Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Radical Re-alignment

Inspired by two fangraphs items: Maury Brown's "Playing the God of Baseball" and a comment by Dave Cameron in a recent FanGraphs chat.

Maury Brown wants to balance the divisions and create a system that puts real restraint on the Yankee's runaway spending, and Dave Cameron thinks the only way to do the latter is to put a third team in New York. These ideas raise a lot of questions. To balance the divisions in the current setup, you would have to have one inter-league game every day--is that really a good idea?. And if you add a third team to New York, which league and division would have two New York teams? And where would that team come from--expansion or relocation?

Here's my idea about how to address these questions, through a truly radical realignment. (Is this going to happen. Probably not. But I had fun thinking about it.)

Here's the basic idea: rather than splitting 30 MLB teams into 2 leagues, and having a constant trickle of inter-league games, split the 30 teams into 3 Leagues. Each leagues plays 5 games per night. New York gets a team in each league.

I think expansion is unlikely--there are really not any more large markets without a baseball team, except Montreal. (See Al Streit's article). In my mind, the best candidate for relocation is Tampa Bay. The fifth smallest market, with a really bad 20-year old ballpark. Kansas City would be a prime target, except they recently renovated what was already a really nice park in Kauffman Stadium.

So with that said, here's my crack at the divisions:
National LeagueAmerican LeagueFederal League
ArizonaCincinnatiMilwaukeeClevelandKansas City
SF Giants
Chi. Cubs
St. Louis
SeattleDetroitSan Diego
LA Dodgers
NY Mets
LA Angels
NY Yankees
Chi. Sox
Brooklyn Rays

In structuring the division, I'm seeking to keep the oldest franchises in their respective divisions, with the Sox being the odd team bumped to the new league, keep the divisions balanced in terms of their competetiveness, and try to keep travel distances down. Competetiveness, of course, varies from year to year and decade to decade, so I'm trying to give each division it's share of small- and large-market teams. Currently, for instance, the average market size for an NL Central team is nearly half of the average for the NL East. My realigned divisions (along with the move from Tampa to New York) bring those averages closer together:

Current Average
Market Size
Average Market Size
in Realignment
NL West4.07 million
4.84 million
NL Central2.98 million
NL East5.72 million
4.04 million
AL West5.12 million
3.91 million
AL Central
3.55 million
AL East5.46 million
5.02 million
FL West--3.47 million
FL East--4.71 million

Structuring playoffs would be the most complicated and thorniest issue. Brown wants to expand the field of teams into the playoffs, but I'm in agreement with some of the commenters who say a 162-game season really should be enough to separate the cream. I think more teams in the baseball playoffs would take away the drama of pennant races (hey, most of us are getting in anyway!) and would make the post-season too long.

So here's how I would do it:
Each division champion plays in a League Championship--the NLCS, the ALCS, and the FLCS. Two wildcards are selected: one from the Eastern divisions, and one from the Western divisions. They play each other in the Wild Card Championship Series.

The remaining four teams--the NL Champion, the AL Champion, the FL Champion and the Wild Card winner, square off against each other. How these assignments are made is an open question for me, but I think I would avoid having the AL and NL champs play each other--it would recall too strongly the current World Series, even though it wouldn't be. Perhaps the AL or NL team with the best reg-season record would play the FL or WC team with the worst regular season record. The winners of these two series would square off again in the World Series.

The downside is, of course, that winning an AL pennant wouldn't carry the same weight. But the upside for traditionalist would be that only one wild card team could make the world series. The leagues might have to consider scheduling more interleague games, too, in order to allow each team to compete against the other teams in its "Wild Card Race." That would make interleague games more regional in focus (East vs. East), which is likely better for attendance, but it would mean some teams would never some play teams in other leagues (Cincinnati would never play Seattle, for instance.)

The All-Star game could easily be reformatted as and East-vs.-West contest. Or be more creative with it: fan selections vs. player selections (the tie goes to the side with the highest percentage of votes toward that player--i.e. Ichiro is the top fan-vote-getter, so he goes to the fan team).

