Purifying the Schedule

Purists all have their pet gripes. For some, the DH is still abomination number one. Others find the whole concept of expansion distasteful. Look hard enough and I’m sure there’s some grizzled guy in a fedora squatting in the corner booth at your local bar griping about the mound height. Me? I despise realignment.

Not the idea. Moving baseball into six divisions was necessary as it jumped to 28, and then 30, teams, and I’d be a fool to argue with the results of more exciting division play and postseason action. It’s not the fact of realignment that really scratches my hide. It’s the way Bud Selig & Co. executed it. How is it that all sorts of tradition could be thrown out the window during the late 1990s, not to mention a loooong work stoppage during which plans could be made, yet nobody came up with a better plan than the scheduling chaos of the last decade?

While no perfect simulator for rewriting baseball’s past has been invented yet (and won’t it be great for the Negro League stars when it is?), realignment is recent enough history that I feel comfortable using split-win percentages to “predict” the outcomes of a more perfect order for the past 11 seasons.

Okay, Smarty, how would you align it?

Much the same, except for three glaring errors.

1) The Milwaukee Brewers should never have switched leagues. Can anyone, including Bud, give me a rational excuse for this? Creating a six-team logjam in the NL Central certainly makes no sense. Dropping a depth charge on your own organization—quick, reconfigure your personnel for new ballparks and the DH!—certainly seems unwise, especially given the team’s record in the aftermath. And divorcing the Brewers from their natural rivals in Minneapolis and Detroit had to hurt attendance. Stupid, stupid, stupid. They stay in the AL Central.

2) The Kansas City Royals should have been (and should still be) in the American League West, to create a geographic rival for the outlying Texas Rangers. The Royals had no specific rivalries to preserve in the Central (if anything, their traditional arch enemies are the Yankees), and Kansas City is certainly far enough west of the big river in the middle to earn the designation of, well, west. Also, this would leave room for the Brewers to stay in the AL Central without bloating it.

3) The AL East should have been a 4-team division until the expansion Devil Rays arrived. There was no reason to jerk Detroit around by shifting them east for three seasons only to drag them back to the rest of the Great Lakes region after the stupid, stupid, stupid Brewers defection. What would the problem be with an AL East of New York, Boston, Baltimore and Toronto? Wouldn’t that mean more Yankees vs. Red Sox games per year?

What about the schedule?

I think the only wise decision MLB has made as far as scheduling goes since the 1994 strike is the recent move to unbalanced scheduling. With historically (for baseball) small divisions, it makes sense to create as much mobility within those divisions as possible and preserve tight races to ensure “deserving” playoff teams. After all, without the large number of division games scheduled, can you imagine what the NL West would have looked like last year? (I bear no responsibility for the psychological help necessary after such imaginings.)

In my fantasy land, I scheduled all the years from 1995 to 2005 the same:

1) I threw away interleague baseball, for reasons of extreme statistical insignificance with winning percentages (the metric I based my fabricated results on). Purists rejoice!

2) I scheduled division rivals to play each other twice as often as other league opponents. Thus, after the 1998 expansion, division rivals met 18 times a year, with 9 games against the rest of their leagues (18 x 4 + 9 x 10 = 162 … neat, huh?). In the brief 28-team sport, league opponents played one extra time per year (18 x 4 + 10 x 9), and four-team divisions enjoyed an extra three-game series against each rival, give or take a game on a rotating basis to make it all work (20or21 x 3 + 10 x 10).

3) I plugged existing winning percentages for each matchup into the new amount of games and came up with revised standings for a new and more purist baseball. Obviously the figures were close to meaningless for the Brewers, whose figures I cobbled together based on an average of overall winning percentages and a little bit of guessing in the .500 direction. Luckily, the Brewers haven’t been spectacularly good (or dismally bad, for that matter) since the strike, so guessing in the realm of .400 to .500 is at least good enough to make me a qualified postseason major league umpire.

Results, please!

