Return Of The Two-Division Format, Part 3

If you missed the first two parts, you can find them here and here. One quick clarification on scheduling from those first two pieces – I don’t think going back and resimulating seasons would be fair. It would be impossible to simulate added tension for games that may have taken on added importance thanks to different division rivalries. Pitching matchups may have changed based on the situation, guys that didn’t play hurt may have done so, etc. Furthermore, as one commenter pointed out, travel situations and other extraneous factors would change drastically as well. It is for this reason that I chose not to resimulate season results – there’s just no way to control for those variables. As for determining an optimal 162-game schedule, it’s clear that from the passion of the commenters and the complexity of the issue that that is a subject that deserves its own post at a later date.

Back to the topic at hand – what would the baseball landscape look like if each league went back to two divisions? Here’s how I laid out the new divisions in Part 1:

American League			National League
East		West		East		West
Baltimore	Chicago		Atlanta		Arizona
Boston		Kansas City	Cincinnati	Chicago
Cleveland	Los Angeles	Florida		Colorado	
Detroit		Minnesota	Milwaukee	Houston
New York	Oakland		New York	Los Angeles	
Tampa		Seattle		Philadelphia	San Diego
Toronto		Texas		Pittsburgh	San Francisco
				Washington	St. Louis

Looking at the list, some winners and losers stick out. The biggest losers appear to be Cleveland and Detroit, who would now have to play with the big boys in the AL East. Detroit’s payroll is in the deep end of the pool, so they wouldn’t necessarily be hard-up from a financial standpoint. But as Jonah Keri noted yesterday, their roster is a little rough around the edges, and in the AL East, you have to be running on all cylinders. Cleveland is even worse off, as despite the success of their Snow Days program, they do not have the payroll luxury that the Tigers do. As their farm system starts to produce, they can emulate Tampa’s battle plan, but that may be a year or two coming.

The Dodgers are another loser. In the past, the Dodgers could always rely on being able to outspend their competition. But if it wasn’t bad enough that bitter rival San Francisco now has World Series hardware, they have also evaporated the Dodgers payroll edge. Exacerbating that in the new NL West would be the Cubs and Cardinals, and perhaps Houston as well, depending on who Drayton McClane sells the team to.

From a travel standpoint, the biggest losers are the two Chicago teams. Each add over 800 miles to their average travel distance among division opponents, both more than triple their current averages. This is a trend that holds for many of the teams in the new western divisions. While the eastern teams are for the most part unaffected, the western teams almost universally see large increases in travel. In fact, the Cardinals, Dodgers, Padres, and Twins would more than double their average travel distance to division opponents.

Of course, not every team would be a loser when it comes to travel. The Rangers make out like bandits, as they would cut their average travel distance to division opponents by more than 25 percent. Another team that could see 25 percent sliced off their average is the Pirates, who would derive a tremendous benefit from swapping out Houston for cross-state Philadelphia. Finally, adding Cleveland and Detroit to Toronto’s mix would help the Blue Jays lop off more than 20 percent of their average.

Also coming out nicely would be the Mets and the Phillies. While three teams are added to the NL East, none of their payrolls are likely to compete with either of the northeast squads. In fact, the combined 2010 Opening Day payrolls of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh did not equal the payrolls of either the Mets or the Phillies.

But the real winners here are baseball fans, especially fans of western division teams. Will they have to stay up later a bit more frequently? Probably, but it will be worth it. The AL West was the only division whose champion won at least 90 games every year of the past decade. To that mix, they would add the two best AL Central teams from the Aught’s, as well as the team that currently boasts one of, if not the best, farm systems in the game in Kansas City. Looking to the immediate future, a monster pennant race between the A’s, Rangers, Twins and White Sox would be on the menu for 2011. On the senior circuit, a Cardinals-Giants-Rockies three-horse race would evolve in 2011. But with the Padres making good strides, the hope that the front offices for the Cubs and Dodgers will soon be running smoothly, it could be possible to see a six-team race every season.

In any given season, a leader is capable of jumping out in front of the pack and running away with a pennant, and that will happen whether there are five, six, seven or eight teams per division. But combing through past season standings on baseball-reference, it is clear to me that in those other years the chance for magical pennant races is there. Moving from three divisions back to two will heighten the potential for such great pennant races and make sure that more deserving teams reach the postseason at the same time. If managed properly – creating a flex option for national telecasts would be a good place to start – September could draw a much bigger audience for the game, help it steal back some of the spotlight from the NFL and position October as must see TV for the entire country once again.

