Friday, June 29, 2012

How to create new chases and keep the old ones

What would you say to a new baseball alignment that preserves the American and National Leagues, creates three new regional league pennants, all but eliminates wild cards and makes interleague play really matter? If you would say, "That's a great idea!" then read on.

Big Leagues in Los Angeles

The interleague play season has just passed with its usual mixed offering of natural meetings across town and its majority of games in which there is no good reason for the two teams to play against each other.

The true goal of interleague play, the one selling point for those opposed, was to create greater regional intensity across Major League Baseball. Despite some good ticket sales at times, it certainly hasn't worked as well as it could. Major League Baseball has captured mere drips of the juice from regional competition. You can boil more blood and make more money by getting civic pride involved and, for most cities, that's a regional stage.

But regional rivalries require more than just regional games, which is why it will always feel flat under the present system, year after year, when the Dodgers play Seattle or Oakland, or when the Angels play Arizona or Colorado. The games count in the standings, but they don't count the same emotionally because each team answers to different standings.

For years, MLB has floated realignment proposals that would group teams regionally. The proposals would blow up the American and National Leagues, perhaps maintaining them in name but changing what the names mean and, thus, discontinuing much that goes with them. That would seem to be the price of full-blown regionalism and other realignment plans. The game would lose much of its absent past as an active presence, as a hack might say. Baseball does trade on its continuity, and the leadership should not fritter it away.

We believe it is possible to maintain the American and National Leagues as they will be in 2013 (when Houston jumps to the AL), divisions and all, while holding concurrent pennant races in three regional leagues. The winners of every league -- five leagues, we propose -- would go to the eight-team post-season tournament, with deference to the traditional nationwide leagues. Except in fascinating cases, every division winner across the traditional leagues will survive the regular season, as will most (and, very likely, all) division winners in regional leagues. A wild card might survive, too, but almost never.

The origin of every great baseball rivalry is two teams frequently fighting over the same championship. Thus, the way to create more rivalries is by creating more championships. The creation of regional championships will create regional rivalries. And we do have room for more championships, as we now are including four wild card teams in the playoffs. On the principle that it is better to have a champion than a wild card in the playoffs, we propose to all but eliminate wild cards and replace them with regional champions.

Here's how it works. First, we keep the existing major leagues and their divisions just the way they are set for 2013. Now, we transpose our three new leagues on them. The teams in the eastern divisions of each major league would form an Eastern League. By next year's alignment, with Houston moving to the American League West, the two central divisions would compose a Central League. Then, we take the two west divisions, with Houston included, and that becomes the Western League.

Now, we make an adjustment in the schedule. In 2013, by the coming alignment, each team will play 80 games within its division, (20 against each club), 20 interleague games and 60 other games across its own league, give or take. That would change.

As an example, take the Dodgers. They would play ten games per year against all the other western teams, within their own NL West, and in the AL West. So, they would play only 40 games per year in the NL West, but they would have a complete 90-game schedule in the new Western League. Add to that another six games per year, one home-and-home series annually, against every other team in the National League.

Here, in 150 games, we have the outlines for a complete 90-game Western League schedule, and a 100-game National League schedule. If you want to count all the Western League games as NL games, same as how interleague games are counted now, then we can call it a 150-game NL schedule.

From here, we have flexibility. It seems there's no going back from the 162-game schedule. However, with career and single-season records having been so recently compromised, now might be as good of a time as any. But the proposal here is to stay with the 162-game schedule and fill it in with interleague games.

Notice that under the proposed system, it's no longer an interleague game when the Dodgers play Oakland. That now becomes a Western League game. The list of "foreign" teams that are in neither league with the Dodgers would fall to 10 (the teams in the AL East and AL Central), as it would for every major league team. So, those games between foreign teams would be the new interleague games. It would be easy enough to have the Dodgers play two foreign teams for three games home-and-home each year. Put the teams on a rotation and each foreign team across MLB plays each other home-and-home every five years. And it gets the regular season up to 162 games.

