This is a guest post from friend-of-the-blog Joe R., who can be found at @JoeRo23 on Twitter. It is a long post, but I encourage you to read it in its entirety, as Joe raises a very interesting hypothetical that should make for some fun discussion.
This piece is a more comprehensive examination of an idea I first discussed in a comment posted at RAB on September 24, 2009. That comment was my first stab at outlining an EPL-inspired relegation structure for MLB. While this subject has been discussed before and since I posted that comment, I think I can offer a different and more comprehensive look the topic. If you’ve had your fill of this discussion, then I thank you for your time and apologize for taking up some space on your computer screen for a brief moment in time. If not and you’re interested in a fun theoretical discussion and in what I might bring to this subject, then thanks…And here we go.
As a preface, I’d like to explain something important about what I’m about to discuss: I don’t think this plan will ever be implemented by MLB. The intent of this piece is not to argue that this plan should or could ever be implemented, it is simply to present what I hope you will agree is a well-reasoned answer to the following question:
Given what we know about the various and sometimes competing interests of MLB, its teams, and its fans, if we were to create a league/playoff structure for MLB today, from scratch, how could we do so to best serve those various and at times competing interests and pressures?
In order to answer that question, I’m going to first discuss the interests I seek to serve with my structure, I’m then going to describe the structure, and finally I’m going to explain why this structure achieves the goals of each of the identified interests and how it does so better than the current structure does.
I’m just picking out a few ideas that I think are most germane to the creation of a league and playoff structure, and you’re free to disagree with me or add other interests in the comments section. The interests I’ve identified as most germane are as follows:
a) The system should reward the teams that are most successful during the course of the long regular season. Thus, the segment of the whole who, for example, wish MLB would go back to a four-team playoff system so that the best teams are rewarded, will be represented.
b) The system should allow more than just the top couple of teams from the regular season to have a reasonable chance at going on a run and winning a championship. Thus, the segment of the whole who wish, for example, for there to be some measure of surprise and some chance for a team to go on an unexpected run to a championship, will be represented.
c) The maximum number of teams possible, without hurting the integrity of the system, should be in situations that are compelling to their fanbases (i.e., we don’t want 20 of the 30 teams to appear to have nothing to play for over a long stretch of the season).
d) The maximum number of playoff series, without hurting the integrity of the system, should be played. MLB is a money-making venture and playoff series make money – however much some fans may not like it, it is in MLB’s best interests to add playoff series, not to have fewer of them. And, of course, there are also some fans who want more playoff series.
e) The interests of the “traditionalists” and the more progressive fans should be considered and addressed (i.e., controversial issues like the DH, interleague play, etc.), while keeping in mind the interests of MLB as a business entity.
So, ideally, we want a system that helps keep the maximum number of teams possible in some sort of a competitive race in the standings, provides the most bang for our playoff buck, and allows a relatively large number of teams to compete, while simultaneously rewarding the top performers from the regular season and not watering down the playoff structure so that less-than-superior teams win championships too often.
As you know from my introduction, this will be a relegation-based system. My proposed structure is relatively simple; I don’t see the need to flirt with using any sort of points-based standings system or to introduce any extra, non-year-end tournaments to the mix, as others have done and as is seen in leagues like the EPL. Under my proposed system MLB will be split into two leagues, as it is today, except that one of these leagues will be the superior, or upper tier, and the second will be the inferior, or lower tier. Each season, teams in the lower tier will compete for promotion to the upper tier, while teams in the upper tier will compete for a World Series championship as well as to stave off demotion to the lower tier. For purposes of this discussion I’m going to go ahead and call the upper tier the American League and the lower tier the National League, but please don’t get caught up in the names as they’re quite irrelevant. The AL will be composed of 16 teams and the NL will be composed of the remaining 14 teams in any given season.
During the season, teams in the AL will play the other teams in the AL, and teams in the NL will play other teams in the NL. While I personally am not a fan of, and many fans are not in favor of, interleague play, I understand that it has been a financial success for MLB and that a large portion of the MLB fanbase enjoys it and would like to see it continue. In order to address these competing interests, interleague play will take place only during a short, maybe two- or three-week period, in the middle of the season, instead of occurring at a few different points during the season as it does today. Interleague play will gain back some of its specialness and novelty by only being played during a short and discrete period of time each season, either sandwiched around or immediately preceding and leading up to an All-Star Game that will represent the only other meeting between the AL and the NL (since the playoffs will not feature AL teams playing against NL teams). In that manner the All Star Game also gains some intrigue, as it becomes not only an annual showcase during which the AL and the NL meet on the field, but also represents a chance for the players from the lower tier NL to meet their AL foes on the field of play and fight for respect. (As an aside, I do propose that interleague games should only count as half-games in the standings, since they clearly alter the balance of the schedule, but I find that point to be of relatively minor importance to the point of this particular piece.)
