Major League Baseball has a problem. To put it simply, the current system of divisions and playoff berths does not always allow the best teams to make the playoffs, and that has negative consequences for competitive balance, revenue generation, and fan interest. Inferior teams often will be rewarded with playoff berths just because they happen to play in weak divisions. Likewise, strong teams in strong divisions can be at a disadvantage. In addition, the scope of the playoff race in each league often is narrower than it should be, simply because of the way the leagues are structured. Here I will examine the final standings for the last five seasons, comparing the actual outcomes for each season to alternate outcomes under a streamlined league structure that I will propose.
The divisions of Major League Baseball last saw a major realignment in 1994. With the addition of a Central Division in each league, the National and American Leagues went from having two divisions—East and West—to having three. At the same time, with the addition of one division winner and one wildcard team in each league, the playoffs were expanded from four teams to eight, with a playoff round added before the League Championship Series.
On every level of the game of baseball, from team record all the way down to an individual’s batting or pitching record, sample size is very important. The best team in the league still will lose at least a third of its games, and the worst team in the league can beat the best team in the league on any random day of the season. Indeed, the season is very long for a reason: random factors and luck tend to even out over the course of 162 games, and the best teams rise to the top of the standings, usually with 90 to 100 wins. It is not difficult to win 75 or 80 games, but a team must be quite good to win 94 or 95.
Once the playoffs begin, however, all bets are off. Because each playoff series is so short (i.e., because the samples are so small), it does not always hold that the best team wins. The playing field tends to be more level in the postseason because an inferior team easily can go on a hot streak. Therefore, it is all the more important that the teams that prove to be the best over 162 games be rewarded with playoff berths.
The problem is that with a greater number of divisions and fewer teams in each division, there are more chances for particularly weak or particularly strong divisions. In addition, with three automatic playoff bids and just one wildcard in each league, there is a greater likelihood that a strong team might miss out on the postseason.
I will examine the final standings for each season to determine whether more teams would be in contention if the league structure was streamlined, and I will conclude that the current system hurts competitive balance because fewer teams end up in the playoff hunt each year. Having more teams in the hunt in the last two weeks of September each year clearly would be a boon to team owners and fans alike.
The current structure also hurts revenue generation because Major League Baseball could have more "meaningful games" toward the end of the season if its leagues were divided using a simpler format. Unfortunately, the scope of this analysis does not allow me to make a case based strictly on revenue numbers, but I believe it is safe to say that end-of-season games with playoff implications draw more fans, thereby increasing revenue via ticket sales, concessions, and merchandise. And if a team uses a dynamic pricing model such as the one Qcue formulated, it could be in a position to reap huge benefits from an unanticipated playoff run.
Finally, it is not to Major League Baseball’s advantage to have some of the sport’s best teams shut out of the playoffs simply because of the way their league is structured. The reasons for this include the two just listed—competitive balance and revenue generation—but also at play here is the simple issue of "fairness." Good teams should be rewarded for good seasons.
I propose that MLB consolidate its divisions, with a return to the familiar East and West format in each league. The number of playoff teams will be unchanged, with four teams from each league going to the postseason. This system will allow the best teams—wherever they are in the country—to make the playoffs.
First, here are the current divisions:
Here is the realignment I propose:
The realignment puts the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, and Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League East, with the Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, and St. Louis Cardinals moving to the National League West.
Likewise, in the American League, the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers move to the East Division, while the Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, and Minnesota Twins join the West Division. In general, these changes make sense in terms of geographical distance and time zones for travel and broadcast purposes.
Obviously, the winners of each division will make the playoffs, which would mean four automatic bids (two in each league, rather than the current three in each). There now will be two wildcards in each league, versus just one now. Importantly, the wildcards both can come from the same division if that happens to be where the teams with the best records are. (There also are other advantages to a simplified divisional structure, such as a lower likelihood of end-of-season ties, a less complicated system of tiebreakers, and easier scheduling, but these lie outside the scope of this analysis.)
In terms of playoff structure, the seeding is simple: in the first series, the wildcard team with the lesser record will play the division winner with the best record, and that division winner will have homefield advantage. The division winner with the lesser record will meet the wildcard team with the better record, and homefield advantage will be determined simply by record, since it is possible that a wildcard could have a better record than a division winner. The first round of the playoffs will be expanded to a seven-game series, from five games currently.
Here I will examine how the playoff picture would have unfolded during the last five seasons under my proposed league structure, and I will contrast it with what actually happened. I will begin with 2010 and work back to 2006.