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Paul Swydan is the co-managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for ESPN Insider. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

37 Responses to “Return Of The Two-Division Format, Part 3”

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  1. Kevin S. says:

    It’s been eleven seasons since an AL East champion failed to win 90 games – the ’00 Yanks. If you meant the Aughts, fine, but since you said the past decade, I can only presume you meant the previous ten years.

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  2. Dash says:

    Why not just get rid of any divisions and simply have 3 wild cards for each league? You could simply get rid of both leagues, too and have 7 wild cards.

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    • Dann M. says:

      The no-divisions thing could work. But to do away with the two leagues would be to disregard way too much history. Furthermore, it would take a lot of time for fans to get used to the idea that 18 games out of first place in mid-July doesn’t necessarily mean a lost season. Also, there would be the touchy DH issue. The players would not be interested in sacrificing the DH spot, while there are currently more teams without a DH than with one (16 to 14).

      I also think that a 16-team or 14-team standings list would be a little much, especially without something like the NHL’s point system or an NHL/NBA-like expanded playoff. Unless you want to start cutting weeks off the regular season and maybe handing out 2 points for a win and 1 for losing in extras (no, I don’t want this. Just a thought.), then you almost need to have 2 divisions in each league. Yes, contraction to 28 or expansion to 32 would be ideal, but it’s difficult to find 2 markets that can support a franchise and make a TV deal work without impinging on existing market agreements.

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      • notsellingjeans says:

        I think your last point is the most relevant one on this issue. To me, it makes little sense to re-align divisions until the stadium situations of Tampa Bay and Oakland are settled. There is a very slim chance (1%?) that those two franchises are either relocated or contracted in the next few years. You’d hate to shuffle the entire league only to need another reshuffling again just a few years later.

        Once those two franchises reach some finality one way or another (new facility), that’s the time to revisit the divisions.

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      • Al Dimond says:

        This is sort of off-topic, but the NHL’s “2 points for a win and one for an overtime loss” is just unbelievably stupid. It provides an obvious incentive to play for a tie. It amazes me that they came up with this when various soccer leagues have done it right for years — tie games are worth *fewer* total points, not more.

        Anyway, I’m not sure how a points system or a long playoffs improves the appearance of really large divisions. I think fans will adjust to whatever scheme the league comes up with. All we really want is to cheer for someone.

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      • AJS says:

        Actually, the NHL brought in the “2 points for a win and 1 for an overtime loss” to have teams avoid playing for the tie once in overtime. Prior to that rule, the thinking went, teams were reluctant to go out all out once in overtime, for fear of ending up with no points at all. To that end, it was slightly effective at increasing the quality of play in overtime (before the NHL eliminated the tie entirely).

        But you’re right, since the NHL has eliminated the tie (meaning one team gets two points in every game) — giving one point for an OT loss does incentivize playing to get to OT rather than winning in regulation.

        What the NHL should do is switch to a system that awards 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an OT win and 1 point for an OT loss. It’s likely fewer games would go to OT.


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  3. Luke in MN says:

    You are sacrificing the really excellent geographic compactness of the current arrangement. The East and Central divisions are basically as compact as possible. The West divisions are not compact, but the teams are simply spread so far apart that to the extent they’re close to anyone, they’re close to each other. You mention some winners and losers travel-wise, but I suspect if you quantified the total result, your new system would result in massive overall travel increases.

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  4. baty says:

    I’m still not understanding why we would consider this, if we can only have irregularly sized leagues and divisions. It just doesn’t present the same balance and beauty of everything else we experience in the game. I like quirkiness, but using it to develop a league and divisional structure, looks and feels unsettling.

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  5. Dann M. says:

    One change I’d make to your realignment is to swap Houston and Milwaukee. The Cubs and Brewers have managed to put together a really nice rivalry since the league change, and the 90-minute commute between the two cities can only be a good thing.

    Houston, likewise, would benefit from the change. They are no closer to those Western Division teams (less Arizona) than are the Cards, Cubs or Brewers. But being right on the Gulf Coast puts them in decent proximity to the Braves, Marlins and Reds.

