Foreseeing the Unforeseen Consequences of Baseball Realignment

The most recent proposal for realigning Major League Baseball, which seems to be getting some serious attention would be to switch one team from the NL to the AL, so that each league would have fifteen teams, and to eliminate divisions altogether. Under this new system, the top five teams from each league would make the playoffs. Presumably the fourth and fifth teams would then play each other to see who makes it to the next round in each league.

The immediate problem that comes to mind with this system would be that on any given day, or night, at least one team from each league would be involved in an inter-league game. This problem, however, seems more superficial than substantive. The difference between having inter-league play occur in a two or three different periods during the season, and sprinkling it around the season, is negligible. A related problem is that it is possible that a team stuck in a tight race for the fifth playoff spot or even the top seed could find itself playing a team from the other league during the last weekend of the season. Although this makes for a less dramatic finish to the season, it is not meaningfully different from a contending team playing a weaker team from its own league during the last weekend of the season, which happens with some frequency now.

The advantages of this new alignment are clear as well. It would eliminate the current discrepancies between divisions as currently the NL Central has six teams while the AL West has only four teams. Obviously, it is easier to win a four team division than a six team division. Under the new system in which the five best teams from each league would go to the playoffs, the relative strengths and sizes of divisions would be non-issue.

If this structure is created, it is likely that in a few years many will be concerned about “unforeseen” consequences. Before that happens, it might be useful to try to foresee some of these consequences now. There is one minor foreseeable consequence to this new alignment which is that teams will no longer play unbalanced schedules. Thus, each team would probably end up playing roughly 10-20 interleague games and 10-11 games against each team in their league.

One result of this is that traditional rivalries would suffer. Currently, the Giants and Dodgers, or Yankees and Red Sox play each other 18 times or so a season. These games are all intense, mostly sold out, often very important, and always extremely exciting for the fans. Eliminating divisions means fewer of these games and all that goes with them. It also means that new rivalries will not easily develop. If, as has been discussed, the Astros switch to the AL, they will only play the Rangers about 10 times a year, making it tougher for a Texas based rivalry to evolve.

The second, and probably more serious, impact of the new structure is that it would tilt the competitive balance even more in favor of the biggest market and wealthiest franchises. With no playoff spots guaranteed for teams in divisions, like the AL Central, where there are no big market teams, it will be even tougher smaller market teams to make the playoffs. Teams like the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians or San Francisco Giants would have to finish in the top five in their leagues while playing more games against the Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox etc., and fewer games against weaker teams in their own division.

Another potential consequence is that fans of weaker teams would feel even less interest as losing seasons piled up. In the current system, particularly in the weaker divisions, teams can stay in contention for months, but if there was one fifteen team league, teams playing .450 ball by June 1st would probably be in 8th or 9th place already. Similarly, and perhaps mostly because of the way it sounds, a string of 12th or 13th place finishes could damage any team’s fan base.

Any proposal to restructure MLB is going to have its problems, just as the current system does, but it is foolish to move forward too quickly without thinking through these problems in advance. If baseball is comfortable creating a system that is, in some respects, more fair each season, but which further institutionalizes the advantages enjoyed by wealthy teams, that is not an unreasonable decision. On the other hand, rushing ahead with this new system and then feeling shocked and surprised when the Yankees and Red Sox are both in the playoffs for each of the first few years and that teams finishing 13th, 14th or 15th are hemorrhaging fans, would evince an appalling lack of foresight on the part of Major League Baseball.