The biggest surprise in this exercise was that the most earth-shattering differences all occurred in the one division I left completely as MLB made it: the NL East. Here are the fake standings for 2000 and 2001:

2000 NL East
x-New York Mets         93 69
y-Atlanta Braves        92 70
Florida Marlins         82 80
Montreal Expos          67 95
Philadelphia Phillies   63 99

2001 NL East
x-Philadelphia Phillies 90 72
Atlanta Braves          89 73
New York Mets           76 86
Montreal Expos          71 91
Florida Marlins         71 91

The streak is broke. If you look closely at the Atlanta breakdowns for those two seasons, you’ll see that merely adequate division play was masked by excellent interleague play. In an NL-only context, with the Braves having to play their tough division rivals more often, the eventual NL Champ Mets and very deserving ’01 Phillies rise, just barely, to the top. The Braves don’t even make the playoffs in 2001, as I have the Astros (90-72) capturing the Wild Card that year.

But wait, there’s more! The only NL East team to actually win a World Series since the strike is, of course, the two-time expansion wonders in apathetic Miami. How do they fare in this balanced universe? They don’t even make the playoffs either year.

1997 NL East
x-Atlanta Braves       101 61
y-New York Mets         90 72
Florida Marlins         86 76
Montreal Expos          71 91
Philadelphia Phillies   71 91

2003 NL East
x-Atlanta Braves       102 60
y-Philadelphia Phillies 88 74
Florida Marlins         85 77
Montreal Expos          80 82
New York Mets           70 92

They don’t just fall a game short, as the Braves do in ’00-’01. They fall way short. Nothing could warm the cockles of a purist’s heart more than to find out the fluky Fish who stole glory from the Indians and yet more history from the Yankees were the product, at least partially, of bungled scheduling and interleague play. Or, to be less egregious in my statements, it’s certainly safe to say that the Marlins played the league well but had a tough time against very good division opponents, at least in their first championship season. That’s what I think, anyway. My relatives in Cleveland happen to agree.

Other interesting findings include:

1) The Rockies squeeze out a division title instead of the Wild Card in 1995, setting up a match against the vulnerable Reds instead of the juggernaut Braves.

2) The ’98 Yankees win 113 games. The ’01 Mariners? 115.

3) The number of wins shifts about a bit, but the exact same playoff matchups result in 2004 and 2005, proving that both Sox were, in this estimation, completely deserving of their crowns.

So did any franchise get screwed?

I’ll wrap things up with six teams that should rue the day MLB screwed up realignment, and six teams that should kiss Bud’s ring for the bizarre scheduling decisions since 1995.

Bud’s Six Big-Time Losers

PHILADELPHIA Phillies
         Actual        +/- from actual    Result
1995     69-75(78-84)        -4           5th not 3rd
1996     67-95               +3           T4th not 5th
1997     68-94               +3           T4th not 5th
1998     75-87               -2           same (3rd)
1999     77-85               -2           same (3rd)
2000     65-97               -2           same (5th)
2001     86-76               +4           1st not 2nd
2002     80-81               -3           same (3rd)
2003     86-76               +2           2nd (WC) not 3rd
2004     86-76                0           same (2nd)
2005     88-74               +1           same (2nd)
Total                    same wins        +1 DIV/playoff (’01) +WC (’03)

The Phillies would have gained two playoff appearances and a division crown without having to win a single extra game over the past 11 seasons.

NEW YORK Mets
         Actual        +/- from actual    Result
1995     69-75(78-84)        +1           same (2nd)
1996     71-91               -1           same (4th)
1997     88-74               +2           2nd (WC) not 3rd
1998     88-74               -5           same (2nd)
1999     97-66               -5           same (2nd WC)
2000     94-68               -1           1st not 2nd (WC)
2001     82-80               -6           same (3rd)
2002     75-86               -2           same (5th)
2003     66-95               +4           same (5th)
2004     71-91               -4           5th not 4th
2005     83-79               +4           same (3rd)
Total -                    13 wins        +1 DIV (’00) +1 playoff (’97)

The Mets, in addition to breaking Atlanta’s division title streak on their way to a pennant in 2000, would have snatched the Wild Card in 1997 if it weren’t for interleague play and a balanced NL schedule.

