MLB Realignment

On this night where Major League Baseball celebrates it’s All-Star Game, I’m pondering the future of my favorite spectator sport.  There are a lot of changes coming to the game.  This season, each league will be awarding two Wild Card spots meaning a total of  ten teams will be eligible for post season play.  Next season, the Houston Astros will move to the American League creating two 15-team leagues and ensuring the need for interleague games every day of the season.

Both of these changes are being made due to problems that arose from earlier changes in MLB in the 1990s (namely three-division leagues, wild cards, and interleague play).  I believe these changes will just make further problems down the road.  Proponents of the two Wild Card system say that it makes the Wild Card teams earn their way into the postseason by making them face one another in a one game playoff (where the rules of randomness mean either team is likely to win).  Far from being weak interlopers, Wild Card teams have often been the second place team in the toughest division and by my accounting 24 of the 34 Wild Card winners from 1995 to 2011 had regular season records equal or better to one or more division champions in their league in the same season.  In this new scenario, the 2001 Oakland A’s winner of 102 regular season games would have to play the 85-win Minnesota Twins to prove they were good enough to be in the playoffs with the division champion New York Yankees (95 wins) and Cleveland Indians (91 wins). Huh?!   If anything, it’s the “champions” of weak divisions that are getting an easy entry into the postseason and now weaker Second Wild Card teams will have the opportunity as well through a one-game roll of the dice.  I can foresee the scenario where 95+ win team fighting to the last day of the season for a division title and having to settle for the First Wild Card will have to face a rested team with 90 or fewer wins in that one game playoff.  That’s not good for baseball.

Interleague play has it merits.  It’s exciting to see intracity rivalries (Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox), intrastate rivalries (Giants-A’s, Astros-Rangers) and even two teams from cities relatively close to one another such as the Red Sox and Phillies play out.  It’s less interesting when the Red Sox play the Padres or the Brewers, and the Phillies play the Twins or the Mariners.  It’s especially confounding that the introduction of divisional and interleague play means that a team like the Phillies plays their interstate rivals the Pirates far less frequently than they used to.  More interleague play means that teams are playing fewer games against the teams their competing with for a title and often  playing schedules that are composed of teams of different strengths and abilities.  It’s all a bit of a muddle and in the end I think it makes the regular season less interesting and makes it so the teams that make the playoffs aren’t necessarily the best teams in baseball.

For some time now, I’ve been mulling over a plan of the changes I would make to Major League Baseball to make it more exciting, competitive, and fair.  On the surface, my plan seems radical, but I think ultimately it preserves (or brings back) many traditional elements of baseball such as the balanced schedule, regional rivalries, pennant races, and the end of interleague play as we know it.

My Proposal to Improve Major League Baseball

My idea for Major League Baseball would realign its current 30 teams into three regional, 10-team leagues.  A team would face the other teams 18 games (9 home, 9 away) a season in a balanced schedule of 162 games.  There would be no interleague play and no divisions so each and every game would be against a league rival.  Each win and each loss would move a team up or down in the standings.

The advantages of this realignment are many:

  • Regional play would promote rivalries, which would in turn boost attendance and television ratings.
  • It would be easier for fans to travel to more road games, again improving attendance.
  • National games of the week on network and cable TV will also be able to be scheduled to target markets in each of the three regions with appropriate starting times.
  • Regional play would also reduce the wear and tear of travel on the players.   In fact, MLB could promote the reduction in travel as a green initiative since it would reduce the number of air miles the teams would have to fly each season.
  • With as many games as possible played in the same time zone, East Coast fans will no longer have to stay up past midnight to see the end of their team’s road games on the West Coast and West Coast fans won’t have to sneak out of work to see the beginning of their team’s road games on the East Coast.   The starting time for  games will be more predictably the same time every day increasing television ratings.
  • The balanced schedule means that each team competing for a postseason spot is facing the same opponents for the same number of games.
  • Teams can no longer qualify for the postseason by being the champions of  weak division of five teams.

The Leagues

American League:  Baltimore Orioles,  Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays, and Washington Nationals.

The new American League brings together several historic franchises in the Northeast.  Six of these teams are currently in the American League including three charter members still in the same cities as they were in 1901 (Red Sox, Indians, Tigers) and the team with more AL pennants than any other (Yankees).  While Washington has had a National League team since 2005, it also has a long history of teams in the American League from 1901-1971.  This league would benefit greatly from many city, state, and regional rivalries and the ease of travel for visiting fans.

National League: Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, St. Louis Cardinals, and Tampa Bay Rays.

With six current National League teams, the new NL maintains the history with two franchise dating back to 1876 (Braves, Cubs), the birthplace of professional baseball (Cincinnati), and the National League’s leader in pennants and championships (Cardinals).  The NL retains one of baseball’s most storied rivalries (Cubs and Cardinals) and will gain new rivalries in Chicago, Missouri, and Florida as well as other regional face-offs.

Continental League:  Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland A’s, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers.

The name is a throwback to an earlier attempt at a third league as well as a tribute to how baseball has grown to cover the continent in this the most geographically spread out of the three leagues.  Six of these teams joined Major League Baseball as expansion teams with the other four originating in Northeastern cities before moving West.  Two of the largest states in the union – California and Texas – are well represented in this league as well as more isolated baseball outposts in Seattle, Denver, and Phoenix.

The Pennant

Historically, baseball awarded the pennant to the team that demonstrated excellence over the course of a long season by winning the most games.  Before the modern World Series began in 1903, the pennant was the championship, but even after that it was considered a major accomplishment.  In 1954, the New York Giants were given a ticker tape parade for winning the National League pennant but not for subsequently winning the World Series.  Since the introduction of divisional play in 1969, the importance of the pennant has diminished as it has been awarded to the teams that play in the World Series regardless of where they finished in the regular season meaning that some brilliant accomplishments such as the 2001 Seattle Mariners 116-win season have been overshadowed.  In my three league system, the pennant would be restored as an honor granted to the first place finishers in each league with considerable promotional effort made to make it an award nearly as important at the World Series championship.

