Realignment: The AL East Quandary

Dave Cameron noted an excellent reason for favoring the elimination of divisions and unbalanced schedules, and the revamping of Major League Baseball’s playoff schedule: fairness. Eliminating a set-up that has six teams vying for the NL Central crown, and just four teams battling in the AL West, would be a welcome change.

Putting the Pirates and A’s in the same boat isn’t the only fairness improvement baseball could see with realignment. A number of writers (myself included) have noted the overwhelming challenge of having to climb over the Yankees and Red Sox every year to get to the postseason. From a purely competitive standpoint, blowing up the divisions and going to a balanced schedule would seem a major win for the Rays, Jays and Orioles.

That view ignores one key counterpoint: The three non-superpowers in the AL East see a jump in attendance and overall revenue gains from those six extra games per season against both the Yankees and Red Sox. So here’s the question: All things considered, would the Rays, Jays and O’s be better or worse off if MLB blew up the AL East and shelved unbalanced schedules?

Let’s start by doing what we do best here on FanGraphs – dig into data. Below is the average attendance for the Rays, Jays, and Orioes, and then we will compare those figures to those seen when the Yankees and Red Sox breeze into town.

We used a two-year sample of 2009 and 2010 here. Obviously larger samples could be used, but as you’ll see with the rest of this exercise, we were looking for some decent estimates more than the seventh and eighth decimal points. Also note that weekend and weekday date totals came out fairly even, and there were few extraordinary dates for the three teams vs. New York and Boston, such as a home opener, Fan Appreciation Day, or a major holiday which might dramatically skew attendance.

Tampa Bay Rays

2010 Average Attendance vs. Yankees and Red Sox: 29,005
2010 Average Attendance vs. All Other Teams: 21,316
Difference: 7,689

2009 Average Attendance vs. Yankees and Red Sox: 28,750
2009 Average Attendance vs. All Other Teams: 21,547
Difference: 7,203

Net Rays 2009-2010 Difference: 7,446

Toronto Blue Jays

2010 Average Attendance vs. Yankees and Red Sox: 26,904
2010 Average Attendance vs. All Other Teams: 16,051
Difference: 10,853

2009 Average Attendance vs. Yankees and Red Sox: 29,889
2009 Average Attendance vs. All Other Teams: 21,240
Difference: 8,649

Net Jays 2009-2010 Difference: 9,751

Baltimore Orioles

2010 Average Attendance vs. Yankees and Red Sox: 28,414
2010 Average Attendance vs. All Other Teams: 19,390
Difference: 9,024

2009 Average Attendance vs. Yankees and Red Sox: 34,009
2009 Average Attendance vs. All Other Teams: 20,056
Difference: 13,953

Net Orioles 2009-2010 Difference: 11,489

Those are some major gaps; the 2009 Orioles drew 70% more fans when playing the Yankees and Red Sox than against the rest of the American League. Read that sentence again.

Now let’s look at each of these three teams’ average ticket prices:

Rays: $19.42
Jays: $24.35
Orioles: $23.90

We’re not done yet — we still need to take a wild guess at how much a fan typically spends on food, parking, and other goods and services at each game. Every year, a company called Team Marketing Research does a terrible job of estimating these costs. Its Fan Cost Index assumes that a typical family of four will buy 80 pennants, 62 throwback Greg Vaughn jerseys, and Peter Angelos’ entire collection of Hummel figurines. While we wait for someone to come up with a more accurate gauge, we’ll be conservative and simply double the cost of a ticket to account for total revenue per customer. (Feel free to plug in your own value, we’d just like to get some broad strokes here).

Now let’s see how much each of the three teams gains when the Yankees and Red Sox come to town, vs. other clubs. We simply take the net attendance gap, multiply by twice average ticket price, then multiply by the number of annual home games vs. the Yanks and Sox (18). Here are your results:

Rays: $5.2 million
Jays: $8.5 million
Orioles: $9.9 million

Road teams do get a small cut of the gate as well, which means there’s a little added benefit when the Rays, Jays, and O’s play three extra games at Yankee Stadium and three at Fenway. Also, the Rays, Jays, and O’s may see higher television ratings for Yankees and Red Sox games than for other match-ups. Those spikes are difficult to quantify, though, as new TV deals happen once every few years, with many different factors setting the final asking price. So we’ll keep it simple and stick with the doubled home revenue figures, acknowledging that we’re likely being conservative, and yet the numbers are still quite significant.

Now let’s talk about the unbalanced schedule. Using our two-year sample of 2009 and 2010, the Yankees and Red Sox combined to produce a .590 winning percentage. Let’s use a rough estimate and figure that all the non-Yankees and Red Sox opponents that the Rays, Jays, and O’s faced came in a shade under .500 — call it .490 (again, feel free to compile all the data and respond in the comments section if you wish, we’re using rough estimates here). Replacing .590 opponents with .490 opponents in 12 games, without considering any ancillary factors, gives us about 1.2 wins — rounding down, that’s a win in the standings lost due to having to play those extra games against the league’s two big spenders. The cost of a marginal win this offseason was about $5 million, so playing 12 more games against the Yankees and the Red Sox than the rest of the league, on the most basic of levels, would require something like an extra $5 million of spending to make up for losing that win.

Other factors could also be in play. The Yankees and Red Sox perennially rank among the best offensive teams in baseball, with a particular knack for working deep counts, getting on base, and knocking starting pitchers out of a game earlier than usual. Thus you may get some cascading effects, where facing New York and Boston could put more stress on your bullpen, make top relievers potentially unavailable for future games, and even raise the risk of future injury and/or burnout. A contending Rays, Jays, or O’s team, meanwhile, might feel inclined to reshuffle their rotations when facing the Yanks or Sox, attempting to get the best starting pitching match-ups; Joe Maddon just did this for the Rays, and Tampa Bay still dropped two of three to Boston. Loading up your three aces for one series against the Yanks or Sox means you’re weakening your starting pitching choices for any series that follows. These factors are difficult to calculate with any accuracy, though they should be acknowledged.

So where does that leave us? Referring back to our revenue gain figures, the Rays wouldn’t seem to benefit much, if at all, from an unbalanced schedule, after accounting for the projected loss of 1 win and the ancillary pitching factors discussed, vs. their projected revenue gain of just over $5 million. The Jays and Orioles, on the other hand, likely come out ahead — not by a ton, but enough to pay out a decent player’s first-time arbitration award, or possibly sign the next Kyle Farnsworth.

Given these results, Jays and Orioles fans might hope divisions get eliminated, giving their teams a route to the playoffs without having to leap over the Yankees, the Red Sox, or both every year — but with MLB preserving unbalanced schedules for regional rivals (which would solve the tricky extra-travel problem that could scuttle any drastic realignment or unalignment proposal).

As for Rays fans? Root for less A-Rod, less Gonzalez, less Yankees and Red Sox, period. The current system’s just not helping you at all.

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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

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