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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.