Another elephant in the room is the DH, a subject I know people are pretty passionate about. If it were up to me, I’d impose the DH rule in both leagues. But since it’s not up to me I’d put it up to a vote of the owners (and I guess the MLBPA would have a say, I’m not sure how that decision would be made), but I’d advise them that, either way, they have to have a uniform rule. There must either be a DH through all of MLB, or there must not be a DH in any of MLB. We can’t have teams being promoted and demoted every season and have them face playing under different rules as a result.
That aside… Other than the changes to interleague play and the All-Star Game (which are just scheduling changes, really), the regular season will remain un-changed. Teams will play 162-game seasons, just as they do today. The substantive changes occur instead at the end of the season. At the conclusion of the regular season, twelve different teams will compete in eight playoff series, as follows:
(Immediately following the regular season:)
a) In the NL, (1) the first seed and the fourth seed will play a best-of-five series and (2) the second seed and the third seed will play a best-of-five series, with the two respective winners both earning promotion to the AL for play during the following season and (3) playing an additional best-of-five series for the NL Championship.
b) In the AL, (4) the thirteenth seed and the sixteenth seed will play a best-of-five series and (5) the fourteenth seed and the fifteenth seed will play a best-of-five series, with the two respective losers being demoted down to the NL for play during the following season.
(Starting on the sixth day after completion of the regular season:)
c) In the AL, (6) the first seed and the fourth seed will play a best-of-seven series and (7) the second seed and the third seed will play a best-of-seven series, with (8) the two respective winners meeting in the best-of-seven World Series.
I know it may seem strange at first but let it marinate for a minute, it’s really not complicated at all. Basically you’ve got a four-team mini-tournament at the top of the NL, a four-team mini-tournament at the bottom of the AL, and a four-team mini-tournament at the top of the AL. I’ve delayed the start of the “World Series playoffs” so that there will be no other games played while the World Series itself is played – the series that will take the place of the League Championship Series (the semifinals) will only compete with the NL championship, a series that will have ended earlier if the semifinals were to extend to six or seven games. Another way to stagger the playoffs so that the “World Series playoffs” would be granted their proper importance would be to have the National League start and end its regular season a week or two before the American League (again, a different way of doing things, but I think probably perfectly practical). Either way – this is a logistical issue that I think could and would be dealt with relatively easily, it’s not necessary to hammer out details like these right now.
What does this accomplish? At the top of the system, you’ve got only four teams advancing to the playoffs, like you had in the pre-Wild Card days, ensuring that the teams that most deserve to play for the championship will have that opportunity. Gone are the days of teams winning 83 games and winning the World Series. At the same time, though, you have significantly more playoff participation. This system would place a total of 12 teams into post-season play, while the current system places just 8 teams into postseason play. In addition, this system would, again, feature eight playoff series, as compared to 7 under the current system. Again, we’ve added more teams to the playoffs, kept more teams in contention, and added more playoff series…all while ensuring that the most deserving teams will play for the overall championship.
Not only do more teams reach some sort of postseason play under this structure, but more teams will be in the hunt for postseason play of some sort, as well. There is an inherent flaw in the numbers I’m about to present in that these records were attained in the current system, so every team was playing every other team (as opposed to my more segregated system in which better teams will play better teams and less talented teams will play less talented teams), but I think they’re still illustrative of my point… In 2009, for example, the Brewers (80 wins), ChiSox (79 wins), Reds (78 wins) and either the Padres or A’s (75 wins each) would have played in the postseason as top finishers in the NL, while under the current system the best of those teams finished 11 games back in its divisional race and 12 back in the Wild Card race and the worst of those teams finished about 20 games back in both the divisional and Wild Card races. In addition, the worst team in baseball in 2009, the Nationals, finished 34 games back in its divisional race and 33 back in its Wild Card race, while under the proposed relegation structure that Nationals would have finished just 16 games behind the Padres (the fourth-best team in this hypothetical National League and thus a playoff qualifier). The point is…these teams will all be in contention in their races and in contention for postseason play for much longer in the season, under this proposed plan, than they are under the current plan. While this may seem trivial to some, I think it’s pretty important to fans of those teams that are in the bottom half of the league standings. These teams will be much more successful (their records will improve greatly because they won’t face the top teams as often) and they will be in contention for the postseason just about every season.