Playoffs and World Series

The top three teams from each league would qualify for postseason play for a total of nine teams.

Third place qualifying round:  The playoffs would begin with a qualifying round for the third place teams. The three teams would be seeded based on regular season performance and play a three game playoff:

  • Game 1: #3 seed at #2 seed
  • Game 2: Winner of Game 1 at #1 seed (winner of this game advances to next round of playoffs)
  • Game 3: Loser of Game 1 versus loser of Game 2 (winner of this game advances to next round of playoffs)
Quarterfinals:  The eight teams would be seeded according to regular season record as follows – First place teams seeded 1-3, second place teams seeded 4-6, and third place teams seeded 7-8.  Then the teams would be matched in a best-of-five series with 8 versus 1, 7 versus 2, 6 versus 3, and 5 versus 4.  The higher seed has home field advantage in the series.
Semifinals: The teams are re-seed by regular season records to play in a best-of-seven series with 4 versus 1, and 3 versus 2.  The higher seed has home field advantage in the series.
World Series:  The two remaining teams face off for the championship of baseball in a best-of-seven series.  The higher seed has home field advantage in the series.

Other Issues

Designated Hitter: For nearly forty years, the American League has played by a different set of rules than the National League by allowing a batter who does not play on the field to bat in place of the pitcher.  With three leagues this rule would have to be addressed and I propose dropping the designated hitter and requiring pitchers to bat for themselves.  The rule encourages specialization by allowing pitchers who cannot hit and batters who cannot field to prosper in the game.  It also encourages aging sluggers to continue playing at the expense of younger, possibly more well-rounded players.   The National League has not suffered from the absence of a DH and if players feel that they are losing a professional opportunity then the rosters may be expanded to 26 players as a tradeoff.  At any rate, most DH’s today are able to adequately field and an organization that encourages its pitchers to become capable batters would gain a competitive advantage over those that continue to accept the canard that “pitchers can’t hit.”

All-Star Game: When the All-Star Game originated in 1933, it was a hotly contested match-up of two competing leagues and a rare opportunity for the fans of one league to see the players of the other league.  Today, many players seem indifferent to the All-Star Game, actively avoiding participating and the game itself is not competitively played with many substitutions made for show rather than strategy.   Nationally televised games and interleague play mean that most players are not strangers to baseball fans.   Three leagues would complicate the staging of a All-Star Game and I would suggest that it is a tradition that has run its course.  Despite not playing the game, I would continue the tradition of awarding All-Star honors with fans voting for their favorite players and a panel of former players and sports journalist also selecting the best players at each position who have been overlooked by the fans.  Other All-Star Week traditions such as the Futures Game and the Home Run Derby would continue based around a new mid-season celebration of baseball of my own devising.

International Tournament: Baseball is growing in popularity globally and I think Major League Baseball should seize the initiative by staging an annual event to celebrate international competition.  The World Baseball Classic has succeeded by pitting the national teams of several baseball-playing countries, but I’d like to see a competition that brings together the best league teams of world together akin to the UEFA Champions League in European soccer.  Since baseball is played everyday it would be difficult to schedule a tournament on the Champions League model, but I believe MLB could host an exciting, short tournament at midseason in place of the All-Star Game.

I would propose an 8 team tournament with automatic berths to the previous year’s pennant winners from the American, National, and Continental Leagues.   I would also give berths to the best teams of Central League and Pacific League of Nippon Professional Baseball.  The final three berths would be won through a qualification process among the best teams from other professional baseball leagues including the Mexican League, Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League, China Baseball League, Korea Baseball Organization, Chinese Professional Baseball League, Italian Baseball League, Honkbal Hoofdklasse (Netherlands), Australian Baseball League and the winners of the Caribbean Series.

The teams would be seeded into two groups of four which would play a three-game  round robin group stage.  Then there would be a one-game semifinal with the 2nd place team of one group facing the 1st place team of the other group.  The winners of the semifinals would meet for the championship in a one game final.  These games would be played over the course of five consecutive days in three major league stadiums (one from each league).  Two stadiums would host group play and a semifinal, while the third stadium would host the final as well as other events such as the Futures Game and the Home Run Derby.  Players who have been voted as All-Stars will be introduced in a pre-game ceremony before the final.  There are some challenges to this international tournament such as the fact that three teams will have to play up to five competitive games while the other 27 teams rest, but I think it would be an exciting alternative to All-Star Game and a good way to promote baseball worldwide.

So that’s my plan for Major League Baseball.  Do you think it would work?  Do you like the changes MLB is currently making?  Do you have ideas of your own?  Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “MLB Realignment

  1. Very well thought out. I’m glad to see the divisions will be better balanced, but I’ve never been a fan of the wild card entry into baseball. I think the season runs too long into autumn, which places players in colder weather, especially those northern World Series games played at night. I miss sun shiny day games during the series. Sure, it promoted absenteeism at school and work, but players were less likely to succumb to injury and good teams weren’t struggling with tired farm team call-ups for replacement.
    I like also the idea of international play, which isn’t new. Politics in the past has kept it from flowering. I’d really like to see a professional winter league.


  2. Thanks for comment and for your good ideas. I’ve thought of other changes to MLB which would shorten the season but for this proposal I didn’t want to rock the boat too much, not that this has a chance of ever being adopted.

    Day games in the postseason and a professional winter league would be great.


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