CINCINNATI Reds
         Actual        +/- from actual    Result
1995     85-59(96-66)        +3           same (1st)
1996     81-81                0           T2nd not 3rd
1997     76-86               -2           same (3rd)
1998     77-85               -1           same (4th)
1999     96-67               +4           1st not 2nd
2000     85-77               +4           same (2nd)
2001     66-96               +4           4th not 5th
2002     78-84               -2           same (3rd)
2003     69-93               -1           same (5th)
2004     76-86               +2           same (4th)
2005     73-89               +3           4th not 5th
Total                     +14 wins        +1 DIV and playoff spot (’99)

The Reds were on the outside looking in despite 96 wins in 1999. The fair schedule boosts them to 100 wins and a division championship. Who knows how they would have fared in the playoffs? Would a World Series champion have felt the need to trade for Junior Griffey?

ANAHEIM Angels
         Actual        +/- from actual    Result
1995     78-67(87-75)        +1           1st not 2nd
1996     70-91               -2           5th not 4th
1997     84-78               +8           same (2nd)
1998     85-77               -1           same (2nd)
1999     70-92               +6           same (4th)
2000     82-80               -3           same (3rd)
2001     75-87                0           same (3rd)
2002     99-63               +4           same (2nd WC)
2003     77-85               +1           same (3rd)
2004     92-70               +7           same (1st)
2005     95-67               -2           same (1st)
Total                     +19 wins        1 extra playoff spot (’95)

Sending the Royals out west really would have boosted Anaheim’s win totals over the years, but it’s the amputated season in 1995 that cost them a chance at playoff glory right after the strike.

CLEVELAND Indians
         Actual        +/- from actual    Result
1995    100-44(113-49)       -1           same (1st)
1996     99-63               +5           same (1st)
1997     86-75               +2           same (1st)
1998     89-73               +1           same (1st)
1999     97-65                0           same (1st)
2000     90-72               +2           2nd (WC) not 2nd
2001     91-71               -1           same (1st)
2002     74-88               +5           same (3rd)
2003     68-94               +3           same (4th)
2004     80-82               -1           4th not 3rd
2005     93-69               -6           same (2nd)
Total                      +9 wins        Gain one playoff spot (’00)

The Indians’ glory days wouldn’t have hit a speed bump in 2000, and considering how well wild card teams have done in the playoffs, that could have been the year they ended Cleveland’s long championship drought.

MILWAUKEE Brewers
         Actual        +/- from actual    Result
1995     65-79(73-89)        +2           3rd not 4th
1996     80-82               +3           same (3rd)
1997     78-83               +1           2nd not 3rd
1998     74-88              +13           2nd not 5th
1999     74-87               +6           2nd not 5th
2000     73-89               -6           5th not 3rd
2001     68-94               -3           5th not 4th
2002     56-106              +5           4th not 6th
2003     68-94               +7           3rd not 6th
2004     67-94               +5           3rd not 6th
2005     81-81                0           4th not 3rd
Total                     +33 wins        virtually unchanged

Though it wouldn’t have helped them gain entry into the playoffs, Bud Selig’s own Brewers were hurt mightily by the switch of leagues in 1998. While these numbers should be taken with the largest grain of salt, my best guess is Milwaukee would have seen 33 more wins over the years and some second-place finishes had they stayed in the AL Central with their other Great Lakes rivals.

Bud’s Six Big-Time Winners
The following teams were helped the most by interleague play, etc.:

FLORIDA Marlins
        Actual         +/- from actual    Result
1995    67-76(76-86)          0           3rd not 4th
1996    80-82                 0           same (3rd)
1997    92-70                -6           3rd not 2nd (WC)
1998    54-108               +3           same (5th)
1999    64-98                -6           same (5th)
2000    79-82                +3           same (3rd)
2001    76-86                -5           same (4th)
2002    79-83                -2           same (4th)
2003    91-71                -6           3rd not 2nd (WC)
2004    83-79                 0           same (3rd)
2005    83-79                 0           4th not 3rd
Total                     -19 wins        Lose 2 playoff spots (’97, ’03)

Enough said.