In 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, San Francisco Giants, and Atlanta Braves made the playoffs from the National League, while the Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, and New York Yankees made it from the American League. Under my proposed structure, the same four teams would have made the playoffs in each league, but the competition for the final playoff spots would have been quite different.
In the National League, the 2010 playoff race was a three-way contest between the Braves, Giants, and Padres. As the end of the season neared, the Braves were forced to pin their hopes solely on the wildcard, since they could not contend with a strong Phillies team in the East Division. In the West Division, the Giants and Padres battled for first place, with the winner getting a trip the playoffs and the loser a shot at the wildcard. Ultimately, the Giants won the West Division and the Braves won the wildcard, edging the Padres by a game.
Under the revised system, the National League would have seen four teams competing for two wildcard slots alongside a race for the West Division title. Indeed, the Braves, Reds, Giants, and Padres all were in the area of 90-91 wins, with the Giants and Padres both trying to win the division. Ultimately, the Braves and Reds would have edged out the Padres for the wildcard, with the Giants winning the division. Note that the National League West is the weaker division in this scenario, and it has only one team going to the playoffs (see table 4).
In the American League, the 2010 playoff race was a non-event. By mid-September it was clear that the Rays and Yankees would make the postseason from the East Division, with one winning the division and the other the wildcard, while the Twins and Rangers both had locked up their division titles with ease.
However, September would have been a much more interesting month under the proposed league structure. With the Rays, Yankees, and Twins taking the top three slots, there would have been a three-way race for the last wildcard. The Rangers, Red Sox, and Chicago White Sox ended the season with 90, 89, and 88 wins, respectively, and all three would have had a legitimate chance to go to the postseason. What actually happened was that the Red Sox and White Sox did not even come close to making a postseason appearance, their very strong seasons notwithstanding.
The current system, with three divisions and a weak West, essentially eliminated those two teams from contention, even though they won 88 or 89 games. Texas, meanwhile, won just 90 games and took a division title. The revised system would force Texas to compete with other good teams for a playoff slot. And just as no team should be rewarded for playing in a weak division, no team should be penalized for playing in a strong division. The proposed realignment remedies that by allowing up to three teams from either division to land a spot in the playoffs.
It should go without saying that a three-way race among deserving teams for one slot would create much more excitement among fans. At the same time, it would be much more rewarding for franchises that put good teams on the field.
In 2009, the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Colorado Rockies made the playoffs from the National League, while the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels, and Boston Red Sox made it from the American League. Under my proposed league structure, seven of the eight teams still would have made the playoffs, with the Texas Rangers instead beating out the Twins for the last wildcard in the American League. Once again, however, competition for the final playoff spots would have been quite different.
In the National League, the Phillies, Cardinals, and Dodgers won their divisions with relative ease, while the Rockies pulled away from San Francisco to take the wildcard.
Under the revised system, Philadelphia and Los Angeles would have won their respective divisions, while Colorado and St. Louis would have taken the wildcards. With 86-88 wins apiece, the San Francisco Giants, Florida Marlins, and Atlanta Braves might have made the race more interesting, but ultimately they would have fallen short.
In the American League, the Yankees and Red Sox locked up two slots early, winning 103 and 95 games, respectively, while the Angels won 97 games to run away with the West Division. The only real race was for the title in the Central Division, where the Twins and Detroit Tigers ended the regular season tied, with 86 wins and 76 losses. The Twins won a one-game playoff between the teams to become the division winner.
That lackluster September contrasts sharply with a remarkable scenario based on the simplified divisional structure. The same three powerhouses—the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels—would have punched their postseason tickets early. However, the fourth slot would have been within reach for a whopping five teams (see table 6). Indeed, the Rangers, Twins, Tigers, Seattle Mariners, and Tampa Bay Rays all ended with 84-87 wins; competition for the last wildcard spot likely would have come down to the last game of the season. Based on the actual final records, the Rangers would have edged both the Tigers and Twins by one game. Again, having so many teams in the hunt at the tail end of the season would be good for fans and franchises alike.
In 2008, the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Milwaukee Brewers made the playoffs from the National League, while the Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Angels, and Boston Red Sox made it from the American League. Under my proposed structure, six of the eight teams still would have made the playoffs, with the New York Mets replacing the Dodgers in the National League and the New York Yankees replacing the White Sox in the American League.
