Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Noodling ideas on an off day

Well, an off day for the Nats, at least

It's the second day of the season and the first off day. Symbol of modern-day laziness, or reasonable vigilance against early April rain/snow-outs? You make the call.

Anyway, seeing as it is an off day and the start of the season, there's probably not a better day to broach the topic of---to give it a loose definition---"how to make baseball better."

Mind you, there might not be much actual need; as sentimental softy George Will pointed out recently, the game doesn't seem in such bad shape at all, especially when you consider that the media are steroids-crazy and football continues its grand march to transform the populace into fulminating nimrods.

As for a theoretical need, though, I for one feel it; why not? And, ah hell, let's throw out the hackneyed twin saws of contemporary baseball debate . . . no, not steroids and Anna Benson. Those are very interesting topics, especially the latter, but I'm referring to the wild card and interleague play.

Let's view those issues through the context of divisional alignment.

I pondered this post this morning over breakfast and walking the dog. (That's how I usually come up with ideas here, for good or ill.) Initially, I set out to present a system that is better than the current one. This has been something of an on-and-off passion of mine for probably five years now, and it's probably yours, too. Personally, while I was not at all unhappy with the Red Sox winning it all last year, I find the current structure somewhat inequitable. Either reduce the schedule by half, or do something---outside of a measly extra home game---to reward a championship record over 162 games.

Still, I cannot say with honesty that any of the proposed solutions below are actually better than the current system (which I characterize as "extended divisional" or "divisional-plus"). Nevertheless, here are some alternatives:

Alternative One: "The 5 x 6 Alignment" (a/k/a "The Costas Plan")

---WHAT'S THE ALIGNMENT? Retain both leagues as currently assembled, except one NL team must move, thus creating three divisions of five teams in both leagues.

---WHICH TEAM(S) SHOULD MOVE, WHERE, AND WHY? Simple answer: One of Houston, Arizona, Florida, Milwaukee, or Colorado. (You could do a 2-for-1 move, but that seems convoluted.) All of these choices have warts:

* Houston has 40+ years in the NL;
* Arizona has already won a World Series as an NL member, its management seems adamant on remaining there, and it seems like there's a good thing going with the Dodgers, too.
* Florida has two WS titles as an NL team. It might be interesting to see a regular Florida-Tampa rivalry, but (1) I don't think regular rivalries can just be thrown together, (2) neither team seems to inspire much passion, and (3) there just isn't going to be room in the AL East, anyway.
* Milwaukee has already been moved once. While it might still be more of an AL city, I perceive that management (hey, where'dya go, Bud?) likes being in the same division as the Cubbies.
* As for Colorado, if the designated hitter invades mile-high territory, run scoring levels in the AL are going to go WAY up, and the baseball press will start accusing certain players of being androids.

I pick the Astros. Forty-plus years is a long time, but they haven't even won a league crown, for crying out loud. Plus, they're kind of alone in the NL Central, and the Rangers sure as heckfire are lone-wolfing it in the AL West. Seems reasonable to me.

---WHAT ARE THE SCHEDULE MECHANICS? Sort of a marginal unbalanced schedule: 56 games within division (14 against each rival), 90 total intraleague games (9 games against each team, rotating home-and-away from season-to-season), 16 interleague games. Two teams (one per league) are either simultaneously off or involved in interleague games.

---PLAYOFFS? Playoffs? (Sorry . . .) Three division champs, no wild card. (This is the part Costas stressed in his book; he seems to have backed off of it recently, though.) Team with the best overall record receives a "bye" (though it can exhibition against its Triple-A team, for all I care.) The other two division winners play a "short" series. I prefer a single game at the home of the team with the better record, though realistically it might have to be best-of-three. No days off until the first travel day of the LCS.

---STRUCTURE OF INTERLEAGUE PLAY? Scheduling dorks will have to work this out, but basically, as mentioned above, we'll have to schedule a good deal of off days during the week and successive interleague series on the weekends. The last weekend of the season might pose a problem, since all the teams really do have to play, which means one series will have to be interleague play. Fine; make it Yankees-Mets. Problem solved.

---PROS?

