Lessons in League Switching

The Houston Astros chugged on over to the American League last season (via Brian Reading).

The Houston Astros chugged on over to the American League last season (via Brian Reading).

In 2013, the Houston Astros became the second team in modern major league history to switch leagues, jumping from the NL Central to the AL West en route to a major league-worst 51-111 season. Of course, the Astros were supposed to be terrible — they’re not even supposed to be here today, man — given that they had the lowest payroll in the majors in 2013 and the worst record in the majors in both 2011 and 2012. But how much did their league-switching contribute to their failure? And what does their experience have to teach, in the event that Major League Baseball ever considers making a team switch leagues again?

The modern history of league-switching begins with the 1998 Milwaukee Brewers, who moved from the AL Central to the NL Central. Their move combined with the 1998 expansion to create an imbalance: Four of the six divisions in baseball had five teams, one had six teams, and one had four teams. But divisional imbalance was actually nothing new. Here’s a table showing the number of teams in each of baseball’s divisions, by era:

Teams per division, league
Lg/Div 1901-1960 1961 1962-1968 1969-1976 1977-1992 1993 1994-1997 1998-2012 2013
NL 8 8 10 12 12 14 14 16 15
East 6 6 7 5 5 5
West 6 6 7 4 5 5
Central 5 6 5
AL 8 10 10 12 14 14 14 14 15
East 6 7 7 5 5 5
West 6 7 7 4 4 5
Central 5 5 5

All that shifting around was necessitated by expansion, which has occurred six times in the last century, adding 14 new teams.

  • 1961 Two new AL teams: the Angels and the Senators (the old Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961 to become the Twins; these new Senators would move to Texas in 1972 to become the Rangers)
  • 1962 Two new NL teams: the Mets and Colt .45′s (who later became the Astros)
  • 1969 Two new NL teams and two new AL teams: the Padres and Expos (who later became the Washington Nationals), and the Royals and Pilots (who later became the Milwaukee Brewers)
  • 1977 Two new AL teams: the Blue Jays and Mariners
  • 1993 Two new NL teams: the Marlins and Rockies
  • 1998 One new NL team and one new AL team: the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays (who later became the Rays)

Prior to the Astros’ move, baseball hadn’t had the same number of teams in each of its divisions since 1977 — with the exception of a single year, 1993. But when the Astros switched leagues, there was an added wrinkle. For the first time in major league history, when the Astros switched leagues to produce a balance, it put an odd number of teams in each league. Therefore, an interleague game needed to be scheduled nearly every day.

When the leagues expanded to three divisions in 1994, 10 teams moved into newly created Central divisions, and the Atlanta Braves moved from the NL West to the NL East. Then, in 1998, the Detroit Tigers moved from the AL East to the AL Central, to make room in the East for the incoming Devil Rays and make up for the departure of the Brewers in the Central. These divisional switches are not exactly akin to league switching, but we will examine them in greater detail below, because they provide a richer data set than the single example of the Brewers’ league switch.

However, first, we must understand what prompted a step as drastic as forcing a team to switch leagues.

When the Brewers moved to the National League in 1998, it was a sort of homecoming if you squinted. Before the Brewers came to Milwaukee in 1970, Milwaukee had been a National League town. The city was home to the Milwaukee Braves from 1953 to 1965, and before that, from 1947-1952, it was home to the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate, which was also known as the Brewers.

Bud Selig came to prominence in baseball through his lobbying for a baseball team in Milwaukee to replace the departed Braves. He finally succeeded when he bought the expansion Seattle Pilots — they had gone bankrupt in their only year of existence in the major leagues, 1969 — and moved them to Milwaukee.

Selig became acting commissioner of baseball in 1992, but he remained the owner of the Brewers until 1998, when he formally transferred control of the team to his daughter as he assumed the formal title of commissioner of baseball. The Brewers moved in the same season. (The team stayed in his family, and many of the shares stayed in his name, until 2005, when a group led by Mark Attanasio purchased the team. At the time of the sale, Selig owned a large portion of the Brewers, and, on behalf of Major League Baseball, owned a part of the Montreal Expos as well.)