The National League playoff race was fairly intriguing in 2008. The Mets battled the Phillies for first place in the East Division while also hoping to be able to fall back on a wildcard slot. The Cubs won the Central Division easily, while the Brewers came on strong as a wildcard contender from that division. Meanwhile, the Dodgers won a weak West Division over the Arizona Diamondbacks by just two games. The race ultimately came down to a contest between the Brewers and Mets for the wildcard, and the Brewers won it by a game on the last day of the season.
Under the simplified system, the Cubs would have won the East Division easily, while the Phillies and Mets would have taken the wildcards. The Brewers would have taken the West Division crown, with the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals a few games back in both the division and the wildcard. The most interesting thing about this scenario is that the Dodgers, who took the West Division title in 2008 with a mere 84 wins, do not even come close to making the playoffs (see table 8). This is one of the better examples of how the proposed system solves the problem of weak divisions.
Over in the American League, the Rays and Red Sox locked up their playoff slots fairly early in the East Division, while the Angels won 100 games in the West. Once again, the only real race was in the Central Division, where the White Sox and Minnesota Twins ended the regular season tied, with 88 wins and 74 losses. The White Sox won a one-game playoff between the teams to become the division winner.
This history stands in stark contrast to what would have happened in a two-division league. Under my proposal, the three elite teams—the Rays, Angels, and Red Sox—would have cruised to the playoffs, but there would have been much more competition for the final spot. A three-way race between the Yankees, White Sox, and Twins would have ended with the Yankees clinching a playoff berth on the last day of the season. Even the Toronto Blue Jays, who finished with 86 wins, would have had an outside shot at the wildcard during the last month of the season.
The year 2007 is perhaps the least interesting/relevant to this study. The Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Colorado Rockies represented a weak National League in the playoffs, while the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and Los Angeles Angels all finished with strong records to fill out the American League field. In a streamlined league, seven of those eight teams still would have made the playoffs, with the San Diego Padres replacing the Cubs in the National League.
The actual National League race in 2007 was somewhat compelling, even if that was because there were no teams with elite records. In the East Division, the Phillies beat the New York Mets by one game after the Mets surrendered a seven-game lead with 17 to play. In the West Division, the Diamondbacks took first place with 90 wins, while the Rockies and Padres finished the season tied for second. The Rockies won a one-game playoff between the two teams to take the wildcard. And the Cubs took the Central Division title with just 85 victories, besting the Milwaukee Brewers by two games.
Under the alternate scenario, the Phillies and Diamondbacks still would have been division winners, but instead of playing a one-game play-in, the Rockies and Padres each would have won a wildcard slot with 89 wins and 73 losses. The most interesting aspect of this scenario is that the Cubs would not have come close to the playoffs, as their 85 wins would have been good for only third place in the East Division. The Mets would have missed out on both the division title and the wildcard by one game.
The American League was much stronger overall in 2007, with all playoff teams winning no fewer than 94 games. The Indians won the Central Division, while the Angels won the West. The only real question was in the East Division, where the Red Sox and Yankees competed for the title, with the second-place team taking the wildcard.
Not much would have changed under the alternate division system, although the Red Sox and Indians would have ended the season tied for first, and a tiebreaker would have to be determined. The question here is not which four teams would go to the playoffs, but in what order would they enter the postseason. There were no undeserving American League teams playing in the postseason this year; all were in a class above the rest of the league.
In 2006, the New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres, and Los Angeles Dodgers made the playoffs from the National League, while the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, and Detroit Tigers made it from the American League. Seven of eight of the teams would have made the playoffs in 2006 under a revised system, with the Philadelphia Phillies replacing the Cardinals in the National League.
In the National League, the Mets ran roughshod over the East Division, taking the title with 97 wins. The contest in the West came down to the Padres and Dodgers. The teams finished with identical records, with the former going into the playoffs as the division winner and the latter taking the wildcard. Finally, the Cardinals topped a weak Central Division with 83 wins, beating the Cincinnati Reds by a game and a half.
Apart from the Mets, there were no standout teams in the National League in 2006. Under a revised system, the Padres still would have won the West, while the wildcard teams would have been the Phillies and Dodgers. The most interesting thing about this alternative outcome is that the Cardinals, who ended up winning the 2006 World Series, would not have even qualified for the postseason. In fact, they would have finished third in the West, four games behind the Padres and Dodgers. This is another data point that supports the argument that only the best teams should be rewarded with a postseason berth. A thoroughly mediocre Cardinals team made the playoffs from a weak division and then got lucky and hot at the right time, and then stumbled its way into a championship.