One more wrinkle. The new AL-NL interleague games between foreign teams will be important, because the league that wins the most of the resulting 180 interleague games will receive the top seed in the playoffs for its pennant winner and all subsequent advantages in the seeding process.

In addition to reading the AL and NL standings every morning, you now also will read the standings for the Eastern, Central and Western Leagues. We combed through the head-to-head results for this year, when the interleague schedule happens to match the proposal as closely as it can, and developed standings for how each of the regional leagues would look right now, based on those results. In the regional leagues, we're counting only head-to-head results within each one.

For example, the Eastern League standings would look like this:

Eastern LeagueWLPct.GB
New York AL2214.611--
New York NL2418.5711
Tampa Bay2723.5401 1/2
Baltimore2522.5322 1/2
Toronto2023.4655 1/2
Atlanta1621.4326 1/2
Philadelphia1423.3788 1/2

The standings obviously aren't as balanced as they would be under the proposal, but we get a little flavor of what that race would look like. We have no divisions here, as the schedule would be balanced and the best overall record wins the pennant. Divisions do come into play for these leagues later in the seeding process, but they might not matter at all in some years, except for bragging rights.

For the Eastern League, we would have a northern division with the Yankees, Mets, Philadelphia, Boston and Toronto. The southern division would be Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, Miami and Tampa Bay.

Now, a look at the Central League standings:

Central LeagueWLPct.GB
Chicago AL2417.5831/2
St. Louis2417.5831/2
Detroit2118.5382 1/2
Minnesota1819.4864 1/2
Milwaukee1522.4057 1/2
Kansas City1421.4007 1/2
Chicago NL1325.34210

As it stands, Pittsburgh would win the Central League pennant and very likely a top-half tournament seed. Minnesota, which looks like a goner in the AL Central, is only 4 1/2 games down in the Central League. But look at how poorly Cincinnati is doing in the Central League. The Reds are winning the NL Central at the moment. They would still go to the playoffs that way, joined now by Pittsburgh, which isn't presently a wild card by the NL standings.

The northern division is Minnesota, Milwaukee, the two Chicago teams and Detroit. The southern division is Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Kansas City.

For the Western League, we shall put the standings by division, just to illustrate:

Western League NorthWLPct.GB
San Francisco2420.545--
Oakland2321.5231 1/2
Seattle2123.4773 1/2
Colorado1928.4046 1/2

Western League SouthWLPct.GB
San Diego1928.4049
Houston818.3079 1/2

Texas, with the best overall record, wins the Western League pennant, but the Angels, down 4 1/2 games in the AL West, are only 1/2 game behind in this competition. The Dodgers are doing much better in the NL than in the WL. Arizona, Oakland and Seattle are contenders in the northern division, which is what they aren't right now in their respective traditional leagues.

Indeed, the proposal would add many more teams to the mix. Today, we have 13 clubs within four games of a division lead, pretty much exhausting the presumptive playoff contenders. Four other teams are hanging on for wild card berths that will last for one game. Under the proposal, we have 19 teams within four games of division leads, with the winners earning full entry to the quarterfinals.

Assuming the standings for all of our leagues remain as they are at the end of the season, we would now qualify eight teams for the postseason tournament. We begin by seeding the pennant winners for the American and National Leagues. Here, we're going to hold our nose and make a compromise, declaring the team with the best overall record in each league its pennant winner. It's not altogether fair because the schedules would be so imbalanced. If we want, we can just count the 100 games within each nationwide league. For the example, we'll stick with the 162-game standings. Calling it a 100-game American (or National) League season makes sense for a lot of reasons, but we can do it either way. There's more said about all of this a little later.

Anyway, to move this forward, we'll call Texas (48-29) the AL pennant winner and Washington (43-31) the NL pennant winner. Because the AL has won the most interleague games, Texas goes in as the top seed, with Washington as No. 2.

Now, we go to the regional leagues. The New York Yankees win the Eastern League by head-to-head tie breaker (3-0 this year) against Washington. Pittsburgh wins the Central League. So, the Yankees and Pirates are in. Texas, winner of the Western League, already is in as the AL pennant winner. Now, all the nationwide and regional league winners are in, but we still have to decide which of the Yankees or Pirates go in No. 3 and which is No. 4.

