Table of Contents

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Pinto's Radical Realignment

David Pinto had an interesting column at BP today talking about a possible radical realignment idea for Major League Baseball, which, he argues, would solve a lot of the problems with the current scheduling absurdity. Here are the highlights:
  • Combine the AL and the NL teams into one league, and set up five six-team divisions.
  • Each division would play 90 games within the division each year (9 home, 9 away vs. each team), and then 72 games outside the division.
  • The games outside of any one division would be against only two of the other four divisions. Which divisions you play against rotates each season.
  • Teams currently in the AL would keep the DH at their home games. That should keep the player union happy (maybe).
  • Playoffs would include 5 division winners, the 2nd-place team with the best record, and then two short 3-game series among the remaining four 2nd-place teams to determine the final two of the 8 playoff spots (an alternative that I'd prefer would give the five wild card slots to remaining teams with the best records, rather than the 2nd place teams. That way, strong divisions are rewarded for excellence in interdivision play with more playoff spots).
This proposed system has a lot to like about it. It would set up some great rivalries between teams that currently are in different leagues (e.g. CIN v. CLE). It would cut down on travel for both intradivision and interdivision away games (at least it would if they clustered interdivision series on the schedule--and that should possible). It would avoid the disparities in how often division rivals played each other that currently exist. And, perhaps best of all, it would allow even more teams to have a shot at the playoffs--10 teams (33%) instead of the current 8--while rewarding the teams that performed the best with a bye in the first round.

Nevertheless, the biggest challenge--and what Pinto didn't try to do in his article--is to come up with good divisions. After all, if you're going to do something this crazy, you want the end result to make sense. I've been staring at Cbssportsline's map of MLB teams for a bit here, and this is the best possible solution that I came up with (forgive the division names--best I could come up with):

Western DivisionMountain DivisionMidwestern Division
Eastern Division
New England Division
Some things to like:
  • Most natural and historic geographic rivalries share divisions: LAA/LAN, SF/OAK, SF/LAN, TEX/HOU, CHA/CHN, STL/CHN, CIN/CLE, CIN/PIT, FLO/TB, NYY/NYN, NYY/BOS, BAL/WAS. That'd be fun. :)
  • The division rivals tend to be of similar market size, more so than they are currently.
    • Using Nate Silver's data from his recent BP article, here are the average attendance spheres (=market size, except for TV) of teams within each of the five proposed divisions, plus/minus standard error:
      • Western: 7.0 M +- 1.5 M
      • Mountain: 3.6 M +- 0.5 M
      • Midwestern: 5.4 M +- 0.9 M
      • Eastern: 3.8 M +- 0.4 M
      • New England: 9.6 M +- 2.1 M
    • That's an average intradivisional standard error in attendance spheres of 1.1 M. The current divisional alignment in MLB has an average within-division standard error in attendance spheres of 1.6 M. So, the new plan would have a more level playing field within most divisions.
  • Each division has 3 teams that would have the DH, save for the Eastern, which has only two. This means there's little bias across divisions in terms of which teams need to have viable options for the DH (of course, my preference would be to get rid of it altogether, but the players' union would never allow that).
  • Again, travel would be much easier...and yet, teams would still get the benefits of an unbalanced schedule as well as the opportunity to see different teams every year (effectively, it has interleague play).
But it's not perfect.
  • Obviously there are some potential rivalries that remain untapped in this, particularly: KC v. STL, MIL v. MIN, PIT v. PHI, and ARI v. SD and the rest of California.
  • It sets up two divisions that both get far less travel than others: the West gets games in SF/OAK, and LAN/LAA, while New England gets games at NYY/NYN and BAL/WAS.
  • In contrast to the short-travel divisions, this alignment requires two divisions to travel far more than others: the Mountain division would have to fly from Phoenix to Minnesota frequently, while the Eastern division would fly from Cleveland to Miami.
...of course, all of those issues are no worse, and are often better, than the status quo. Would you miss the Reds playing any of our current division rivals? I think St. Louis is the only team that I feel a particular rivalry with as a Reds fan. And I kind of miss the Atlanta-Cincinnati rivalry.

I think there's a lot to like about this idea. Bud Selig has talked about trying to push for some sort of geographic realignment before his tenure ends.. I'm pretty skeptical that something as wild as this could realistically happen, but I think it could be a real boon for the game if it did. Not only would it improve scheduling, but it would also set up a bunch of new geographic rivalries that could make for some exciting series throughout the season. And on top of that, 10 teams would make the playoffs each season, even though four of them would be forced to go through a wild 3-game series to compete with the more successful teams.

For fun, here are what the division rankings might look like in this realignment based on last years' W/L record. Bold-faced teams would have made the playoffs, those with asterisks would get a bye past the first round. The number indicates 2006 win totals--obviously, w/l records would change when the teams played change, but this is just for fun anyway:
Western DivisionMountain DivisionMidwestern Division
Eastern Division
New England Division
OAK - 93*
LAA - 89
LAN - 88
SD - 88
SEA - 78
SF - 76
MIN - 96*
HOU - 82
TEX - 80
ARI - 76
COL - 76
KC - 62
DET - 95*
CHA - 90
CHN - 66
TOR - 87
STL - 83
MIL - 75
CIN - 80*
ATL - 79
CLE - 78
FLO - 78
PIT - 67
TB - 61
NYN - 97*
NYY - 97*
BOS - 86
PHI - 85
BAL - 70
WAS - 71
(btw, I didn't realize that the Reds would come out on top in this table until I finished it--but I think that Cleveland would have fared a lot better in that division than they did in the AL Central, so I doubt the Reds would have actually won).

It's funny...I've toyed with the idea of a major geographic realignment for years as a fun "what if" scenario, but I never found anything that seemed to work. But this system that Pinto came up with really could work. The scheduling makes sense, and with the possible exception of the midwest teams, MLB teams really do seem to naturally fall out into five 6-team divisions. I like it. So add my name to the list of those who support this plan. :)