* Eliminates the wild card; restores the "importance of winning the division."
* Credits (big-time) the team that posts the best record over 162 games.
* Weaves interleague play into schedule as a "natural element," not a sideshow.
* Focuses the divisional series, which tend to linger, into much more discrete events. (That is, if you're going to go with a "short series"---really dependent on luck---what's the point of a half-assed best-of-five approach? If you're going short, go really short---preferably, a winner-take-all.)

---CONS?

* Could be a scheduling nightmare, trying to coordinate off days and interleague play effectively.
* Eliminates "wild card fever." (Does it really exist, anyway? Teams usually drop out of the wild card race by mid-September anyway, and wild card contenders rarely play head-to-head late in the season, it seems.)
* Sort of institutes a "constructive wild card" approach, with two teams essentially fighting for the second and third spots in the league. Why not just make both leagues constitute a single division each?
* On a related note, the marginal-unbalanced schedule only enhances the possibility of an inequitable result, i.e., the team even with the second best record in the league might get left out. Or, for the converse, see the 2000 Yankees.

Alternative Two: "The 7-7/5-6-5 Alignment" (a/k/a "The Stoned Approach")

---WHAT'S THE ALIGNMENT? Two seven-team divisions in the AL; current set-up in the NL.

---WHAT IN THE HELL? This is necessary because, while a 16-team league might (see below) be able to support four divisions, a 14-team league can't.

---WHICH TEAM(S) SHOULD MOVE, WHERE, AND WHY? For the NL, the song remains the same. For the AL, imagine the pre-'94 AL except Tampa is in Milwaukee's spot.

---WHAT ARE THE SCHEDULE MECHANICS? For the AL, the mechanics will have to be pretty close to balanced---e.g., maybe 12 games vs. divisional opponents and 10 vs. non-divisionals, with some interleague mixed in, if you want.

---PLAYOFFS? The AL has a champion for both divisions, plus one wild card. The NL has just plain three division champions. The playoffs then progress as in the Costas Plan, except maybe the AL wild card entrant is penalized a bit more.

---STRUCTURE OF INTERLEAGUE PLAY? Not as difficult as the first alternative, of course. It's pretty much free to resume as presently comprised or be altered somehow.

---PROS?

* Doesn't disrupt the present league compositions.
* "Bunches" the AL divisions, theoretically at least, thereby hindering the Yankees (or Yankees/Red Sox) from running away in the East.
* Is a sop to those who long for the '69-'93 era.
* Accentuates the inate (or conscious) differences between the leagues, i.e., the DH/no-DH difference.

---CONS?

* Sure looks ugly.
* Wild card? No wild card? Make up your mind.
* Puts either NL or AL teams at a natural disadvantage (or makes it easier for one team make the postseason than the other), though I haven't figured out which.
* Probably provisional; isn't amenable to future expansion.

Alternative Three: "The 4 x 4 Approach" (a/k/a "Hello, Expansion Fees")

---WHAT'S THE ALIGNMENT? Expand by two teams (probably just in the AL---not as big a difference now that league offices no longer exist---though in theory an NL team could move over, too), add two more divisions. So we have four divisions of four teams in both leagues, adding up to 32 teams. Most people have thought of this one, probably.

---WHICH TEAM(S) SHOULD MOVE, WHERE, AND WHY? The possibilities are too numerous to mention. One idea would be an "AL South" of the Florida teams and the Texas teams.

---WHERE TO EXPAND? You got me. This was a favorite of mine five years or so ago, and I thought East of LA (not East LA, by the way) and Northern New Jersey could do the trick. (I always figured DC would get a team via relo, if at all.) Those two options seem less realistic now that BudCo. has paid big time to Angelos. The other usual suspects (Portland, Vegas, NC, Indy, wherever) remain possibilities, I guess. Well, strike North Carolina or Norfolk; can't infringe on Angelos's turf, you know. (Or Washington's.)

---WHAT ARE THE SCHEDULE MECHANICS? Make it as unbalanced as you want. (See below.)

---PLAYOFFS? Four straight division champions, legit three-tiered postseason. Bud Selig remains happy.

---INTERLEAGUE? Sure, knock yourself out, if it's your thing.

---PROS?

