On Baseball Realignment

So realignment is suddenly in the news again, as rumors of the possibility have begun to surface.

The article cited above talks about having two 15-team leagues and eliminating divisions. This would be a radical departure for baseball, which has featured divisional play since 1969, and in addition would require a team switching leagues, which has only happened once in modern baseball, when the Brewers moved to the NL in 1998 to accommodate the expansion Rays and Diamondbacks. (Wikipedia actually says baseball at that the considered doing two 15-team leagues then, but ultimately decided not to due to various issues.)

Currently, baseball is organized into two leagues with three divisions each. This setup originates from expansion in 1969, when both leagues expanded from 12 to 14 teams and instituted two divisions of 7 teams each. Those divisions would remain in place until 1994. Since then, other changes have taken place due to further expansion, giving us our current format or 14 teams in the American League and 16 teams in the National League.

You may be wondering why there’s still two separate leagues in the first place, which is another artifact of baseball history. Until 1999, the AL and NL were indeed separate organizations – hence why one league has slightly different rules than the other. That’s why a generic term for the top level of professional baseball is the major leagues – the AL and NL together represent the two top level baseball leagues. This is in contrast to the myriad minor leagues and independent leagues. (As a side note, some consider the post-World War II Pacific Coast League the only modern third major league, but any notion of the PCL being on the same level as the as the AL and NL was squashed when the Giants and Dodgers moved west in 1954.)

So are there any problems with the current setup? Well, yes. One of the issues baseball has struggled with since realignment is the idea of the balanced schedule versus the unbalanced schedule. Currently, teams play an unbalanced schedule, which means that they will generally play teams within their division more than teams without. I know the Braves’ schedule the best, so I’ll use them as an example: they’ll play most of the teams within their division 19 times this year, and most of the teams outside their division 6 times this year. (Remember, most teams play each other in 3 game series.)

There are pros and cons to each style. The nice part about the current format is that it places a strong emphasis on winning your division. There are 4 playoff berths in each league, 3 of which go to the division winners. The downside is that the wild card is then very wild, as a team’s overall record will depend much more on the teams within their division. The balanced schedule fixes that issue, but then the divisions are just arbitrary splits because everyone plays he same schedule.

One way to settle this is at the heart of the current rumor, that is, just eliminate the divisions altogether and award playoff spots to the top four teams. There are problems with this proposal as well, though. To me, this raises the question of “why bother to have playoffs at all?” After all, if everyone plays each other 11+ times, I’d say you have a pretty good idea who the best teams are in each league at the end of the end of the season. (Of course, that doesn’t seem to stop the NBA and NHL, where half of the teams make an entirely too long postseason after a reasonably long regular season.) Also, having divisions gives each team something to play for and “win” – after all, baseball is about the grind moreso than other sports, and home field does not confer nearly as significant an advantage, so what in reality is the difference between the top four seeds in a postseason tournament? Sure, the difference between the first and fourth place teams may be large, but the difference between each seedline is not going to be that great, so what is the incentive to try to build a team that wins the games necessary for first and the game necessary to win fourth? This plan could potentially ruin the regular season.

The other problem is with an odd number of teams in each league, you are also then forced to have an interleague series all year long. I don’t really have an inherent problem with this, and this could be easily solved by not having anyone switch leagues. (Though, if you asked me, I would say the Brewers should switch back to the AL.)

Of course, is there any room for realignment and keeping divisions? Sure. Unfortunately, the ideal solution would be for each league to have 18 teams so each division could have 6 teams, but further expansion is almost certainly not on the table. I have some other ideas, that would probably involve massive league switching, but I think if more than one team switches league that also raises the taboo discussion of the designed hitter. Otherwise, we’re just talking about trivial fixes, like having the Pirates switch to the NL East so they’re in the same division as Phillies.

So what’s going to happen? Well, nothing probably. But baseball fans love to talk about this stuff, and it makes for an interesting discussion as we try to predict what baseball will look like in the future.