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Expanding MLB Playoffs: Focus on Fairness

As Dave Allen noted this afternoon, Buster Olney reported over the weekend that Major League Baseball is considering a realignment proposal that would equalize the number of teams in each league at 15 and potentially eliminate the current divisional format completely. While I’ve been trained to believe that nearly every “improvement” MLB suggests is probably a bad idea, this actually seems like a pretty fantastic idea to me, in large part due to my desire to see increased fairness in the sport.

Right now, all four AL West teams have an inherent advantage in the chase for a playoff spot due to the size of their division, while all the NL Central teams have an inherent disadvantage. While it hasn’t manifest as a significant problem in most years (mainly thanks to the ineptitude of the Pittsburgh Pirates), there’s just no way around the fact that the NL Central teams have to beat out five opponents to win the division while the AL West teams only have to beat out three. A smaller pool of competitors simply makes it easier to make the playoffs, and it’s hard for me to come up with a good reason why some teams should have an easier path (structurally, if not always in practicality) to a division title than another.

Getting rid of the divisions entirely eliminates that problem, and while it may not have been the intention, it also creates the other massive inequity in baseball right now – the fact that the Blue Jays, Rays, and Orioles have to overcome baseball’s two behemoths to make the playoffs. While baseball is cyclical and I’d generally suggest against creating rules that react to current organizational strengths and weaknesses, it is a reality that the Yankees and Red Sox have long term, sustainable advantages over the rest of baseball. Their markets and their history have given them the ability to generate large amounts of revenue, and they use that revenue to build rosters that other organizations simply could not afford.

By eliminating the divisions, Toronto and Tampa Bay would then only be tasked with beating out the rest of the American League, rather than having to leapfrog one of baseball’s two giants. Additionally, in seasons where all four of those teams might be among the five best in the AL, each of them could potentially be rewarded with a playoff berth, and I hope we’d all agree that an ideal world would allow the best teams in each season to make the playoffs.

Increased equity in these areas make this plan have significant appeal to me. Objections over things like an interleague game every day (who cares?) or maintaining traditional division races (when maintaining the status quo prevents legitimate improvement, tradition is a problem, not an asset) are not things I’d be overly concerned about. To me, the positives outweigh those downsides. However, there is one very real issue with the no division plan that would have to be worked out – the schedule.

With no divisions, and everyone competing against each other, fairness almost demands a balanced schedule, where all teams play the same opponents the same number of times. Without a balanced schedule, you’ve made playoff spots more achievable for some teams, but still give teams unequal paths to the goal. A balanced schedule would eliminate these inequalities, but also creates some real problems, and ones that I’m not quite as eager to accept.

1. More games out of the same time zone. It simply isn’t that much fun to be a fan of a team on one coast that plays their games on the other coast, and it’s not an efficient revenue model for teams or networks either. Ratings for 10 pm starts of east coast teams on west coast road trips are lower, and likewise, when west coast teams head east, the games start before people get home from work. Decreasing the number of fans who can actually watch games is not in baseball’s best interests.

2. In an effort to increase fairness with a balanced schedule, we decrease the equity in terms of travel for the teams on each coast. It’s simply harder to fly from San Diego to Boston than it is to fly from Chicago to either city. Perhaps we can argue that the teams on the coasts already have built-in advantages due to the population migration in the U.S., but we at least have to acknowledge that teams in the corners of the country would have to spend a lot more times on airplanes than the teams in the middle of the country.

3. We also have to keep in mind that for the players, this is their job. How many of us would like it if our job suddenly decided that we needed to be away from home more often, and that we weren’t going to get any kind of extra compensation to offset the increased travel? Perhaps we’d just be thankful we still had a job in this economy, and I realize that drumming up sympathy for well off Major League players isn’t exactly going to be an easy task, but I don’t think we can overlook the fact that a balanced schedule probably makes their life more difficult.

Do these costs outweigh the benefit of the increased fairness of a no-division plan where the best teams made the playoffs more often? I don’t think so. While I haven’t digested all of the factors involved with adopting this plan, I still think the benefits would be worth it.