* Integrity of divisional races/long regular reason restored.
* Divisions are symmetrical, with no interleague hijicks needed.
* No wild card needed.
* Amenable to future expansion.

---CONS?

* Four teams in a division? Kind of slight. Sure, they do it now, but it's incorporated into a wild card regime. On its own, watch how close the divisions are going to be. Sure . . . Have fun after August 1.
* While it rewards a divisional champ, it doesn't make the playoffs any more exclusive, if that's your thing.
* You see expansion anytime in our future?

Alternative Four: "The 7 x 4 Approach" (a/k/a "Tampa and . . . ?")

---IN A NUTSHELL? Imagine the big leagues as in '69-93, except that both leagues now have 14 teams. Two divisions per league, just the division champions move on to the LCS. That means that two existing teams are gonzo.

---PROS?

* In my opinion, four teams in the baseball playoffs is just right, since we're beyond the 16-team era.
* Discretely defined divisions.
* No wildcard, so no need to balance the schedules or moderately balance them. (Even if they're not now . . .)

---CONS?

* In Bud's opinion, four teams in the baseball playoffs is just wrong, i.e., show me the money.
* No real need to contract besides aesthetics, despite the '01-02 posture.
* Who are you gonna contract anyway? Tampa's obvious, I guess, but there's some lease/lawsuit issues there, I'm sure. The "Montreal problem" is fixed (Yea!), and contraction isn't likely there (Yea!). Can't contract a team with a new park, right? So we're down to Tampa, Toronto (a park built in '89 isn't new?---plus, contraction means no presence in Canada), and a few largely successful teams (Minny, Oaktown, etc.). Doesn't add up.

And so . . . Sometimes, the best way to gain perspective is to shoot holes in your own ideas. Having done so, often the status quo seems reasonable. And I guess it does here.

Any thoughts?

Comments:
My favorite playoff reform -- aside from cutting down on the number of playoff teams -- is something I saw, I think, Rob Neyer suggest a few years back.

Basically, you keep the same divisional alignment you have now (or, if you want, shuffle teams around, but keep 2 leagues of 3 divisions).

The three division winners make the playoffs as per normal. But instead of one wildcard team, you have two -- and they play a one-game "play-in" game, before proceeding with the playoffs as we now have them.

This way, there's value in winning your division: you're guaranteed to get to the best-of-five series and you're guaranteed an off day to help set your rotation up. This livens up the pennant races again without cutting down on playoff teams -- since Bud Selig isn't interested on cutting down on playoff teams.

It could even be interesting to make the play-in a best-of-three series. But if you do that, I think that the wildcard team with the better record should host all three games.

Thoughts?
 
It does sound familiar, Yuda, and I like it. Its simplicity and limited "violence" to the present system are intriguing, and if you're going to match up "crap" teams (relatively speaking), then I like the winner-take-all format.

I see how two-out-of-three would actually reward the division winners more, but I wonder if an extended delay would hurt those teams. (Yeah, I know; play exhibitions.)

Maybe the one game would be enough. By my recollection "163rd game" teams since 1994 haven't fared tremendously well since 1995, with I think only the Mariners doing any real damage. Granted, it's just a few teams . . .
 
I like that Neyer solution. I'd make it even more punishing though.


Have the first game at one stadium, then fly to the next stadium the next day for a day-night double header, if needed!

Then, whoever wins, has to play the next day against the best team in the league.

The Wild Card wins too damn much. This would put a premium on winning that division. The best team over 162 games would win more, instead of the best October team.
 
Yankee fan . . . ;-)

I like the idea, though. Playing a two-day, three-game (if necessary) series is an awesome idea. It assuages the those who somehow want MORE playoff teams, it concentrates those games so as not to render the better teams stale, it punishes the WC teams, and the last two games can be broadcast both on ESPN and FOX. (And if there's no game three, FOX can always dip into "Independence Day" or something else from the FX collection.)
 
How about have the play-in be a single day-night double-header, at the home park of the wild card team with the better record, and require the road team to win BOTH games to advance to the LDS? It makes winning the division very important, and makes finishing better than the other wild card contender a significant advantage.

Simon Oliver Lockwood
 
That could work. It certainly would solve the problem of a long and unstable schedule. Good idea!
 
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