Divided We Stand…We Hope

Major League Baseball has now reached its stretch drive, and what races remain–a couple of divisions, one wild card–are still alive thanks to the leagues’ divisional format. Everything else–four divisions and, with the collapse of the Giants this week, the NL Wild Card–has now been just about sewn up, only a few days into September.

Why then would anyone be contemplating eliminating the divisions and going back to a top to bottom league structure? One is hard pressed to come up with a good reason, but there’s recently been a rash of such suggestions anyway. Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan got this ball rolling in a high-profile way a few weeks back. Bleacher Report beat Passan to the punch a couple of years ago. And there’s probably other articles on this subject floating out there; use your “Google fu” if you wish.

The DFR: BaseballIndeed this idea has been knocking around for a while now, at the game’s highest levels. However, Passan seems to be the one who has most recently re-tossed this old salad and tried to serve it to the unsuspecting customers, so he’s the one who gets to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Jeff–your idea is stupid.

You can click on the link above and judge the merits of Passan’s argument yourself, or find any other “pro” treatise on the subject and see if you like what they’re selling. But I’d just like to offer a few thoughts to the contrary.

Be the best. “We play to win the game”–or the division, or the league. Screw just hanging in to finish in fifth place and then hoping for the best.

The primary argument in favor of “unalignment” is a straw man attack on the status quo: an idea that divisions are “traditional” and baseball keeps them simply because it is too hidebound to change.

Divisions may seem traditional to you, if you’re a Generation AA type who knows nothing of the world before 1992. But that view is shortsighted. Even now, MLB has only played divisional ball about half as long as it played in undivided leagues (counting from the founding of the AL in 1901 to 1968, the last year before division play–and the year of my birth, coincidentally). The traditional argument should, if anything, come from the other side; a desire to preserve tradition–or nostalgia–would ask for the unaligned leagues, not the other way around.

So there’s fuzzy thinking from the start here. Add to that the fact that the push for unalignment diminishes or ignores the practical benefits of divisions. If you want an unaligned league–presumably with balanced schedules for everyone, because that will be the only way to fairly decide the best teams–you have to change the number of games in a season. Twelve times fourteen (the number of opponents for each league member) comes to 168 games in a season. Does anyone really want to add another six games to an (arguably) already too long season?

Or MLB could return–again, nostalgia!–to a 154 game season (14 x 11). Do you really think the owners will give up eight games of revenue a season? Will the players offer to compensate the owners for that lost revenue by taking lesser salaries? If yes, congratulations; you’re almost as clear-thinking as Jeff Passan.

Beyond all that, there is something to be said for divisions from a philosophical standpoint. Unaligned leagues worked fine when they consisted of eight teams apiece; the jump to ten teams each in the early ’60s didn’t alter things too much (except for lengthening the season to the current 162). But twelve, then fourteen, then sixteen, and now fifteen teams each? A fifteen team league without any subdivision is a bit unwieldy; future expansions would make the leagues even more so. But breaking those leagues into divisions gives fans (and, probably, players and executives) a better mental geography for viewing the sport.

Of course, divisions mean division champions–a reasonable goal for a team to achieve. Only one team can win the World Series each year, but there is value in having a team–like the soon to be AL Central champions, the Royals–having some kind of flag to fly, even if they don’t get the actual (traditional) pennant. Maybe it’s just marketing, but fans can hang their hats on a team’s division titles, and that helps keep folks into the game.

Also, division champions are best decided through direct head-to-head competition, i.e., unbalanced schedules. And unbalanced schedules mean that certain teams can have easier paths to the playoffs; hence, the legitimacy of the wild card concept. Wild cards are all about giving that deserving second-place (or maybe even, under unusual circumstances, third-place) team a shot to prove that their lesser record was the product of a more difficult schedule, not a measure of their own worth. Last year’s Giants, like several other recent teams, rode that second chance all the way to the title.

All well and good. A second-place team won the championship. Since the Giants were the second NL Wild Card in 2014, perhaps you could say that a third-place team won the World Series. Indeed, maybe they were a fifth-place team, since they were on the bottom rung of the playoff ladder. (The Giants and Pirates had identical 88-74 records last year; Pittsburgh got the fourth position on tiebreakers.) Tthere may even be an argument to be made that San Francisco didn’t “deserve” to win the title–though they only did what the rules said they could.

But how about in an unaligned league? Do you really want to see an actual, honest to goodness, legitimate-product-of-the-schedule fifth-place team win the World Series? What then is the point of the regular season, if a team can limp into the postseason in fifth place–perhaps even lower, if postseason expansion comes up on the agenda again–and then get hot and win it all?

Yes, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup a few years ago as a number eight seed in the Western Conference–but, as we’ve said before, hockey is weird. The NHL has points standings and overtime losses and such, and where you rank in the standings doesn’t necessarily reflect your team’s quality. It makes some sense for an NHL team to beat crazy odds and win it all coming from the last playoff seeding.

But baseball? If you can go through a whole six month season, playing the same schedule as everyone else in your league, and not do any better than fifth place–finishing perhaps some twenty or thirty games out of first place–why in the hell do you need another chance? Haven’t you already proved that you’re not the best? When did we lose–or just plain toss aside–the true meaning of competition in our sports? Be the best. “We play to win the game”–or the division, or the league. Screw just hanging in to finish in fifth place and then hoping for the best.

Unaligning the leagues would make such an absurdity all too likely. And the other side of the coin, when the three best records wind up in one division, as in this year’s NL Central? It’s an oddball situation, sure, with the potential for the third best team going out one and done. That team may wind up feeling hosed. Well, so what? Deal with it. No team has a birthright to the postseason; if you don’t want to be in the one game playoff, win the damn division. Don’t start whining that your precious Cubs (or Pirates, or any other team for that matter) deserve better than this screwed up system. Because it’s not screwed up; weird things just happen once in a while. It’s not a reason to change a league structure that, for the most part, most everyone seems to be happy with.

When it’s broke, fix it. When it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. When there isn’t even really anything to look at, broken or otherwise…write a commentary looking to fix it anyway, I guess.


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