The first tie-breaker between the regional leagues is always head-to-head games. The Yankees and Pittsburgh don't play this year (they would play every five years as foreign teams). The next tiebreaker, then, is record against common opponents. The Yankees and Pittsburgh have nine common opponents this year -- five in the AL and four in the NL. The Yankees are 31-15 in those games, while Pittsburgh is 23-18. So, the Yankees are No. 3. If we need to break ties between three regional pennant winners, we run three-way tiebreakers. If we're just trying to work out a playoff seed, we'll keep running tiebreakers until we come to a decision. When playoff berths are on the line -- just getting into the playoffs, rather than seeding teams that already are in -- we would hold a one-game playoff.

Now, we need four more teams. We have seeded the pennant winners and now we are into the division winners. We start with the nationwide leagues and, as always, the AL gets to place its teams first for winning the interleague games during the season. Division winners from New York and Texas are already in, but now we qualify the Chicago White Sox, the AL Central winner, as the No. 5 playoff team. Next, we seed the NL division winners. Washington, winner of the NL East, already is seeded. But NL Central winner Cincinnati and NL West winner San Francisco aren't. The Giants get the nod by the tiebreakers and go in No. 6, while the Reds are No. 7.

We need one more team, so we go to the regional league divisions. By now, both Eastern League division winners (the Yankees and Nationals) are in, as are both Central League division winners (the Pirates and White Sox). Texas, winner of the Western League's southern division, also already is in, now, like Washington, as something of a triple qualifier.

But look at the Western League's northern division. We have a tie at the top right now between San Francisco and Arizona. Oakland and Seattle are close behind. San Francisco already is qualified. If the Giants and Arizona remain tied, we could just call Arizona the co-champion and rubberstamp the Diamondbacks into the playoffs. Or, we could put it to tiebreakers, in which Arizona wins the first by a 5-4 head-to-head advantage and goes in at No. 8. If they still were tied after record against common opponents, we would hold a one-game playoff.

The Giants would have no incentive to win the game and might grumble about having to play it, but that's the price they pay for not winning the division outright. The Giants might think about just letting Arizona have this division so they don't take the strain of an additional game, but they can't afford to jake a game when they're also trying to stay ahead of the Dodgers in the NL West. They could end up blowing both of their chances that way. And, finishing tied for a division lead, Arizona would deserve a chance to play for a playoff berth.

Suppose San Francisco wins a tiebreaker with Arizona. Then Arizona is out. And we now resort to a new level of teams for filling out the playoff bracket -- the nationwide league wild cards. Again, the AL goes first for winning the interleague games. Its top wild card is Baltimore. So, Baltimore is the final team in the playoffs. What happens to the top NL wild card? Should have won those interleague games, fellas.

Consider another peculiar case. Suppose that the Yankees and Nationals win the traditional eastern divisions, but the Mets win the Eastern League. And that Cincinnati and the White Sox win the central divisions, but Pittsburgh wins the Central League. And that Texas and San Francisco win the western divisions, but the Angels win the Western League. We have nine clubs for eight playoff berths. Because league titles trump division titles, we qualify the Rangers, the Nationals, the Mets, the Pirates and the Angels. Now, we dip into the major league division winners. We have three spots to fill and four traditional league division winners left to fill them. But, the AL gets dibs, so the Yankees go in No. 6 and the White Sox are No. 7. We are left with the Reds and the Giants for one remaining spot. Again, in tiebreaker order, it's head-to-head, common opponents, one-game playoff. One is in and one is out. Again, to the NL, it pays to win those foreign games for playoff consideration.

Now we move on to the World Series Tournament, in which each round is best-of-seven, because that's the right length for a playoff series. In the first round, based on today's standings, we get No. 1 Texas against No. 8 Arizona/Baltimore, No. 4 Pittsburgh against the No. 5 White Sox in a revival of the Central League pennant race, No. 2 Washington against No. 7 Cincinnati and the No. 3 Yankees against the No. 6 Giants as they resume a long-lost postseason rivalry.