    Another possibility could see teams move to the American League. Wouldn’t it make a lot of sense for the Rockies, for example, to move to the DH league? Swap them outright for the Mariners. Or make the AL the 16-team league with the Rockies and Marlins (would anyone in Miami notice? didn’t think so). Milwaukee took to the NL pretty quick, in regards to both franchise and fan base. So the Rox and Fish could pull it off.

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    • phoenix2042 says:

      both florida teams cannot be in the same league. otherwise, i like the idea of switching 2 teams to the AL.

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    • Paul Swydan says:

      Cut out an answer to this right at the last minute. I went back and looked at this after the comment in part 1 – by air miles it does work out better for Houston to be west and Milwaukee east. Leaving everything else as is and swapping out Houston and Milwaukee, here’s what you get:

      Avg travel distance to division opponents:
      Houston (in east): 1079 miles
      Houston (in west): 1118

      Milwaukee (in east): 683 miles
      Milwaukee (in west):1156

      In addition, with Houston in the East, the other East teams end up traveling a net average of 436 more miles. I’m certainly sympathetic to the argument of keeping Milwaukee with the Cubs and Cards from a rivalry perspective, but from a travel standpoint – at least in a Houston vs Milwaukee scope – it’s tougher to justify.

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    • RogPodge says:

      Most fans of NL teams hate the dh. I don’t think you’ll find any teams that are willing to move to the AL.

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  6. Barkey Walker says:

    The W-L record thing is a pretty big deal. As an example, power rankings say the Blue Jays could win maybe 1/2 of the titles the AL Central, but the W-L record says they are not as good.

    Assuming records would not change is a much bigger assumption than the ones you mention above as not wanting to start into.

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  7. Kevin says:

    How about forgetting about geographical division and go with historical divisions?

    8 Original NL teams
    8 Expansion NL teams (including Milwaukee)
    8 Original AL teams
    6 Expansion AL teams plus 2 new franchises

    Or send Milwaukee back to the AL and add 1 new team to each league.

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  8. richwp01 says:

    I like the idea of two divisions in each league. I would definitely be a supporter. Two more teams would help with the divisions. I know it is not right now, but I could see baseball adding two more teams eventually. I do not know where but it should happen eventually.

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    • Al Dimond says:

      MLB could add two teams like this: put the first in New York, and the second in New York. I mean, generally, within the metro area/media market thing. Yeah, that’s exactly what they can’t do given current contracts, but… it makes 8000 times more sense than having another Tampa situation in Portland/OKC/San Antonio/whatever.

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      • phoenix2042 says:

        4 new york teams? yea, I don’t think so…

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      • JPM says:

        4 seems to be too much. 3 seems good though; there were three for 50+ years. (If there were another expansion, which I’m not necessarily in favor of) I’d probably put one in the NYC area (maybe NJ) and the other somewhere else. San Antonio might make sense. Vegas maybe? Open to suggestions…

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  9. Newton says:

    Back to the Basics:

    Two leagues;
    No divisions;
    Balanced Schedules;
    No Interleague;
    Top 4 teams make the playoffs from each league.

    With respect to the extra dates required for the additional playoff round:
    Start the regular season in late March (spring training is far too long), remove extra off-days in the playoff series (which mitigate the value of pitching depth) and the WS is still done before the end of October.

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  10. phoenix2042 says:

    i feel sorry for the indians in that division… oh my they get screwed. also good luck to the brewers with their all in strategy in 2011 if they have to contend with the phillies, braves, mets, reds…

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  11. Tigerdog says:

    When they first divided up the leagues into divisions, they basically took the five best teams and put them in the East, and the five worst and put them in the West, based on the standings in 1968. It was a lopsided split then and it only evened out a few seasons since then until they did the three way split.

    Any realignment should really load the big spenders into one division to make it feasible for smaller market teams to compete on a money scale. Either that, or take all revenue from all sources and split it up evenly, and that ain’t gonna happen.

