Return of the Two-Divison Format, Part 2

Yesterday in Part 1, we set out to see what the MLB landscape would look like if the current three-division format was scrapped in favor of the old two-division ways, but with two Wild Card teams instead of one. Today, we go back to 1996 and view the playoff races in the past 15 years through this lens, and it turns out that one-third of the playoff races were affected.

In the proposed new format, 10 different teams would have reached the postseason – nine new Wild Card teams, and one new division winner (the 2000 Cleveland Indians). It would break down as follows:

American League
Year	Team That Made It	Team That Would Have Made It
2000 	NY Yankees		Cleveland
2003	Minnesota		Seattle
2008	Chicago White Sox	NY Yankees
2009	Minnesota		Texas

National League
Year	Team That Made It	Team That Would Have Made It
1996	St. Louis		Montreal or St. Louis
1997	Houston		        LA Dodgers or NY Mets
2005	San Diego		Philadelphia
2006	St. Louis		Philadelphia
2007	Chicago Cubs		San Diego
2008	LA Dodgers		NY Mets

You’ll notice that only two of these scenarios involve the AL East, and that seven of the teams bounced reside in the Central divisions. You’ll also notice that in eight of the ten cases, a team from a larger market would have reached the postseason, giving rise to the possibility of higher playoff ratings. If you would like to make the case that even though the city is smaller, it’s baseball-viewing population would have been higher, you could put St. Louis over Montreal and bump that down to seven of 10 (sorry Jonah). But the Expos wouldn’t have necessarily made the postseason in 1996 over St. Louis, because the two would have needed to play a tiebreaker game.

Scheduling would have undoubtedly been a little different, but that is getting away from the point. Certainly, there are extreme examples, like the 2010 Cincinnati Reds, who punched their postseason ticket by beating up on their fluffiest competition, but since we have no way of knowing how teams would have responded to a different schedule we’ll assume the teams would have compiled the same records for our purposes here.

Looking at winning percentages, we find that the winning percentage of the group that in reality made the playoffs was .530, with a Pythagorean winning percentage of .529. The teams that would have made it fared much better, at .546 and .551, respectively. But while the new system rewards the better teams, each team is still capable of winning a pennant. In the past 15 years, 21 of the 30 teams have won their division at least once. In the new format, it’s still a robust 20 of 30 teams, with the only team excluded being those 2010 Reds.

It appears that the drama of a pennant race would be positively affected as well. For instance, we end up plus-one on tiebreaker games. Still happening are the 1998 Cubs-Giants, and 1999 Mets-Reds games, but no longer necessary are the more recent vintages: 2007 Rockies-Padres, 2008 White Sox-Twins and 2009 Twins-Tigers (losing that Rockies-Padres game is a downer personally, as that is the most exciting baseball game I’ve ever attended). However, we are also adding two tiebreakers – 1996 Cardinals-Expos and 1997 Dodgers-Mets. Furthermore, there is evidence that some teams that didn’t make it may have had a little more incentive down the stretch.

The 2006 Chicago White Sox finished with 90 wins, but still comfortably behind the 95-win Tigers and 96-win Twins. In the new system, it would have been unlikely, but still possible, for them to have come roaring back to take a playoff seed. Or how about the 2008 Blue Jays? They finished a distant fourth place, and in the old system they would have known that it was an unattainable second place or bust, and they played as such, harmlessly dropping five of their last seven to the playoff-bound Red Sox. In the new system, perhaps they would have fought harder and earned a playoff berth of their own. And just look at how the 2004 NL West would have shaped up:

Team		W-L
St. Louis	105-57
Los Angeles	93-69
Houston	        92-70
San Francisco	91-71
Chicago	        89-73
San Diego	87-75
Arizona	        68-94
Colorado	51-111

Arizona and Colorado have no hope no matter what division they’re in, and St. Louis walks away with the pennant easily. But there’s a four-team scrum for second and third place, with San Diego still kind-of-sort-of in the mix as well. That’s pretty exciting.

Of course, no system is perfect, and if there’s one team the system would screw, it has to be the formerly tortured Giants, right? The proposed NL West would have been incredibly strong in 2001, with the 93-win Astros taking the pennant, and the 93-win Cardinals and 92-win D’Backs nabbing the two Wild Card spots, leaving the 90-win Giants to whine that the 88-win Braves (again with the Braves!) didn’t deserve their NL East crown.

I’ll be back after the weekend to respond to prognosticate about how things would look in 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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