Selig may have been willing to move the Brewers as a way of demonstrating that he would not show them any favoritism during his tenure as commissioner. Back in 1996, baseball explored a much more radical realignment, as an owners’ committee proposed that 15 of baseball’s teams switch leagues — Western teams in one league, Eastern teams in another. Other owners strongly objected, until the owners agreed that only one team would switch leagues: either the Royals or the Brewers.

But the Royals were unwilling, and the AP reported a poll showing that 75 percent of Milwaukee fans supported the move to the National League. Selig said, “We view this as coming home.”

Warm feelings didn’t extend to the most recent realigment. In 2011, baseball’s labor agreement was getting ready to expire, and the players union felt that the unequal number of teams in the AL West and NL Central was deeply unfair. So they began to demand a realignment.

“It’s the union that is viewed as the driving force behind the idea of two 15-team leagues,” Buster Olney wrote for ESPN. “The players want this to happen.” Two teams were considered for a move to the AL West: the Houston Astros and the Arizona Diamondbacks. A third, even more radical possibility was also considered: getting rid of all divisions and sending the five winningest teams in each league to the playoffs.

But baseball generally believes in evolution, not revolution. Switching the Astros into the AL West involved the fewest number of moving parts, and it was also where baseball had the greatest leverage: Astros owner Drayton McLane was selling the team, and Houston businessman Jim Crane had a deal in place to buy it for $680 million.

But the sale could not go through without approval from Major League Baseball. So Selig chose the strong-arm approach, making Houston’s switch to the AL a condition for league approval of the sale. The city had no previous association with the American League; prior to the establishment of the Colt .45′s/Astros, the minor league Houston Buffaloes were associated with the Cardinals and later the Cubs. However, the AL West did contain one advantage for the Astros: the presence of the Texas Rangers, a “natural rival” that also happened to be in the Central Time Zone, unlike the West Coast teams.

The presence of a new rivalry appealed to Major League Baseball. “Houston had Dallas, another team within their state that was already situated in the American League West,” league spokesman Pat Courtney said in a phone interview. “So they would have a rivalry there.”

It also appealed to the Rangers. “We’d love to have another team in our division that is in our time zone,” team president Nolan Ryan told The Dallas Morning News at the time. “I think right now, it puts us and our fans at a disadvantage when it comes to TV starting times. And, if you had the Rangers and Astros in the same division and they were both competing for the playoffs, I think it would create quite a bit of interest around Texas.”

The Astros put on a brave face, but some others were outraged. “I feel basically like the commissioner extorted Jim Crane into moving the Astros,” an outraged Lance Berkman told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. (Berkman was on the Cardinals at the time, but he played for the Astros from 1999-2010.)

So Selig worked to throw in a sweetener: Crane got a $65 million price break on the team, and diplomatically rebuked Berkman by saying, “I think it was just a business deal that got renegotiated.”

It is noteworthy that the two teams that have switched leagues are not among baseball’s most storied franchises. Of baseball’s 30 teams, eight have never won the World Series, and two of those eight have been forced to switch leagues. (Two other World Series winners, the Royals and Diamondbacks, were strongly considered for realignment, before the Brewers and Astros were chosen in their stead).

None of baseball’s original franchises, nor any of the expansion teams that have a championship in their history, have suffered the same fate.*

* Granted, several of baseball’s original franchises have switched cities, including the Giants, Dodgers, Braves and Athletics, but most of these moves occurred before the beginning of divisional play in 1969, and so these moves are excluded from this analysis. Moreover, with the exception of the Expos moving to Washington, these moves were made by their owners, not prompted by Major League Baseball.

The Brewers and Astros actually made multiple switches. The Astros went from the NL West to the NL Central to the AL West. And the Brewers traveled even farther, moving from the AL West to the AL East to the AL Central to the NL Central. The Brewers’ first switch occurred in 1972, as the Senators moved to become the Texas Rangers and moved from the AL East to the AL West, and the Brewers swapped divisions with them.

