Baseball occasionally adjusts to try to make things more fair, conspicuously making all divisions five teams following the 2012 season. Ultimately, though, no adjustment is going to handle the central conflict baseball faces in this regard: Short postseason series don’t necessarily reward the best teams, and so any system that relies on short series is going to lead to unsatisfying outcomes (from a competitive fairness perspective). The fairest way of resolving this would be to have a perfectly balanced schedule and a single regular season champion (as is done in European soccer). The team that plays the best over the course of the season gets the trophy.
However, even disregarding the practical issues with a perfectly balanced schedule in baseball, having a designated set of high leverage games is good for the league and fans for a variety of reasons. Just to name a few, they increase fan engagement (leading to more ratings and more dollars), build a community by having everyone focusing on the same games, and give us the opportunity to watch a different form of baseball, one featuring aggressive tactics, more opportunities for stars, and greater specialization. Thus, any schedule proposal that gets rid of playoffs altogether would be not only unworkable from a business perspective but also probably makes things worse for the fans.
What follows is my proposal for a third option that preserves most of the things to like about the current system while also making the championship a bit more meritocratic—and mitigating a couple of other issues to boot. While this departs pretty substantially from the current system, I did my best to make it practical and something that MLB could conceivably do in the near future. For this reason, I ruled out expansion, contraction and substantial changes in the length of the season or the structure of individual games.
I should be clear that the relative merits of systems are largely matters of taste and preference. While I think this system has some clear advantages over the current one, reasonable people can certainly disagree about what level of change is necessary (if any).
Here’s the proposal, in brief:
- Teams will be split into a top conference and bottom conference, each with 15 teams, and use promotion and relegation to move between the two (we’ll use conference to refer to these, since division and league already have meanings in baseball).
- Each team will play every other team in the league in a way that yields an approximately balanced 143-game schedule.
- The team with the best record in the top conference over those 143 games will be the champion for the year.
- Each team will play an extra 20 games scattered throughout the course of the year against its current divisional rivals (regardless of which conference they are in).
- The team in each division with the best record in those 20 games advances to the playoffs, along with up to two other teams; the playoffs winner will win a separate title (analogous to the FA Cup in English soccer).
Surely, you want more details.
Promotion and Relegation
Each year, the bottom two or three teams in the top conference will be moved to the bottom conference, and the top two or three teams in the bottom conference will be moved to the top conference. This accomplishes three things:
- As we’ll see, it permits a reasonably straightforward system where each team plays a balanced schedule.
- It dramatically complicates tanking and keeps things interesting and competitive for teams that aren’t within a reasonable distance of the championship. Nobody cares about the difference between being decent and mediocre in the current system, but if playing too poorly means that your team is eliminated from title contention next year, the finer differences matter—so besides the race for the championship, there are relegation and promotion “pennant” races as well.
- It provides opportunities for high-stakes, meaningful playoff games without interfering with how the championship is awarded. Have the 12th and 13th teams in the top conference play a three or five game series to determine who has to drop down the next year, or the third and fourth finishers in the bottom conference do the same. Since playoff-style baseball is a Good Thing — broadly speaking — adding some more of it in a way that doesn’t mess with the championship is almost a no-brainer.
A Balanced Schedule of 143 Games
Each team plays each other team in its conference seven times (a four-game series and a three-game series, home-and-home) and each team in the other conference three times, totaling 143 games. This isn’t perfectly balanced, since not every team will have the same number of home games (some teams will play 70, others 73) and which teams play which at home won’t match up perfectly, but every team competing for the same thing will play the same teams the same number of times, which is a big improvement over the current system. No more concerns that the Mets and Nationals get to play the Phillies, Marlins and Braves 57 times while the Brewers and Reds have to play the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates 57 times.
This setup and the 143-game total seem sort of strange, but the length and the balance make it highly unlikely that a champion—the champion of the season—will seem inappropriately deserving. (In the event of a tie, a three-game playoff can determine the champion.) For whatever it’s worth, I couldn’t come up with a better number that would let the combinatorics work out so easily.
This system dramatically increases the probability that the best team wins; using some simplifying assumptions and running some simulations, I estimate that the chance the best team wins the championship goes from roughly 20 percent to roughly 40 percent—a huge jump in the right direction. Even better, in my eyes, is that all the games are worth the same amount, and you don’t have to observe the unsettling optics of a team being eliminated by a team with a much worse record (as in 2006, when the Cardinals finished 14 games behind the Mets and beat them in the NLCS). The winner in this system will always be a deserving team.
A Divisional Schedule of 20 Games
Each team would play five extra games (a two-game series and a three-game series) against each of the four teams in its division, using the current divisional alignment. These games would be scattered throughout the regular season but would not count toward the overall championship. Instead, the division champion would be chosen from the team with the best record over those 20 games, using single-game tiebreakers.
This may seem even more suspect than the 143-game proposal. However, it accomplishes the following:
- Pads the season out to 163 games and gives teams more games against their natural rivals, preserving some of the practical and financial advantages of the current unbalanced schedule.
- Provides an opportunity for more high-leverage games, again without compromising the overall title structure.
