If you haven’t been following Twitter much today, you might’ve missed an article from Baseball America commenting on the possibility of Major League Baseball expansion, realignment, and schedule changes. Part of it includes speculation that Portland, Oregon would attract a team, which I’m skeptical of (and so is the principal author of this blog), but that’s kind of beside the point.
I have a bit of a wish list for any expansion of the league and the playoffs, and I’d like to share that with you now.
I’d like to see two leagues of 16 teams each, with each league split into two divisions of 8. The two division winners would be entered into the Division Series. In addition, four Wild Card teams would be included in the playoffs and they would play a one-and-done game to reach the Division Series, hosted by the two non-division-winning teams with the best records.
Perhaps the thought that makes this most attractive to me is that winning the division competing directly against seven other teams would be a significant achievement. Having direct competition with so many teams makes it similar to winning the pennant in the pre-expansion era. It would also bring it back in line with division champions from 1969 until 1994 when expansion and divisional realignment gave us three divisions instead of two.
Bringing the teams-per-division into alignment with historical norms would give us a better measurement of team dominance over time. Twenty-nine of the Yankees’ 40 pennants happened before divisional play; while this was certainly dominant, the league itself was only eight teams at the time. Being one-in-eight I think is worth celebrating, where being one-in-five doesn’t carry the same weight.
In the meantime, keeping wild cards in existence prevents the fate of the 103-win 1993 San Francisco Giants, who failed to make the playoffs because Atlanta collected 104 wins. It also maintains the ratio of playoff teams we’re used to seeing over the last decade of baseball. Lastly, it helps maintain the primacy of the MLB regular season. Over the past few seasons, I’ve mostly grown to like the Wild Card Game because of the benefit it gives to the division winner.
The downside I can see here is that having four Wild Card teams pushes ever closer to the NBA problem were sub-.500 teams can make the postseason (A 38-44 Brooklyn team was the last one to do so in the 2014-15 season). My counterargument in the near-term is that an expansion team in each league will probably soak up some extra losses for a few years and middling teams may pick up a game or two and avoid dropping below .500. Perhaps a Monte Carlo Simulation can tell us if this is actually more or less likely with more teams.
What seems clear is that MLB is excited to keep fans invested later and later into the season, and having these extra playoff spots may be a way to do that. All that’s well and good, but I’m not convinced that the extra spots have actually driven up attendance any appreciable amount. I’ll use some data: This season, the Mariners averaged almost 25,450 for their August 14-16 Baltimore series, which fell on a Monday through Wednesday after they has been swept by the Angels over Edgar weekend. At this point, the M’s were two back of the Angels for the second Wild Card spot. Look ahead a bit to their series against Oakland on the Friday-to-Sunday of Labor Day Weekend and they only averaged 22,724. Out of 15 home games in September, only four cracked 25,000, and two of those games were Fan Appreciation Night and King Felix Funko Pop Night. On the other hand, the M’s only cracked 25,000 once in the final month of 2015 on Fan Appreciation Night as well.
Anyhow, moving aside from the playoff eligibility talk, I want to keep the American League and National League designations for as long as I can, along with the DH in the AL only. One thing I love about baseball is that there is a rule distinction between the two leagues, and the organization of the teams is more than simply “legacy,” like it is in the NFL. From an outside perspective, the NFL’s AFC and NFC conferences seem arbitrary, though they have preserved rivalries like Dallas vs. New York and Green Bay vs. Chicago. I don’t want baseball’s American and National Leagues to suffer the same fate.
I’ll get off my soapbox in a second, but since I’m here, I’d also like to eliminate Interleague Play. Unfortunately, I have my doubts that would ever happen. It seems that there’s too much money in it and everyone has more or less gotten used to the idea at this point. That said, I think removing Interleague Play could create more excitement once again for the All-Star Game and World Series. Maybe it could wash.
As far as the actual cities go? I’m not sure I could care significantly less. It would be nice to have a nearby rival, or at least another team on the west coast so the Mariners don’t always have to travel so far, and I’d be a proponent of having a club back in Montreal, but I’d much rather have two divisions in each league instead.