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  12. RaymanSK says:

    I think that:
    30 teams are the right number; 30 are not too much (remember that even NBA and NHL who are in worse revenue situation with some teams, New Orleans in NBA and Phoenix in NHL, in serious financial troubles, have 30 teams), not too less (you have to find 2 markets).
    if MLB decides to expand to 32 teams I think that MLB should look to cities who don’t have pro sports and where MLB can be the “main event”; an example Omaha, where there’s a 25000 seat ballpark expandable to 35000, who support well college sports (Creighton in NCAA basketball, College World Series) and where’s a fast-growing economy without any pro sports. Another example can be the Hampton Roads area.
    A comeback to the two divisions can be interesting but I think that the MLB history of focusing on pennant races will not permit it.
    Another interesting way to change the format to improve equity and fan support can be:
    get rid of West, Central, East divisions.
    go to Alpha, Beta, Gamma division with seeding:
    1, 6, 7, 12, 13 in Alpha
    2, 5, 8, 11, 14 in Beta
    3, 4, 9, 10, (15), (16) in Gamma
    1 is the pennant champion
    2 is the loser of Championship Series
    3 and 4 are the losers of Division Series
    5 and below are ranked on the previous season W-L record.
    The calendar is scheduled considering West, Central, East divisions like these years, to reduce timetravel and costs and to continue to have many games between rival teams (Yankees vs Sox, Cubs vs Cardinals etc.).

    2011 MLB season with this format will look:
    Alpha Division
    Texas, Chicago White Sox, Toronto, Kansas City, Baltimore
    Beta Division
    New York Yankees, Boston, Oakland, Cleveland, Seattle
    Gamma Division
    Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Detroit, Los Angeles Angels
    Alpha Division
    San Francisco, Saint Louis, Colorado, Milwaukee, Houston
    Beta Division
    Philadelphia, San Diego, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, Washington
    Gamma Division
    Cincinnati, Atlanta, Los Angeles Dodgers, Florida, Arizona, Pittsburgh

    I don’t have an opinion about Interleague because I don’t know how much baseball fans of the USA like to see Interleague games.

    Cheers from Italy by a baseball fan (too few here).

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  13. jac says:

    I don’t support this at all, as it seems like the main point of the author is to get more big market teams into the playoffs, which may be good for MLB executives, but not for fans of small market teams.

    That said, if baseball were going to go to 4 divisions (2 in each league) it would be best to get rid of the leagues and just go straight regional.

    South: ATL, FLA, TAM, HOU, TEX, KC, STL
    North: MIN, PIT, CIN, CHI, CHI, DET, MIL
    West: SEA, OAK, SF, LAD, LAA, SD, ARI, COL

    I’d just take the best two from each, since I don’t think it should be about making money for tee vee execs, I think the goal should be to keep the whole country involved in baseball. The millions of dollars will be there.

    This would lead to much better rivalries, much more regional pride, and much easier travel. Plus it would get rid of interleague, which is silly.

    I would run the playoffs like the Elite 8, with seeding based on regular season record.

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  14. Terence says:

    I keep hearing from Milwaukee fans about how they think it would make sense for them to in the new NL West because of their rivalries with the Cubs and Cardinals, and for Houston to go to the east. With all due respect to the Milwaukee franchise, the Astros also have a rivalry with the Cubs and Cardinals, and have actually been involved in divisional playoff races with these teams. Since coming to the NL, 2007 is the only season when Milawaukee played meaning games against these teams in September falling two games short of the Cubs.

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    • RaymanSK says:

      As a Milwaukee fan, I can say that Astros can have easy travels to Atlanta and Miami and can begin a rivalry with these two franchises.

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  15. Marver says:

    “Moving from three divisions back to two will heighten the potential for such great pennant races”

    I don’t see how this is proven. It may increase the odds of a given division having a great race, but it does not increase the overall number of great races in baseball. In fact, I’d argue it increases the odds that the whole of MLB does NOT have a great race in a given season, since the existence of juggernaut team(s) would eliminate 1.5 division races in comparison to 1 in the current format.

    Either explicitly show this as true through mathematics — I don’t think it is — or don’t use this as part of the argument, because it cheapens the article, IMO.

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  16. Sox2727 says:

    This idea of going to a 2 division format is really avoiding the true issue, which is the huge spending by big market teams (NYY, BOS, NYM, PHI, CHW, CHC, DET, LAA, LAD). This “plan” to help shape a competitive balance and give more teams the opportunity to reach the playoffs simply will not work until there is a salary cap. Until the playing field is leveled and teams like the Yankees and Red Sox can’t spend more on their infield than the Royals and Padres spend on their entire teams, the concept of going back to a 2 division format is simply a pointless discussion.

