MLB Realignment: Now That the Leagues Are Balanced, What's Next to Fix Baseball?
Announced Wednesday afternoon, the Houston Astros will leave the National League Central to join Major League Baseball’s American League West division, balancing the leagues at 15 teams each.
The Astros will join the AL West beginning as soon as 2013, as was a term agreed upon by MLB commissioner Bud Selig and new team owner Jim Crane.
This marks the first time since the Milwaukee Brewers left the American League to become members of the NL Central 13 years ago that a team has changed leagues.
“The greatest thing this sport has going for it is its history and its tradition, so you try to disturb that as little as you can,” MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said during a news conference. “But this is clearly for the long term.”
So what does this mean for baseball?
MLB is a unique organization because unlike the NBA, NHL and NFL, baseball is really two different games under one roof. The AL and NL operate under two totally different and distinct rulebooks.
There will be consequences that will ripple through the rest of the sport as a result of the leagues being balanced at an odd number of teams apiece. Things such as scheduling and interleague play will have to totally be revised and rethought.
The plus side for the sport however is that now things will at least be fair on paper. For years, baseball has been seen as the sport where fans doubt the genuine fairness of the leagues because they were imbalanced.
Statistically, it’s harder to win in a division with more teams and it’s easier to win in a division where there’s fewer. Since the NL Central had six clubs and the AL West had four, the transition of the Astros balances those divisions at five members each, the same as the rest of baseball.
That’s one problem fixed on the road to fairness and equality, but there’s still plenty of work to be done now.
Bud Selig cannot afford to half ass a recovery effort by merely moving one franchise. While the changes are being made, make them all and attempt to salvage a failing sport.
Baseball can do plenty more in an attempt to save the day. Here’s what MLB should do to make the game smarter, fairer and more attractive to the fans:
MLB isn’t just like other sports where teams can change divisions and leagues without serious consequence to the remaining franchises.
Because the AL uses a Designated Hitter where as NL clubs bat their pitchers, the leagues had to be imbalanced at even numbers in order to prevent interleague games throughout the regular season at miscellaneous dates.
Since the Astros move makes for two 15-team leagues, two teams will mathematically be playing interleague baseball every weekend when all 30 clubs are active.
This would mean the end of the reserved two week period of interleague play MLB sets aside every early to mid-June. These games would be sprinkled across the schedule as early as Opening Day said Selig.
Alright so the league has to see a random assortment of AL pitchers attempting to bat and NL teams harvesting their best bench players to serve as full-time sluggers. Big deal.
But why is interleague play such a large component in the argument of fairness?
The biggest complaint currently with interleague play is that teams like Milwaukee last year had to play at the Yankees and Red Sox, while division rival (and World Series champions) St. Louis got the Blue Jays at home and travel to the Orioles. The Cardinals never saw New York or Boston.
If all divisions are even at five clubs each, there’s no reason MLB couldn’t adopt a concept like the NFL has for interconference play.
Football, which features eight total divisions of four teams, has a set rotation of which divisions play each other well in advance. For example, this season the entire NFC North tackles every team in the AFC West. All four teams from each play each other. Everything is fair.
Baseball could do the same thing. With six divisions of five, the entire AL East could play the entire NL West. There would be no fear of teams not having the same teams on their schedules as every other member of their division.
This could also spell the end of the “rivalry” interleague games such as the Yankees-Mets, White Sox-Cubs, Giants-Athletics, Rays-Marlins, Indians-Reds and Angels-Dodgers.
If it means things would be fair and balanced, so be it. It’s more important the sport be equally competitive than trying to play up geographic rivalries that don’t hold significant meaning.
Wild Cards and Postseason Berths
The final day of the 2011 MLB regular season saw two of the greatest collapses in baseball history. Both the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves managed to blow their respective Wild Card leads and got jumped by the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals.
Point in case–wild card races are awesome.
Not just for the fans to keep more hopes alive longer, but so that games are more meaningful later in the season.
Commissioner Bud Selig also announced Wednesday he would like to see an additional Wild Card be awarded to each league. That would mean the AL and NL would each have three division winners and two wild card recipients.
The only way this would work with five teams from each league is to eliminate one quickly to make the number four.
Suppose the two wild card winners play a one-game, winner-takes-all contest. Ideally, it would be more logical to have a quick three or five game series, but then the three division winners sitting idle have gone cold and are at a competitive disadvantage.
Selig also said he would like to see the two wild card teams face off because the TV ratings would be higher for a sudden death format instead of a drawn out series.
One wild card proved to be exciting to an extent baseball has never seen before this last season. A second wild card might dumb down the races and make them more diluted, but two additional fan bases would have the opportunity to purchase playoff memorabilia and be glued to the tube to watch their teams.
This is a wise decision by Selig as long as the two wild card winners in each league play a one-game series. Baseball can’t afford to screw this up and penalize the division winners by sitting idle.
With even conferences, the MLB schedule makers will have a much simpler time constructing the sport’s entire regular season schedule.
This is even territory where the season could be shortened or begins earlier to account for the extra time needed for a few more playoff games.
An MLB regular season now consists of 162 contests with nearly half coming from inside the division, just over a dozen interleague games and the rest from that team’s respective conference.
Again, the argument is that not every team’s schedule reflects the fairness and difficulty of its divisional opponents.
