Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 17, 2011

A Game Slow To Change Makes Two Great Changes

As much as any sport and far more than most, the Great Game is bound by tradition and resistant to change. After all, it’s been nearly four decades since the American League adopted Rule 6.10, and there are still those who decry the designated hitter as the ruination of the sport; robbing the game of crucial strategic decisions around when to pinch-hit for the pitcher. So no doubt there will be some observers who will lament the two significant changes announced at the meeting of MLB owners Thursday. I prefer to characterize the two decisions as back-to-back home runs.

First, in approving the sale of the Houston Astros from Drayton McLane to Houston businessman Jim Crane the owners also mandated that the team move from the National League Central Division to the American League West, beginning in 2013. This move will eliminate the imbalance between the number of teams in each league that has existed since the last round of expansion in 1998. At that time the addition of Tampa Bay to the AL and Arizona to the NL, along with Milwaukee’s move from the AL to the senior circuit resulted in a 16-team NL and 14-team AL.

With the three division structure of both leagues, each team’s schedule is weighted toward games against division opponents. This is as it should be, since division rivalries tend to be the most longstanding and intense. Fans want to see the Yankees take on the Red Sox or the Dodgers play the Giants. But the larger National League requires one of its divisions, the Central, to have six teams. That means those teams square off only 15 or 16 times a year as opposed to the 18 or 19 games all other teams play against each division opponent. In addition to fewer games against natural rivals, the members of the six-team NL Central have gone into each campaign knowing that they must climb over five opponents instead of the typical four in order to win the division title.

Conversely, the AL West has been the game’s only four team division. The A’s, Angels, Mariners and Rangers have had the luxury of needing to achieve a season-long record better than just three opponents in order to win the division and earn a spot in the playoffs.

The Astros coming move to the AL will create two 15-team leagues, each with three divisions of five teams each; resulting in a balance of divisional games for every team and an equally challenging road to each of the six division crowns. The new alignment also has a side benefit of creating a natural in-state rivalry within the AL West between the Astros and the Texas Rangers, while finally giving the Rangers a division opponent closer than 1,400 miles away.

With an odd number of teams in each league, inter-league play will have to take place throughout the season, in order to prevent one team in each league from always having a day off. No doubt this will be vexing to those who decry inter-league play as the ruination of the sport; robbing the game of the distinctive character of the two leagues and diminishing the World Series. But in fact inter-league play has excited many fans and allowed long-standing local and regional rivalries in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and areas like Baltimore-Washington and the Bay area of northern California, to finally be played out annually on the field. The new alignment doesn’t necessarily mean an expansion of the amount of inter-league contests. With most teams already scheduled for 18 inter-league matchups, there are plenty of games; they just need to be spread out over the entire season rather than being limited to two discrete periods in May and June.

The second change announced on Thursday was the expansion of the playoffs to ten teams with the addition of a second Wild Card team from each league, a move that could be instituted as early as next season. When rumors of this change first surfaced several months ago, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. To the extent that it becomes easier to get into the playoffs, the value and meaning of the regular season is diminished. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve become convinced that the merits of this change far outweigh that sole concern.

With ten of thirty teams going to the post-season, the MLB playoffs will still be the toughest ticket among the major team sports. The NFL sends 38% of its teams to the post-season, and an outright majority of teams in both the NHL and NBA qualify for the playoffs; assuming of course that the NBA ever again has playoffs.

In exchange for making it ever so slightly easier to reach the post-season, the addition of a second Wild Card team from each league will almost certainly enhance the importance of being a division champion. Currently each league’s Wild Card team is a full participant in the playoffs. In the Division Series they are the equal of the division winner with the fewest wins. Both play a 5-game series against one of the two remaining division champs, and both open on the road. Only in the League Championship Series is there a certain penalty for being a Wild Card team as opposed to a division winner; and that penalty is limited to again opening on the road. But depending on how the first round plays out, the same fate could befall that third-best division winner. In short, the current system doesn’t do enough to reward division winners; and has led to the occasional case of a team coasting through the final week of the season, resting position players and aligning the rotation while hoping to win their division but not being terribly upset if they wind up as the Wild Card.

While the structure of the playoffs with two Wild Card teams in each league hasn’t been announced, the need to wrap up the playoffs sometime before Festivus virtually mandates a one-game playoff between the two; a “play-in” game to the post-season. In a single contest anything can happen. It will make for an exciting beginning to the playoffs; but more important it will significantly enhance the value of winning one’s division and going straight to the 5-game Division Series. Settling for a Wild Card slot will mean running the risk that a single fastball drifting over the heart of the plate in one game abruptly ends one’s stay in the post-season.

Of course, enhancing the value of winning a division will provide only small solace to those who decry the Wild Card as the ruination of the sport; robbing the game of the premium placed on winning and causing post-season play to stretch on for weeks. But then, those folks probably still haven’t gotten over the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn.

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