Ahh, but what to do with the DH? Well, you could let the teams of the new league determine that. Alternatively, let the new Federal League have a Designated Pinch Hitter--a manager can pinch hit for a pitcher once in a game without removing the pitcher--but the pinch hitter can't go back in the game. (Thanks to a couple commenters on fangraphs for reminding me of this idea). As it is now, the home ballpark determines the rule (including in the All-Star game).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

McGwire as a proxy for the steriod discussion

Surprise! Another 90's slugger took steroids! (Topic for another post: what does the existence of "The Steroid Era" do for Edgar Martinez' Hall of Fame candidacy?)

I understand people are tired of this. USSMariner and Fangraphs don't bother to mention it. Standard news outlets are reporting it, but it will go away tomorrow. People in my Facebook feed are posting stuff about Conan O'Brien and the Haitian earthquake, but the McGwire story is absent.

This isn't exactly News, as much as confirmation. People have long suspected McGwire of using PEDs (and not just Andro), and he's had paltry Hall of Fame support because of these suspicions. And because so many big names have admitted or been caught using PEDs, McGwire's admission just makes him normal. Graham at Lookout Landing can't get angry about McGwire. Fine.

I'm still bothered by it. Not destroy-my-love-of-baseball bothered. Not ruin-my-day bothered. I'm not even angry. But I do care. Here's why:

Steroids were against the rules. Even though there was no testing policy in place, steroids and other illegal drugs were banned by Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1991. If you used steroids, you broke the rules.

Taking PEDs is cheating. Sport is a quintessentially human activity. PEDs diminish athletes' humanity, because they make the athlete something closer to a machine than a human being au naturale. To quote Michael Sanders (of the Presidents Council on Bioethics):
It is one thing to hit 70 home runs as the result of disciplined training and effort, and something else, something less, to hit them with the help of steroids or genetically-enhanced muscles. Of course the role of effort and enhancement will be a matter of degree. But as the role of the enhancement increases, our admiration for the achievement fades. Or rather, our admiration for the achievement shifts from the player to his pharmacist. This suggests that our moral response to enhancement is a response to the diminished agency of the person whose achievement is enhanced. The more the athlete relies on drugs or genetic fixes, the less his performance represents his achievement. At the extreme, we might imagine a robotic, bionic athlete who, thanks to implanted computer chips that perfect the angle and timing of his swing, hits every pitch in the strike zone for a home run. The bionic athlete would not be an agent at all; "his" achievements would be those of his inventor. According to this account, enhancement threatens our humanity by eroding human agency. Its ultimate expression is a wholly mechanistic understanding of human action at odds with human freedom and moral responsibility.
Read the full paper here.

Peer, fan, and media pressure do not exempt players from personal responsibility.
None of us is an island. We all come from somewhere, grow out of a set of circumstances, are influenced and limited by our environments. I think we often overestimate our ability to transcend our circumstances. I don't condemn McGwire for doing what all the fans, his fellow players, the league and the media, implicitly or explicitly, were telling him to do: "hit as many homeruns in a season as you can, whatever it takes, even if it means PEDs." But I do believe in real human agency. That taking PEDs was so easy, that the system was gamed to reward players who took them--these are not McGwire's doing. We, as fans, bear responsibility for that. But McGwire still made choices, and unless we believe that EVERY player took steroids, we can say that some players made different choices. Hence, McGwire could have refrained.

I will give McGwire credit for coming forward himself, for admitting, before someone produced damning evidence, that he used banned steroids. I give him credit for realizing that his actions affected others: his family, the commissioner, the Maris family, and the fans. He clearly regrets his decisions, and it clearly pains him to have let people down. On a personal level, I know firsthand how hard it is to admit to people you love that you have let them down, even betrayed their trust.

But I also give McGwire "credit" for taking steroids in the first place. And I do think it matters.