That last point, about the teams in the middle- to lower-end of the standings winning more games and being in contention for, and playing in, playoff series, bowties nicely into a point about free agency. As I was preparing this piece, RAB’s Joe Pawlikowski raised concerns that a system like this might necessitate an overhaul of the current free agency system, since the teams relegated to the lower-tier wouldn’t be able to attract free agents. But, to the contrary, I believe this system leaves those teams in no worse a position than they are in today (KC Royals: Cliff Lee ain’t walkin’ through that door), and probably even puts them into a better position to attract free agents. Take the Royals, just for purposes of a hypothetical…would a premium free agent be attracted to them even if and as they improve and maybe hit the .500 mark or even a little above there? Maybe, but probably not. Would that same free agent be more attracted to them if they’d just come off a winning season and won playoff series to earn promotion to the upper-tier? I’d argue they would – I’m not saying they’d definitely go to KC under that scenario, but I think they’d be more likely to than they would under the current system. I’d also argue they’d be more attracted even prior to that promotion to the upper tier. I think the teams that would play in the lower tier would be more attractive to a free agent than they are today, because they could put together winning seasons, energize their fanbases, and offer the opportunity to be part of a team that will earn promotion and challenge the teams at the top of the heap. Today a bad team — or even a team that’s improving but still around .500 or so — just can’t offer that sort of excitement. Fanbases rally around winners, not .500 teams.
Another question I’ve received and contemplated regarding this plan is what would happen to the minor leagues, and the response is: nothing. There’s no reason to touch the structure of MiLB’s current system, it would work seamlessly with my plan just as it does with MLB today.
And it’s not just the worst teams that are helped by this system. A sampling of teams at the bottom, in the middle, and at the top will all be in races for postseason play under this system. We’re not just artificially buoying the hopes of the very worst teams here, we’re effectively offering teams throughout the standings the opportunity to have something fun to play for and something fun to sell to their fans, year in and year out, whether they’re competing for the World Series or not. We’re, effectively, spreading the wealth, while still rewarding the best performers. It’s a meritocracy that also allows teams at all levels to join in the fun.
Promotion to the upper tier may not seem like such an exciting goal to a Yankees or Red Sox or Angels fan, but ask a Pirates fan if she’d be excited about watching baseball for a season during which her team wouldn’t lose 90+ games and would have a realistic shot at participating in some sort of postseason play, and I’d guess that they might be pretty excited about that prospect. I hate to pick on my made-up Pirates fan friend, but what does she really have to look forward to this season? Her team isn’t going to compete, it’s not going to have a chance to win a championship. In my system, every team will compete and have a chance to participate in postseason play. I know people will argue that the teams in the lower tier won’t be able to attract fans and will lose money, but I disagree with that opinion. These teams will all have a fun product to sell to their fans, they’ll all have something to play for. Again…what is it exactly, that the Pirates can sell to their fans in 2010? They’re certainly not selling the prospect of real success or a championship. Under my system, they can sell the prospect of progress – real progress that will be borne out in real-life gains. The best teams will still come to town during interleague play, and they’re still playing against other MLB teams all season long. I think this system would create more excitement around these non-contending teams.
In the AL there would be excitement up and down the standings. While the top 8 or so teams would be in realistic contention for the playoffs (and, thus, a shot at the World Series), the bottom eight teams would be in a fight to stay out of the bottom four slots and thus avoid having to play with relegation on the line. Virtually every team in the AL would have something to play for all season long.
A note on salary-caps…I’m not a proponent for reasons that I won’t address here, and I think this system I’ve outlined would function well without one. What this system does is it deals with reality, and reality is that some teams are in markets that give them financial advantages and some teams are in smaller markets that make it harder for their front offices to build sustainable winning teams. What we’re doing here is living within that reality and creating a system that will best reward the different teams within that reality, without artificially restraining player salaries so that the owners can earn more millions to go on top of the billions in their Scrooge McDuck gold pools. In reality, there are underdogs, there are giants of industry…we can have a baseball league that addresses that reality and is organized in such a way that the fans are given a maximally fun experience; I don’t believe we have to enter this market and artificially level this playing field.
The dirty little secret of this system I’m proposing is that it’s probably less about the relegation aspect as it is about the egalitarian nature of its postseason structure. The relegation mechanism is a fun way to provide rewards and punishments for good and bad performances, and it’d provide some fun topics to discuss during the season and the offseason, but the playoff structure is really the meat of the system.
In conclusion…I know this is a relatively radical idea, and I’m sure there will be plenty of people leaving angry comments excoriating me for even daring to discuss this idea…and that’s OK, that’s the beauty of the internet. But, in my opinion, this system would work and be really cool and fun. This system would, more effectively than the current system, address the interests and goals outlined above. We would, in all likelihood, have the best team(s) winning the World Series more often than we do now, we’d have many more teams in contention late in the season than we do now, we’d have more teams in the playoffs than we do now, we’d have the added intrigue of having 2 teams promoted and 2 teams demoted every season… Heck, we’d even, I think, have a more exciting All-Star Game and give some juice to the whole concept of interleague play. This system doesn’t just provide opportunities for less successful teams to stay in contention and participate in pennant races, it actually works to remedy a pretty diverse set of problems and serve the interests of a pretty diverse set of people and entities.
So, that’s what I have for you. I hope you enjoyed this little examination of an off-the-wall idea that will never come close to seeing the light of day in real-life, and I’d be glad to discuss, in the comments section, any of these ideas or any other ideas anyone might have.
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