In all, 12 of the current 30 franchises in baseball have switched divisions in the last five decades, and two of them switched leagues while they were doing it. Did that affect their fortunes?

For most teams, it’s a bit hard to measure: after all, most of those teams switched into the Central in 1994, so they all wound up playing each other, which makes it harder to assess the overall impact. That being the case, let’s look at the five teams that moved at another time: the Astros and Brewers, and the Braves, Tigers and Rangers.

No clear pattern emerges. Some got better and some got worse:

Teams that switched divisions/leagues
Team Division W-L W-L% Playoffs (R-RA)/season
Astros
1969-1993 NL West 1,999-1,990 0.501 3 0.68
1994-2012 NL Central 1,526-1,486 0.507 6 18.58
2013 AL West 51-111 0.315 0 -238
Braves
1969-1993 NL West 1,891-2,084 0.476 5 -38.76
1994-2013 NL East 1,826-1,346 0.576 14 112.75
Brewers
1969-1971 AL West 198-287 0.409 0 -124.33
1972-1993 AL East 1,726-1,774 0.493 2 6.23
1994-1997 AL Central 276-306 0.474 0 -28
1998-2013 NL Central 1,219-1,371 0.471 2 -50
Rangers
1969-1971 AL East 219-264 0.453 0 -45.33
1972-2013 AL West 3,287-3,381 0.493 6 -7.43
Tigers
1969-1997 AL East 2,286-2,282 0.5 3 -6.69
1998-2013 AL Central 1,220-1,371 0.471 4 -39.25

Clearly, the Astros experienced their greatest success in the NL Central, but it’s not clear that they were hurt by being in the NL West or AL West. Their run differential was better in the last two decades than it was before, but they were an above-average team in the NL West before they moved to the Central, with stars like Nolan Ryan, Joe Morgan, and the perennially underrated Jimmy Wynn. Then they struck an even greater gold mine with Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, both of whom remained with the team their entire playing careers.

The Braves have done a lot better since moving to the East, but their entry in the table above suffers from a severe case of arbitrary endpoint bias. They won division titles in the NL West in 1991, 1992 and 1993 — 1993 is sometimes called the greatest division race ever, as the Braves edged the 103-win San Francisco Giants, who were forced to watch the playoffs on television. The Braves clearly had the nucleus in place for their subsequent dominance of the National League East. Their example doesn’t reveal much useful information for the consequences of moving.

The Brewers were terrible in the first few years of their existence, but that’s pretty common for expansion teams. Eventually they became a pretty good team in the AL East, where they won their only league championship behind stars like Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Rollie Fingers. But their glory faded as they struggled to keep up with spending, and their brief tenure in the AL Central resembled their longer tenure in the NL Central. Their struggles have something to do with being a small-market team. But their constant moves may not have helped matters.

The Rangers’ move is not very instructive. Their first three years of existence were somewhat similar to those of the Brewers, the team they swapped divisions with, and the Rangers’ subsequent record in the AL West is comparable to the Brewers’ tenure in the AL East. But the two franchises are headed in opposite directions, as the Rangers have joined baseball’s haves and the Brewers find themselves increasingly among the have-nots.

The Tigers are harder to parse: Over the past century, the team has alternated boom and bust with great regularity. The franchise has won four World Series in its 113-year history, and the current incarnation is enjoying some of the most sustained success of any in its history. Last year, the Tigers made the playoffs for the third year in a row, something the franchise had not done since 1907-1909. However, from 2001-2005 the team averaged 100 losses a year. Changing divisions did not seem to alter the course of their history — a wealthy, impatient owner who opened up his checkbook did that.

So what about the teams that switched into the Central? Finally, a pattern becomes evident: these teams lost a lot more games and had much worse run differentials as they switched into the Central Division.