We can imagine how it might play. The tournament shall be called "The World Series Tournament" and the finals shall be called not "The World Series Finals," but just "The World Series." And the World Series isn't always going to be AL-NL anymore. Sometimes, it will be EL vs. CL. Sometimes, it will be NL vs. NL and WL vs. CL. Sometimes, it will be AL vs. NL and EL vs. WL. And so forth.

That's the basic template. Details remain to be decided. The biggest question, discussed briefly above, is how to count the 162-game season. Using the Dodgers, again, as an example, they would play 90 true Western League games, 100 true National League games and 12 interleague games for a total of 162 games.  The totals don't add up, of course, because the games within the NL West would count doubly as Western League and National League games.

Keeping the Western League standings, we would only count the games within the Western League. But do we count the NL standings by counting only the 100 games within the NL, or do we count all 162 games, with all the imbalances that invites, the way we do it now? The sample scenarios already described assume that we do the latter.

It would seem that we have a dilemma. If we keep the 162-game NL and AL standings and thereby decide the pennant winners for each of those leagues, the schedules will be so wildly imbalanced that it will pose basic questions of fairness. We already have those problems, in a less exaggerated form, and it doesn't seem to bother anyone too much. If we go with the more balanced approach, counting only the 100-game NL and AL standings to determine their pennant and division winners, then we lose the 162-game standings and all they have come to mean. In addition, our interleague games wouldn't count in any standings anywhere.

A way to split that difference and keep everything in play would be to count only the 100-game AL and NL standings for determining their pennant and division winners, then add a provision for the team with the best 162-game record in each of those leagues to guarantee they will be in the playoffs. If, say, the Dodgers don't win the 90-game Western League or 100-game National League pennants, but they have the best 162-game record in the NL, then they would be entered as a playoff team after the five pennant winners are entered and before we begin entering the division winners from the traditional leagues. Chances are, the Dodgers would win the NL West and qualify, anyway, but this gives them a little more reward and incentive for being the best over 162 games.

The Dodgers scenario just described is almost never going to be an issue, but it can be, and we need a provision. We would hate a situation like the strike-split season in 1981, when the Cincinnati Reds had the best record across the NL, but were denied a playoff berth because they didn't win their division in either half of the season. The guarantee for the teams with the best 162-game records in the AL and NL would take care of that, and it also would maintain some reasonable congruence between the standings and the 162-game individual player records.

One drawback to this system, this overlay of regional leagues onto the traditional nationwide league, is, for example, is that the Dodgers and Giants would play each other only 10 times, instead of the 18 or 20 that they've always played. That does hurt. However, we get a lot back in the trade. The fewer games between the Dodgers and Giants would be even more critical because they would count in two pennant races, instead of one. And, for losing eight or ten games between the Dodgers and Giants, we would add great depth and seriousness to the games they play against the Angels, Oakland, Texas, Houston and Seattle, who become Western League rivals. We lose games between the traditional rivals, but those fewer games become much thicker, and we add five truly competitive rivals for each team. Also, there's always the chance that the Dodgers and Giants could meet in the playoffs, advancing by different routes. They could even play each other in the World Series, with one entering the postseason as, say, the Western League champion, and the other entering as the NL West champion.

It has been objected, reasonably, that the system described here is complicated. But it really isn't. With a little familiarity, it becomes pretty simple to understand. One compelling upside is that it gives more clubs more paths to the playoffs. More scenarios inevitably means there is more to keep track of for baseball people. But one characteristic of baseball people, particularly fans, is that they really don't mind keeping track of stuff and anticipating from a kaleidoscope of possibilities. They love doing it.

And, with these little modifications, which don't require anybody to move anywhere, with just these little adjustments in scheduling, we can accomplish a great deal. We can maintain the 162-game NL and AL competitions as we love them, we can maintain their pride of place as we salute them, we can add intense regional competitions as we want them, we can all but eliminate wild cards as we wish, we can make AL-NL interleague games truly matter as we must, we can create new meanings and keep all the old ones, and we can have regional leagues criss-crossing with nationwide leagues. We can, without subtraction, add value to every game.

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