Return of the Two-Division Format, Part 1

Before Bud Selig recently decreed that there would be no expansion to Major League Baseball’s playoff format, there had been a lot of talk about expanding the playoffs. Many reasons have been cited – adding excitement for fans, the first Wild Card was a boon for the game, etc. But in the end, the only reason that counts is money. But while adding playoff teams would be one way to make the game more money, it wouldn’t be the only way. What if baseball returned to the two division format?

Baseball fans have accepted the four playoff team per league format at this point. But when the Mets go four years without making the playoffs, or when the Cubs and White Sox have each only made twice in the last seven seasons, that is unsettling for those in charge of TV contracts. But adding a Wild Card team isn’t optimal to the current format, since adding another team means adding another round, which means one of three things: pushing the playoffs permanently into November, pushing the start of the season permanently into March or subtracting games from the regular season, none of which is a desirable option. So that leaves the stewards of the game searching for a different solution. And it is this: return to the two-division format, but with two Wild Card teams per league.

This format allows for more deserving teams to reach the postseason without adding teams to the postseason. This would give rise to the possibility that all three AL East juggernauts reaching the postseason in the same year, and as a result, the competing teams would need to really step up their game to try and if not compete, give their fan base that coveted hope and faith. But moreover, the three-division format has lowered the bar for playoff entry. In 11 of the 15 full seasons of the three-division format, a team with less than 90 wins has been a division winner. In some years, there have been two division winners clocking in at under 90 wins. Whether or not these teams succeed in the playoffs is immaterial, since any team can win a best-of-five or best-of-seven. Moving back to a two-division format with two Wild Cards is the best way to assure that the four teams that net the golden tickets in each league truly deserved them.

So what would the renewed two-division format look like? First, let’s get in our time machines and return to that distant year of 1993:

AL East: Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Toronto

AL West: California (Los Angeles), Chicago, Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, Seattle, Texas

NL East: Chicago, Florida, Montreal (Washington), New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis

NL West: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Colorado, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco

Looking at the AL East, a simple swap of Milwaukee for Tampa Bay is all that is needed. Then in the AL, Milwaukee must now stay in the NL, as having 15 teams in both leagues would mean that one team is off every night. The AL West is even easier, as no changes are required. It’s the NL where things get a bit wonky.

There’s simply no perfect solution in the NL. You could make an argument for an 11 team NL East and a five team NL West (the same five that are there now). In my proposed alignment, Chicago, Houston and St. Louis end up in the NL West, but they all have cases to be eastern teams. In the end, there just aren’t enough slots available, so some decisions have to be made. Chicago and St. Louis slide to the west to keep their rivalry intact and to push Atlanta and Cincy into the east where they clearly belong. A purist might argue that a rivalry is a minor issue, but a pragmatist will say that all the Cardinals-Cubs Sunday night games on ESPN say otherwise. The one team who probably isn’t thrilled about this either way is Houston, but they are not real close to any teams, and it’s also difficult to make all 30 teams happy at once.

So here’s the final breakdown:

AL East: Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Tampa Bay, Toronto

AL West: Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Oakland, Seattle, Texas

NL East: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Florida, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington

NL West: Arizona, Chicago, Colorado, Houston, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Diego, San Francisco

Tomorrow we’ll go back and take a look at how this proposed division alignment and playoff format would have effected the playoff races of the past 15 years, and we’ll finish up in part three by looking ahead to how it would shape the races of 2011 and beyond.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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