viewership in relation to other leagues is baseball is too regionalized. Most fans have the option of either their home team (through their RSN) and then typically a Yankees vs Red Sox game on ESPN or TBS.

Fans don’t know about other teams and don’t care. There’s no history or emotional attachment.

Bob
6 years ago

No, I think playoff baseball isn’t as popular as it could be bc it runs into the football season. Heck, playoff games have to be scheduled so that they don’t conflict with freaking Thursday night football! I know that’s sounds idiotic to real baseball fans but that’s just the way it is.

Death to Flying Things
6 years ago

Where is the evidence that baseball clubs “tank”? Definitely they do deep rebuilds to stock their farm system with loads of promotable talent (see: Houston Astros). And of course salary dumps happen. But that’s different than a team deliberately losing games towards the end of the season to improve their draft position, which is my understanding of the term “to tank.” NBA teams tank. That’s because the number one draft pick can be a franchise changer the very next season. College baseball players are much harder to project, and with a few very rare exceptions, they need a few years of minor league seasoning before they will be of any help. One superstar can take a weak NBA team far (think LeBron in his first stint with the Cavs). One superstar can never carry an MLB team the same way. If that were true, the Angels would have made the playoffs every year of Trout’s career and would have gone to the World Series at least once. The motivation to tank is just not there for MLB teams. Point is, preventing tanking is not a legitimate reason to radically restructure baseball.

Frank Firke
6 years ago

A few responses to that:

1) The draft is not a magic bullet, but there are several examples of teams who built winners around a core of a few straight high picks after being very bad for multiple years in a row.

2) I include “deep rebuilds” where the team passes up obvious opportunities to improve themselves in favor of running out some roster flotsam that will yield them better draft picks in my definition of tanking (and have a pretty strong aversion to it), but you’re correct that macro- and micro-tanking are different behaviors.

3) The motivation is very clearly there at the margin, and there’s behavior that is consistent with tanking individual games. If the White Sox had won this game, they would have lost the protection on their 1st round draft pick:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHA/CHA201510040.shtml

Bob
6 years ago

A true balanced schedule is probably never going to happen again (unfortunately) both because of regional imbalance and simply bc there are so many teams that it’s just impractical.

As already mentioned, if expansion is an inevitability then an 8 division set up is probably where this ends up going (or they end up going to 4 large divisions like the NHL did). If they do the 8 div set up, teams can play 36 inter-division games (12 games against each of the other 3 teams – 2 home & away series) and 24 games against the other 3 league divisions (6 games against each of the 4 teams – 1 home & away series). That’s 108 games within each league.

Teams would then play 12 games against each division of the other league (4 divisions, 4 teams in each giving 1 3 game series with each team alternating home/away each yr). That’s 48 games and 156 in total. That would leave 6 floater games to build into the schedule each season accommodating extra games for natural rivalries of other situations.

You could then provide for 2 WC teams for the best records coming after the 4 div winners in each league. The 2 best division winners would qualify for a WC round bye. But I would devise a system that rewards the 2 teams which includes a strength of schedule component. And after the WC round winners emerge, I would also re-seed the remaining 4 teams also according to record and strength of schedule.

The WC round would be a best of 3 of course. The Division series round would be 7 games, as would the League and WS rounds. I’d have 1 off day (Monday) following the end of the reg season followed by 3 straight game days – Tues, Weds, Thurs. I would begin the Div rd immediately on Friday and go in a 2-2-3 format with the higher seeded team getting 5 home games to 2 for the lower seeded team. And so on. I would have no more than 1 day off in each of the 4 weeks of the playoffs.

But of course with these changes should come other scheduling changes like avoiding early April games in some of the northern or more extreme weather cities, and going to the limited Monday scheduling which aside from the one Sunday night game and possibly 1 or 2 Monday games, has (nearly) everyone off from late Sunday afternoon until Tuesday night. I think this is a concession to the players that is long overdue considering the grueling 6 months of travel that they have to endure.

I would also like to see the All Star game completely re-imagined. Right now it serves no real purpose aside from the idiotic HFA for the World Series. Perhaps a U.S. vs. Rest of World game or MLB vs. Future Stars might have more competitive interest. Otherwise, I would have no problem scrapping the thing and just give the players the 4 or 5 days off altogether. And maybe make a capstone game after the WS ends instead.

JimBob
6 years ago

This is far too complex for people of average intelligence to accept. It’s also completely insane.

Eric M. Van
6 years ago

Not that I think your relegation system works*, but the combinatorics work hugely better with expansion to 32 teams.

Each team plays 6 games versus teams in its own conference plus 3 versus teams in the other. Perfect balance.

There are four divisions of 8 teams each. Each existing league is split into four geographic half-divisions. In odd years, the eight half-divisions are paired league-wise, with one division being the AL East and South, another the AL Midwest and West, and the same way with the NL; in even years, they are paired geographically, so that the “traditional rivals” from opposite leagues are in the same division. All divisional series are four games long, with home field alternating between years for each pair of teams.

The schedule is thus 168 games. Each team plays 7 weeks with a 4 game series and a 3 games series, plus 19 weeks with a pair of 3 game series plus an off day, plus an extra 3-game series. With no 2-game series, there’s a lot less travel.

The four division champs get the top four seeds, in order of their conference performance, while the final four seeds go first to any teams that lost a tiebreaker, and then to other teams with the best total records .

*There’s one tweak that would help hugely: If the lower conference champion has a better win percentage against the top conference than the top conference champion (in half the sample size, of course), they get to face them in a special championship series after the Ruth Cup (perhaps in a neutral warm-weather or domed site). That allows a dominant second conference team a shot at the championship.

Eric M. Van
6 years ago
Reply to  Eric M. Van

By the way, her’s how you do the relegation. Add each team’s inter-conference record to its conference record, which creates a virtual balanced schedule (by counting inter-conference games twice). That gives you a seeding order. Remove the 8 teams in the divisional championship, which automatically qualify for the upper conference. (Once in a while a bottom-15 seed might win a division, but we can live with that.) The top two remaining seeds do as well. The 3rd seed plays the 12th (20th overall, most likely), the 4th plays the 11th, and so on, with the top seed getting home field in all games. These five series happen simultaneously with the division playoffs.

Eric M. Van
6 years ago
Reply to  Eric M. Van

Let me take this a step further, to something that might actually be barely conceivably adoptable.

As noted, all inter-conference games can be counted double, creating a virtual balanced schedule (VBS). Division games are added to this to produce four division champs. The four remaining teams with the best VBS fill out the divisional playoffs.

If the lower conference champion has a better VBS than the upper-conference, they meet in a special Championship Series after the playoffs.

The VBS makes the inter-conference games, which are the least competitive (and hence ordinarily least interesting), doubly important. They’re almost 30% of all the games.

This only works if the two championships are given equal weight and prestige. But that’s a solvable PR task.