- With a tiny, high-variance sample, allows underdogs to succeed and makes it clear that the uncoupling of the playoffs from the process of determining a champion is a conscious decision.
- Allows for more interesting strategy by giving games different values to different teams. For instance, this past year the Phillies could have made the conscious decision to focus on the division rather than the conference. By shuffling their rotation accordingly, they could have Cole Hamels pitch seven or eight of the 20 division games, and the strategic choice involved would make games more exciting and provide more fodder for discussion and analysis.
A Playoff of Division Winners
You may have noticed that I have thus far mentioned only six of the eight proposed playoff teams, with no details about how to select two other teams. That’s because there are at least a few reasonable ways to go about this, and I don’t think one is a clear winner.
My distinct preference is to have the final two slots go to the Japanese and Korean champions. Those are high-quality leagues, and I would find it immensely enjoyable to watch the meeting of different playing styles and baseball cultures under the bright lights. It would also partially make up for MLB’s hubris in calling its championship the “World Series” despite including teams from only two countries.
That said, a number of obstacles would likely make this a non-starter. The Korean Series and Japan Series aren’t typically completed until well after the end of the MLB regular season, and so either the KBO and NPB or MLB would have to alter their calendars, which is unlikely. One could potentially solve that by using All-Stars made up from the eliminated teams in those two leagues, but that wouldn’t help with the fiscal risk: MLB’s TV partners would be wary of showing games with only one built-in fan base, as well as the substantial risk of having a World Series with no MLB teams. (MLB probably also wouldn’t be thrilled by the fact that the KBO and NPB would have to play home games at neutral sites, dragging down attendance.)
Assuming that foreign teams are a no-go, then, what else could be done? A simple option that I’m partial to is giving the previous year’s playoffs winner a bye into the second round, then having three divisional series followed by semifinals and finals, all best of seven. (If the previous year’s winner wins its division, either the second place team from that division or the runner-up from the previous year could take the first round slot.) Other options that are workable but less appealing: choosing one or two second-place teams, choosing one or both conference champions, or playing a round robin to eliminate teams before going to a bracket. Each of these has benefits and drawbacks, but they all work.
One other fundamental issue with the playoff that I’ve left undiscussed is what the stakes are. Why should people care if the championship’s already been determined? I personally don’t think that’s an issue—if there’s playoff baseball on and a trophy at stake, fans will watch, and the players and teams are competitive enough that they’ll welcome another shot at a trophy. It’s not a problem in soccer, where parallel competitions are pretty common, or in college football, where most of the postseason is pointless, and so it should be fine here. However, to sweeten the deal, MLB can offer incentives to teams that do well. For instance, it would be very simple to give playoff teams an extra allotment to spend on the amateur draft—maybe the winner’s cap goes up by $2.5 million, with smaller bonuses for the other playoff teams.
As with any fairly drastic proposal, there are some potential drawbacks to this plan. Many of these relate to the difficulty of anticipating fan behavior. Will ratings be affected for playoff games when the championship is no longer at stake? Will the new system be perceived as contrived or excessively complex? Will attendance suffer too much among teams in the lower conference? To my mind, there’s reason for optimism, given that college football and basketball have not been harmed by changes large and small to their postseason and conference structure. In spite of that, though, or any other market research or analysis based on past and current behavior, ultimately there’s no avoiding the uncertainty that stems from a change this large.
There are also risks of unintended consequences in team and player behavior. Careful thought would need to be employed in setting up some of the exact details: important off-field aspects of the game like revenue sharing, the luxury tax, the trade deadline, waivers, and allocation of picks and money for amateur player acquisition would need to be adjusted to make sure that the new league structure doesn’t create perverse incentives.
One other objection that might be raised is that building teams for the regular season is different from building them for the postseason, given the increased importance of depth relative to star power, and that the latter approach is preferable. I don’t think there’s any real rebuttal for that, given that it’s a value judgment, except perhaps to note that there’s limited reason to believe current GMs are deliberately building a roster that trades regular season wins in favor of a possible postseason edge.
Finally, there are the smaller cultural costs that occur with big transitions. People would have to learn new benchmarks for team and player statistics, and given the baseball world’s attachment to history, numbers and historical numbers, that’s something that will trigger strong feelings. To the chagrin of many, we’d be forced to relitigate the DH question. To my mind, these aren’t good reasons for rejecting any proposal that would improve the game, but they are important to many people, and so I don’t dismiss them entirely.
Abstracting away from the details, what is this proposal really about? It’s an effort to ensure that the teams that play the best over a large sample are the ones that win championships. To me, that’s important enough to be worth the decreased status of the playoffs, the risk of turning off fans, statistical complications, and the other drawbacks. You might disagree; ultimately, as with so many other structural questions, this is a question of aesthetics that can’t be argued in objective terms.
Do I think MLB is going to implement this proposal? Of course not. But what I would love is for baseball to take a holistic approach to fixing the playoffs, because there’s no reason to be bound by the current system and stuck making small tweaks. Big format changes are possible, and the league should be open to them because some of them make sense.