Friday, September 17, 2010

Why the Wild Card Sucks (and how to fix it)


The AL East sees the two best teams in baseball fighting it out for the pennant. The winner gets to enjoy the playoffs while the loser...gets to enjoy the playoffs. Such is the influence of the wild card, which allows the best second place team in each league a spot in the post season. It removes the excitement from pennant races, which are the most important part of a baseball season. That's why it sucks and needs to be fixed.

How to fix it

There are other imperfections in MLB, most notably the difference in teams per league. This is unfair to NL squads who have less chance to make the playoffs (1/4 or 25%) then their AL counterparts (2/7 or 28.6%). In a single season, that may not be significant but it does make a difference over an extended period. In particular, the NL Central has 50% more teams than the AL West, which makes a Cubs' division title that much more unlikely than one for the Mariners.

The other problem is the unbalanced schedule caused by interleague play. Teams with geographic rivalries (Yankees/Mets, Cubs/White Sox, etc) play each other 6 times while often their divisional rivals play those teams not at all. This season for example, the Jays had interleague games against Arizona, Colorado, San Diego, and San Francisco, St. Louis and Philly. 5 of those 6 teams are in the playoff hunt. The Yankees meanwhile got 6 against the Mets, and 3 each against Arizona, Houston, LA Dodgers, Philadelphia. Not really fair.

Jayson Stark of ESPN advocates another wild card team, but I am not happy with that idea. I think the point of the long season is that the best teams advance and then play each other in longer series. More playoff teams is not the answer. Instead, here is what MLB needs to do.

Expansion

Fifteen teams in each league is not going to happen. So in order to level the playing field between the two leagues, add two more teams to the AL. Portland, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Sacramento are all large markets that have AAA teams (well, Portland has lost theirs) and might be able to support a major league franchise. Of course, none of the big 4 sports will put a team in Vegas and Sacramento will be voted down by the A's and Giants, so let's stay that MLB decides to add teams to Portland as well as Salt Lake.

Realignment

The next step is to realign into four divisions of four teams. I would see the following as workable:
AL East      NL East
NY Yankees NY Mets
Boston Philadelphia
Baltimore Washington
Tampa Bay Florida

AL Central NL Central
White Sox Cubs
Toronto Atlanta
Cleveland Cincinnati
Detroit Pittsburgh

AL Midwest NL Midwest
Kansas City St. Louis
Texas Houston
Minnesota Milwaukee
Salt Lake Colorado

AL West NL West
LA Angels LA Dodgers
Oakland San Francisco
Seattle San Diego
Portland Arizona
See how nice that looks? This makes 8 potential pennant races, keeps most divisional rivalries intact (Cubs/Cardinals is the most glaring one that would be lost) and removes the need for a wild card. Toronto escapes AL East purgatory too, good for their fans but probably not for the franchise who enjoy all those Boston and Yankee roadtrippers.

Meanwhile the White Sox and Cubs would be playing most of their games outside their time zone, which would definitely cause some problems. So we'll give them more of the expansion money.

Scheduling

The next step is to balance the schedule. It has to remain at 162 games, and the interleague rivalry matches must also be kept. Therefore, every season, each division plays its counterpart plus one other division from the other league. This means that the AL East and NL East teams would meet every year, and then the AL East would take on the NL Central one year, the NL Midwest the next, and then the NL West after that. Three game series are the norm in interleague play, so each team would get 24 balanced interleague games. Then the geographic rivals would get 3 additional games to match what is happening these days. In the divisions above, I've listed these rivals on the same line and think that this should be maintained year to year. Yes, Toronto and Atlanta are not natural rivals, but with 6 games annually, something could develop.

With 27 interleague games on the slate, there's 135 games left. This works out nicely to 7 games against teams in other divisions in your league (84 total) and 17 games within your division (51 total). Yes, there's a small imbalance with home and away matches but that is not significant enough to derail the plan.

That's it. A nearly balanced schedule, no wild card, and the possibility of 8 pennant races. Now that I've fixed baseball, I'll look at improving the NHL playoffs to make their season more meaningful.

Problems

I'm obviously ignoring many problems that would arise with this plan; dilution of the product, teams losing divisional rivalries, and the fact that Bud Selig likes the Wild Card. Oh well, it's just for fun. Enjoy and let me know your thoughts.

Best,

Sean

5 comments:

  1. Not bad. But I don't like four divisions in each league. I liked Bob Costas's idea; just have the three division winners make the playoffs, and the team with the best record gets a bye in the first round. You'd see games that matter right up to the end.

    Enjoy your site by the way.

    Kurt Smith

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  2. Can't argue much with that. As long as pennant races are preserved. But I'd like to see a more balanced schedule regardless.

    Thanks for your comments.

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  3. Wow, you do have a lot of time on your hands.

    A nice read.

    It was really great to see you in Japan (vs USA).

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  4. NL East: NY, PHI, PIT, WAS
    NL South: FLA, ATL, HOU, CIN
    NL Midwest: CHI, MIL, STL, COL
    NL West: ARI, LA, SD, SF

    now it's fixed. :)

    Good stuff.

    peter- usrt

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  5. I like it Sean...I put together something similar not too long ago, but had NL and AL teams mixed up so that teams were as geographically close as possible- I think I had the Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, and Twins in one division. I agree that the divisional alignment needs to change to 4 teams in 8 divisions, which means expansion like it or not- at least it requires some new ballparks to go to!

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