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    • JeremyR says:

      What they should do in the AL is simply put the Red-Sox and Yankees in a division all of their own. That way they can make ESPN happy and play each other almost every night. And one would always win the division.

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    • RogPodge says:

      I agree. The NFL really took off in popularity when they instituted a salary cap and every team had a reasonable chance of making the playoffs. While the MLB has had many different champions, the teams that make the playoffs are usually 3 big-spenders and one team that had all of their young, cheap, team-controlled talent peak at the same time.

      When I talk to people who aren’t baseball fans but are fans of other sports, the most common reason for why they can’t get into baseball is because they feel like teams are playing with a stacked deck.

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  17. bpdelia says:

    My problem with the whole thing is that no matter what you do the top 3 teams will be pretty much locked in and therefore will cruise to the end. Because there isn’t enough of an advantage in one extra playoff game at home.

    My idea is that because baseball is different (plays 162) we have a league that does a great job separating the wheat from the chaff. That 162 game season should mean more.

    In my opinion the #1 seed playoff team should get 4 games at home. in the first round. That would keep teams playing until the end. Now to advance to the ALCS the #4 see would need to at least win 3 of 4 in the #1 seeds stadium. SO now the difference between being a one seed and a four seed is huge. Likewise the difference between being one and 2 is huge. Teams will play hard to get that one seed, and they will play hard to avoid the four, and it does a better job making 162 mean something.

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  18. RogPodge says:

    A switch back to a 2-division format doesn’t make good business sense.

    1) Decreasing television revenue for cst and pst teams due to playing away games two hours later or earlier with greater frequency
    2) An overall fall in fan support for western division teams due to such a widely varying schedule.
    3) The high likelihood that the AL East will produce both wildcard teams and the very low likelihood that the AL West will
    4) The potential for regional decline in league support due to the previous factors

    I think it’s a given that teams have lower ratings the further away the start time is from that of their home game. On the second point, the more often that a casual fan just checks to see if there’s a game on now and finds that it’s already half over or that it hasn’t started yet, they are likely to “check if a game is on” less frequently and generally be less invested in their team. I think the third point is a given, considering the differences in wealth between the AL East and AL West teams and the author’s analysis.

    These things disproportionately affect teams in the Western divisions whose teams are located in the south and southwest – the fastest growing regions of the country. These are also the markets with the most appealing demographics for expansion (not with more teams, but in market penetration). The people there are young and of hispanic descent. It would be foolish to weaken the MLB in Chicago, LA, Texas and the west coast just because, occasionally, an 86 win team makes the playoffs while an 89 win team does not.

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    • AJS says:

      I’m not sure cities with lots of people of Hispanic descent are actually the best place for MLB to expand. It seems they have relatively low MLB attendance compared to other cities.

      The Los Angeles MSA is 44% Hispanic, based on 2009 Census data, and LA teams were 3rd and 5th in average home attendance in 2010. But I’d argue LA is big enough (nearly 13 million people) that it can fill a ballpark (or two) regardless.

      So taking LA as an outlier, here are the next five MLB markets based on the percentage of people identifying as Spanish in the MSA, and their 2010 attendance rank.

      Miami (40% Hispanic, 28th in attendance)
      Houston (34%, 16th)
      Phoenix (32%, 21st)
      San Diego (31%, 18th)
      Dallas (28%, 14th)

      That would give me pause about expanding into a place like San Antonio. Also, while SA supports the Spurs, adding another team would bring it down to just 1 million people per team. Meantime, Omaha has no teams, so adding a team there would bring it to about 850,000 people per team. Not a huge difference. I think a more affluent and, yes, whiter, area like Omaha is actually where MLB should be looking. Population growth doesn’t necessarily equal revenue.

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      • RogPodge says:

        I wasn’t suggesting that the league should add new teams. I was arguing that the league should be careful about alienating fans from those regions because they offer the best opportunities to increase league-wide revenue. The way the population is migrating in the US is likely to decrease popularity and revenue for teams in the north east and industrial midwest while increasing it in the south and southwest. As these areas become “home” to new residents and their kids, teams like the Rangers, Astros, Padres and Diamondbacks in high growth regions will have their wealth relative to the rest of the league increase. It will be more difficult for people to build up their loyalty to these teams if the league switched to a 2-division format and it would depress long term growth for the league.

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