ATLANTA Braves
        Actual         +/- from actual    Result
1995    90-54(101-61)        +2           same (1st)
1996    96-66                 0           same (1st)
1997   101-61                 0           same (1st)
1998   106-56                 0           same (1st)
1999   103-59                +3           same (1st)
2000    95-67                -3           2nd (WC) not 1st
2001    88-74                +1           2nd not 1st
2002   101-59                -6           same (1st)
2003   101-61                +1           same (1st)
2004    96-66                 0           same (1st)
2005    90-72                 0           same (1st)
Total                      -2 wins        -2 DIV and 1 playoff (’00-’01)

Considering Atlanta’s record in the playoffs during the streak, it’s perhaps important to ask if there’s a bit of smoke and mirrors behind it?

SEATTLE Mariners
        Actual         +/- from actual    Result
1995    79-66(88-74)         -2           2nd not 1st
1996    85-76                 0           same (2nd)
1997    90-72                +3           same (1st)
1998    76-85                 0           same (3rd)
1999    79-83                 0           same (3rd)
2000    91-71                -2           2nd not 2nd (WC)
2001   116-46                -1           same (1st)
2002    93-69                +1           same (3rd)
2003    93-69                -1           same (2nd)
2004    63-99                 0           same (4th)
2005    69-93                +3           same (4th)
Total                      +1 win         Lose DIV (’95) playoff (’00)

Even though the Royals are a doormat, expanding the AL West to five teams makes it slightly more difficult for the Mariners to get over the hump, robbing them of a division title in 1995 and putting the Wild Card just out of their reach in 2000.

HOUSTON Astros
        Actual         +/- from actual    Result
1995    76-68(86-76)          0           same (2nd)
1996    82-80                -1           same (2nd)
1997    84-78                +9           same (1st)
1998   102-60                -3           same (1st)
1999    97-65                -7           2nd not 1st
2000    72-90                +2           3rd not 4th
2001    93-69                -3           2nd (WC) not 1st
2002    84-78                +2           same (2nd)
2003    87-75                -5           same (2nd)
2004    92-70                -4           TWC not WC
2005    89-73                +1           same (2nd WC)
Total                      -9 wins        Lose one playoff (’99) tied (’04)

I attribute a full seven Astro wins in 1999 to the schedule and the presence of a lousy Brewers team within the division. The Astros also would have had to fight for the Wild Card slot with the Giants in 2004.

BALTIMORE Orioles
        Actual         +/- from actual    Result
1995    71-73(80-82)         +1           same (3rd)
1996    88-74                -2           same (2nd WC)
1997    98-64                -1           2nd (WC) not 1st
1998    79-83                 0           same (4th)
1999    78-84                -6           5th not 4th
2000    74-88                +5           same (4th)
2001    63-98                +1           same (4th)
2002    67-95                +2           same (4th)
2003    71-91                +4           same (4th)
2004    78-84                +4           same (3rd)
2005    74-88                -2           5th not 4th
Total                      +6 wins        Lose 1 DIV (’97)

Even though the Orioles would have won a few more games in the ‘00s without interleague play, they would have had to hand back the division championship in 1997. Still a playoff team there, though.

KANSAS CITY Royals
        Actual         +/- from actual    Result
1995    70-74(79-83)          0           4th not 2nd
1996    75-86                +3           4th not 5th
1997    67-94                +1           4th not 5th
1998    72-89                -3           5th not 3rd
1999    64-97                +3           5th not 4th
2000    77-85                -5           5th not 4th
2001    65-97                +2           same (5th)
2002    62-100               +1           5th not 4th
2003    83-79                -9           5th not 3rd
2004    58-104               -7           same (5th)
2005    56-106               -5           same (5th)
Total                     -19 wins        virtually unchanged

Look, no amount of realignment or schedule changing can mask the awfulness that has been the Royals ever since the strike, but if there’s one thing Kansas City fans should be thankful for, it’s getting to stay in the traditionally weak AL Central instead of being shifted over to the highly competitive AL West, where they’d have to get churned up by some pretty wicked Mariners, Athletics, Angels and even Rangers teams over the last decade or so.

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