Teams that switched into Central division
Team Division W-L W-L% Playoffs (R-RA)/season
Indians
1969-1993 AL East 1,795-2,176 0.452 0 -70.52
1994-2013 AL Central 1,662-1,509 0.524 8 43.90
Royals
1969-1993 AL West 2,059-1,921 0.517 7 21.72
1994-2013 AL Central 1,380-1,791 0.435 0 -96.15
Twins
1969-1993 AL West 1,972-2,010 0.495 4 -1.40
1994-2013 AL Central 1,540-1,632 0.486 6 -35.25
White Sox
1969-1993 AL West 1,939-2,036 0.488 2 -17.00
1994-2013 AL Central 1,627-1,545 0.513 3 18.50
Cardinals
1969-1993 NL East 2,036-1,946 0.511 3 16.24
1994-2013 NL Central 1,708-1,463 0.539 11 60.60
Pirates
1969-1993 NL East 2,100-1,878 0.528 9 48.64
1994-2013 NL Central 1,393-1,777 0.439 1 -91.50
Reds
1969-1993 NL West 2,151-1,833 0.540 7 42.84
1994-2013 NL Central 1,589-1,586 0.500 4 -10.85
Total
1969-1993 East/West 14,052-13,800 0.505 32 40.52
1994-2013 Central 10,899-11,303 0.491 33 -110.75

The teams’ struggles almost certainly weren’t caused by the division switch: rather, they were likely both a function of these teams’ geography. These teams moved to the Central Division because most of them are located in Midwestern cities, which tend to be less wealthy than the coastal teams in the West and East divisions. As a result, teams in the West and East also tend to have larger payrolls. The teams that wound up in the Central played each other a lot, but got beaten up by the teams outside their division. That’s how they managed to lose 24 points of collective win-loss percentage after moving to the Central.

Of course, not every team suffered. The Cleveland Indians were terrible for years before finding new life in the 1990s, the St. Louis Cardinals have been the most successful team of the new millennium, and in 2005 the Chicago White Sox won their first World Series in nine decades. Furthermore, it’s hard to pin the multidecade failures of the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates on the fact of their division change or even their mid-market cities.

But as a group, the teams that moved to the Central have tended to do worse — they’ve been more like the Brewers than the Braves. In all likelihood, that has nothing to do with the nature of the Central division, nor even with the lingering ill effects of a forced move.

Rather, it is probably a selection effect at work. Baseball was able to get the Astros and Brewers to move because the Astros and Brewers were in a weak position. Indeed, baseball prevailed upon the Brewers not once but three times. The teams that moved into the Central divisions did so because of geography — but their geography tends to hurt their revenue streams.

The Braves were an outlier because they switched from West to East, but the move made sense because of geography, and the team saved a great deal of travel fatigue in the long run. The move didn’t hurt the Braves. Being forced to move doesn’t hurt a team, in and of itself. But if a team is in a weak enough position that the other baseball owners
are able to force it to move, that is not a good sign.

In the end, the Astros’ ability to compete in the AL West will rest on the same needs as in the NL West and NL Central: money for payroll, strong leadership in the owner’s box and front office, and enough ability to beat out their division rivals. The sordid saga of their television network, CSN Houston, may complicate things in the near term.

For his part, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow is sanguine about the change. “From our standpoint, we are excited about the rivalry with the Texas Rangers and how that will help both teams,” he wrote by email in answer to a question.

He continues:

The travel to the west coast is typically only an issue for the team when we return home, as typically that means early morning arrivals back home and when there is a game that next night, the players have limited time to rest. It’s hard to complain about road trips to Southern California, the Bay area and Seattle, however, and the weather is typically good with very few rainouts. The retractable roof in Seattle helps. Our fans have to stay up later when our team is out west, but it allows people to watch the games after the kids have gone to bed, so there are some advantages!

Luhnow also is not concerned by the rules difference between the leagues. “With interleague play year round, our pitchers will still be required to hit, so it doesn’t change much except the intensity of the pitchers offensive work during spring training,” he writes. “Since it’s rare to draft a DH anyway, it hasn’t affected our drafting strategy much.”

If the Astros struggle to win in 2014, it won’t be because they moved leagues. It will be a much more mundane reason. Talent.

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