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).