With the realignment, baseball can solve all these problems as long as interleague play can be scattered across the calendar and the aforementioned geographic “rivalries” can go by the wayside.
Let’s look at a potential sample schedule for the Chicago Cubs for 2013. With Houston out of the division, Chicago could play the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds 18 times each–nine at home and nine on the road. That would be unanimous around baseball. Divisional play still accounts for 72 regular season games.
Interleague play, if operated on a rotational basis, could feature one team playing as many as 30 interconference games. If the NL Central were to play the entire AL Central, the Cubs could get series against the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins at six games each (three at home, three on the road).
Just as the Cubs would, every other NL Central team would have six games each against every AL Central team. Two brief home and away series would equalize the playing field and would also balance the fairness of every team in an entire division. Every team would have 30 interleague games, bringing the season total up to 102 games.
Add in that every team in a league will play another 30 innerconference games with the two divisions, not their own. Going back to the Cubs example, Chicago would play 72 games in the NL Central, 30 in the AL Central, 30 in the NL West and 30 in the NL East. For those keeping score at home, that’s 162 games.
This “model” would be fair, balanced competitively and could be identically applied to all 29 other franchises.
Also, since interleague games would be flexible in terms of when they could be scheduled, this example would help make the problem of odd two and four game series disappear during the weekdays. Every MLB franchise could have a schedule of six games a week (two different series) with one designated day off weekly.
“It won’t be perfect. Nothing in any schedule is ever perfect, but this will be very good,” said Selig. “Maybe the difference will attract people.”
Selig also stated he has viewed some sample schedules for such changes and was not upset or turned off by what he saw.
Redesigning the basic concept for a season schedule also opens the door for shortening the season, should MLB decide to go that route. The league could cut down the number of divisional games from 72 to 60, bringing the cumulative number down to 150.
It’s only a little shorter, but that extra two weeks of scheduling could mean a later start to the season in nicer weather–an extremely big selling point to fans who refuse to sit outside in 40 degree weather on a rainy April weeknight.
Rangers and Astros Rivalry?
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The Houston Astros vs. the Texas Rangers isn’t what you would call the main event of a fight card, but the “rivalry” may help both franchises in their local markets without harming any others.
With the Astros now in the AL West, their main division rival will be the inter-state Texas Rangers. Side-by-side, this tale of the tape is not fair at all. The Astros (56-106) had the worst record in baseball last season while the Rangers (96-66) sported the second-best mark in the AL, third-best in baseball.
Should the Astros find a way to be a Cinderella team and compete, even if it’s early, against what appears to be a good Rangers ball club for a long time, the series could do wonders for the state.
The Astros need the Rangers just as bad as the Rangers need the Astros.
“I grew up an Astros fan,” Rangers President Nolan Ryan told the Houston Chronicle Wednesday, “but I understand the desire to balance out the two leagues. From our perspective, having them in our division, I like it, because it gives us another team in our time zone.
“We’re at a disadvantage in our division that way because so many of our games start at nine o’clock, and it hurts our TV ratings. If both teams are competitive in a given year, it will create a good rivalry within the state. There’s a lot of pluses from our perspective.”
Ryan is right about the start times. All the other teams in the AL West (Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Oakland Athletics) operate on Pacific Time. The state of Texas operates on Central Standard Time, two hours ahead of every divisional opponent.
The addition of the Astros to the West could mean higher viewership for the Rangers and especially the Astros. Baseball has taken some hits with television ratings. Anything Selig can do to keep the boat afloat at this point, he will. Even if it means a budding rivalry between the country’s sixth and tenth-highest rated markets.
“I talked to Nolan Ryan last night and he said it’s going to really be great when we’re contending for the division title and going back and forth,” new Astros owner Jim Crane said. “In the long run, there can be a lot of positives to that. There’s that natural rivalry with Houston and Dallas.”
MLB Has to Do Something New to Draw Viewership, Attendance
Last but not least, the simple fact of the matter is this–Major League Baseball needs to do something different to regain its stake as “America’s National Pastime.”
The law of the land today is that the NFL is far and away the biggest sports entity in the United States right now. Every Super Bowl Sunday continues to draw in record-setting television ratings like never before. The EA Sports Madden series is among the most popular video games of its kind.
Football is No. 1 and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
The NBA is coming off a tremendous season full of suspense, curiosity and drama so compelling, you’d have to go back the end of the Michael Jordan days to find basketball as must-see as 2010-2011 featured.
And then there’s baseball, which takes hits for being unfair and stubborn to the idea of change. Oh, and it’s hard to forget the dark cloud that the steroid era still casts above the sport’s head.
A move like this is exactly what MLB needs.
This is something exciting, fresh and new for baseball. Positive change in the right direction with the intent of creating a level playing field will help draw back the attention of fans lost to baseball by the steroid era.
Before fans will race home from school to watch playoff baseball or load up the car and drive downtown to watch a Wednesday night game, Selig must find a way to win back the hearts of the sport's long lost fans who have been scared away from the drugs and cheating scandals.
Times are changing, and it’s nice to see Bud Selig hop aboard the idea of adjusting a league to today’s audience.
Major League Baseball could use a breath of fresh air, and this motion of realignment might be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Brett Lyons is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials.
Follow Brett Lyons on Twitter @BrettLyons670.