All American League teams that went to the postseason in 2006 were strong, with the Yankees winning the East Division, the Twins winning the Central, the Athletics winning the West, and the Tigers taking the wildcard. The playoff picture would have been unchanged had the league been under the simplified alignment, with the Yankees and Twins as division winners and the Tigers and Athletics as the wildcards. The next closest team, the Chicago White Sox, would have finished three games out of the wildcard. (It is worth noting that the White Sox’s record of 90 wins and 72 losses would have put the team in second place in either the East or West, but was good for only third in a strong Central Division.)
Effect of realigned leagues on competitive balance
Before I examine the effect of a realigned league, I should note that Major League Baseball already is fairly well balanced, at least relative to other major U.S. sports.
For instance, there have been 10 different World Series winners in the last 16 seasons: the Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees, Florida Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks, Anaheim Angels, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, and San Francisco Giants (note that this statistic includes a Yankees dynasty that won four titles between 1996 and 2000). There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, so fully a third of them have won a championship since the 1994 strike.
When considering World Series appearances rather than victories, we see that 18 different teams have played in the World Series during the last 16 years, meaning that 60% of MLB teams have been just a few wins away from a championship during that time. (To the list above, add the following World Series losers: Cleveland Indians, San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Houston Astros, Detroit Tigers, Colorado Rockies, Tampa Bay Rays, and Texas Rangers.)
When it comes to determining how the proposal for streamlined leagues relates to competitive balance, a metric such as the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index is poorly suited for the job. First, short of seeing a different champion every year, it would be tough for Major League Baseball to have a more diverse group of World Series winners than it already has. Second, realigned leagues will not necessarily lead to more champions. Rather, the structure simply would give more teams a chance at contending.
The basic idea here is to make simple changes that would leave most of the leagues’ identifying characteristics intact. The proposal would give more teams a shot at the postseason without changing too much at once in terms of league operations. The best teams should either get to the playoffs or at least have a fair shot at getting to the playoffs. There is a chance that a streamlined system would increase championship diversity, but the fact is that MLB is already pretty diverse in that regard.
By the numbers
To determine whether a streamlined league structure helps competitive balance, I simply will compare the number of teams that were within three games of a playoff spot at the end of the season under each structure. I chose the three-game mark because it is reasonable to think that such a gap that could be closed in the last 7-10 days of the season (a three-game winning streak by the trailing team alongside a three-game losing streak by the leader would leave the teams tied).
The following table shows how the number of teams in contention would change under a simplified league structure.
In many cases, the revised structure would enhance the race for the postseason by including more teams. The effect is essentially neutral in the National League, where the streamlined system would have served more to prevent weaker teams from gaining postseason berths than to help good teams that were unjustly shut out. However, the effect is very pronounced in the American League, where a net eight additional teams over the last five seasons would have had a better opportunity to compete for a playoff slot.
Let us begin with the National League, where earlier we saw examples of playoff-bound division winners that would not be near the top of the heap in other divisions. The streamlined league system does a good job of remedying this problem, specifically with respect to the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, the 2007 Chicago Cubs, and the 2008 Los Angeles Dodgers. All were weak teams that probably should not have been in the playoffs, and under the proposed system, they would be on the outside looking in. Indeed, the one outlier in the table above is the National League in 2007. In that case, the streamlined system leads to fewer contenders, but that is because the Cubs, who won the Central Division, would have placed third in the East Division, four games behind the first-place Philadelphia Phillies and four games behind both wildcard winners (see table 10). Truth be told, the Cubs never deserved to contend that year.
On the other hand, the American League has had the opposite problem. All too often there have been strong American League teams that do not have a chance at the postseason simply because there are three divisions. Examples of such teams include the 2006 Chicago White Sox, the 2008 New York Yankees, and the 2010 Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox. It is impossible to say whether any of these teams could have or should have won a World Series, but I believe they at least should have had a chance to get there.
A greater number of divisions in each league of Major League Baseball leads some divisions to be watered down in some years, while others see too much competition for too few playoff slots. As I have illustrated here, a return to the two-division format would make the month of September more exciting for fans, more rewarding and fair for good teams, and more profitable for owners. It is certainly in the best interest of baseball to have the best teams competing for the top prize.
¶ A possible flaw with this analysis is that it uses team records that are based on the three-division leagues. Perhaps the records of certain teams would have been different with a two-division structure, but unfortunately there is no other way to run the analysis.
¶ Under the structure I propose, homefield advantage in the playoffs and the World Series will be determined by regular season record, which will give all teams in contention an incentive to compete down the stretch.
¶ Source for tables: Baseball-Reference.com.