Monday, August 16, 2010

Why Does Baseball Have 3 Divisions in Each League?

That's awesome. And slightly relevant.
In 1994, Major League Baseball attempted to correct a problem in its divisional system: some really good teams weren't reaching the postseason, most infamously the San Francisco Giants of the previous season. That team won 103 games and watched the Philadelphia Phillies march their way to the World Series on the strength of 6 fewer regular season wins than the Giants. To ensure the second-best team in each league always had the opportunity to play in the postseason, Bud Selig realigned the leagues and expanded the playoffs to accommodate three division winners and a wild card in each league. The move didn't quite work; in 1994, nobody played in the postseason.

The small snafu of canceling the World Series aside, the advent of the wild card race has added excitement to the end of every regular season and an extra round of playoff fever to the October thrill (or an extra hurdle to clear on the road to curse-breaking). But the basic problem inherent in the previous system still haunts Major League Baseball: the best teams don't always play into October.

I probably could have just skipped writing those first two paragraphs and opened with "AL East," and you would have known where I was going. Here are the overall MLB rankings according to the SRS (Simple Rating System) that uses runs scored, runs allowed, and strength of schedule (based on the run-scoring, run-prevention abilities of the team's opponents):

In this scenario, if the best eight teams all made the playoffs, the NL would be represented by only three teams. They've got four in the top nine, though, so this isn't a call to eliminate leagues as we know them altogether . . . yet. It does trouble me that three of the top four teams in baseball hail from the same division (and that so many Red Sox fans complain about their team being bad). Also troubling: no NL Central team cracked the top 10.

The problem is obvious. Divisions are categorized by geography not by baseball achievement. The more divisions, the greater the likelihood that at least one division will yield an unworthy champion. So why have three in each league? The more divisions, the greater the injustice. Did Confederacy teach us nothing? Divided we fall, right?

Every division holds the possibility for at least one undeserving team being allowed to sneak past the velvet rope into the postseason dance, and the league division multiplies those possibilities by two. If the top 8 records in all of MLB advanced to the playoffs, that would be fair but also a bit unwieldy. Achieving that fairness would require playing a balanced schedule throughout baseball (the Cubs would play every MLB team 5 or 6 times). That would kind of suck.

So for now let's hold on to the AL/NL setup we've got going and acknowledge that granting each league 4 playoff spots allows for the possibility that four teams from one league could be the 5th-8th best teams in baseball and still be golfing in October. I can live with that, especially since the chance each team has to prove itself against the other league is limited to 15 games per year.

As it is, teams play roughly half their games (~80) against divisional opponents, 15 interleague, and ~33 against the two other divisions within the league. If each league went division-free, requiring a balanced schedule, National League teams would play each other about 10 times apiece, and American League teams would face each other about 12 times each. They could make it even more consistent by sticking with the original plan to spread interleague competition throughout the season and have 15 teams in each league (interleague play was introduced on a 2-year trial basis in 1997, so there was no guarantee it would last beyond the 1998 expansion to 30 teams).

For the Cubs, that would result in 5-7 fewer games per current NL Central rival. That would also require a few more trips out west. Should convenience and tradition trump fairness? Well, let's give those two factors a little bit of credence.

The lay of the land in baseball is pretty clustered. Some division is inevitable.
Probably. image
If travel has any effect on a team's ability to compete, the travails of a balanced schedule would probably tip the scales of fairness against the teams in the West. So I'll concede that dividing each league and including some imbalance in the schedule to minimize the detrimental effects of travel does make sense. While it creates more possibilities for another lesser team advancing (theoretically, the 9th best team in the NL and the 23rd best team in baseball, could reach the playoffs), it also prevents factors like travel from penalizing an entire region of the baseball world too severely. Even if heading east a dozen times a year costs the West Coast teams 30 wins a year, they can at least settle on a winner between them.

But beyond that, what's the point of another division? It creates the illusion of competitiveness for fans that would rather see their team finish 3rd than 7th, but that's a cheap little psychological trick to play at the expense of true fairness. Three divisions makes sense in the NFL where the schedule simply can't be balanced. But in baseball where everyone plays each other at least six times, three divisions per league is pure silliness.

Trust me, I'm not one to argue for the benefit of ESPN's pet baseball teams, but Boston should be battling with the other candidates for 4th-best in the AL. Instead, they must scramble to displace one of the top two teams in baseball. Meanwhile, the Cardinals or Reds will probably secure a spot in the Senior Circuit's October schedule at the expense of a team in the West or the East that deserves a shot at fall ball. If the Reds advance to the playoffs and the Red Sox do not, something needs to change.

Something does need to change. Two leagues. Two divisions. Two wild cards in each league regardless of division. If we were dispensing with tradition altogether, I'd suggest reconfiguring the leagues, replacing American and National with East and West. The traditional roots of baseball barely extend past the Mississippi River, so at some point MLB should recognize that and divide the teams in a way that places competition and fairness over faux historical integrity. I just don't think we're at that point yet.

We're also not yet at the point where the best teams make the playoffs, and that's a pity.

1 comment:

  1. I'll be ok with East-West just as soon as the Yankees and Red Sox agree to give up the DH.

    So, in other words, never.


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