Wednesday, August 17, 2011

MLB Realignment

Recently adding an additional wildcard spot to baseball has been a hot topic. Universally, it is agreed that this is a good idea. However, the main impediment is how such a change will be implemented. The most talked about solution is to add a wildcard spot and have a one game playoff between the two wildcard teams.

I think there are two main set backs to this plan. First, the additional spot really isn't another "seat" in the playoffs. Essentially, it's a play-in game. The second, and more egregious pitfall, is if the difference between the two wildcard teams could be a considerable number of games, and the team that is considerably behind could defeat the far more deserving team.

While Baseball Moralists may be dissatisfied with this possibility of an undeserving team sneaking into the playoffs, there is a far more detrimental ramification to baseball from creating such a play-in game. This change in playoff format will lead small market team to utilize a "playing for second" mentality as opposed to today's long-term organizational strategy to develop into a championship contender. To elaborate, currently small market teams (under stricter financial constrains) such as the Tampa Bay Rays spend years carefully drafting, meticulously developing, and negotiating through strenuous arbitration to craft championship caliber teams at discount prices. Normally, these teams can only be competitive for a few years each decade until the team is forced to sell off its players in hopes of contending in the future and sustaining profits.

The new system will create a new option for these small market teams to steal a piece of playoff revenues. From now on small market teams would only have to shoot for the second wildcard spot and have one pitcher who is capable of helping the team win the play-in game in order to reek the benefits of a best-of-seven-games series. Small market teams would be reluctant to spend the difference between being a borderline wildcard team and a true contending team because the payoff would not be worth the assurance. In most cases the cost of adding one or two everyday players would not be worth the aspirations of additional ticket sales. To sum, teams will have a small risk and high reward alternative as opposed to today's system which encourages bolder decisions to create more sustainable teams.

A perfect example of this downfall would be the San Francisco Giants this year (2011). The Giants acquired Carlos Beltran, Orlando Cabrera, and Jeff Keppinger in order to become a feasible title contender. However, under the "play-in" system the moves to keep up with the Diamondbacks and Braves would be unnecessary. The Giants would simply have to stay ahead of the second place team in the NL Central (currently the injury worn Cardinals). Furthermore, the Giants could even afford to play down to the second place team in the NL Central and force a one game playoff for the play-in game. This is a more favorable scenario for the Giants. The Giants could play down and then hope to have elite pitchers Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain carry them into the playoffs. The Giants would prefer the "second place" mindset because they would not have to pay the additional salaries, nor give up the prospects for the additional players acquired during the trade deadline to remain competitive.

Currently this down fall is discouraged by the need to be a division champion or hold the prized wildcard spot. Under the current system, the wildcard is highly coveted in both leagues because of the durable big market teams. In the AL, the Yankees and Red Sox make the wildcard difficult to snatch while the Phillies, Mets, and Braves make the wildcard difficult to hold in the NL.

Rather than having a "play-in" system, a four division playoff with two wildcards would be more appealing in all regards. Such a system would use a modified NFL playoff setup as the template. The top two teams would earn byes (these could be the top two teams regardless of division and wildcard status OR the top teams that considering division and wildcard status). The remainder of the teams would play out a best-of-three-games series.

A hypothetical realignment could look like this:

AL Northeast: NY Yankees / Boston / Toronto / Baltimore
NL Northeast: Philadelphia / NY Mets / Atlanta / Pittsburgh

AL South: Tampa / Washington / Florida / New Southern Team
NL South: Kansas City / Colorado / Houston / Texas

AL Central: Detroit / Cleveland / White Sox / Minnesota
NL Central: Milwaukee / St. Louis / Cubs / Cincinnati

AL West: LA Angels / Seattle / Oakland / New Western Team
NL West: San Francisco / LA Dodgers / San Diego / Arizona

Some possible locations for the new Western team could be Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland,Oregon. Some possible locations for the new Southern team could be Charlotte, North Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee or Louisville, Kentucky.

The most prominent factors in my proposed realignment were geographic location (to reduce the burdens of frequent long-distance travel) and rivalry status. The actual realignment is the least of concern. Installing a fair and competitive format is of higher purpose in this discussion.

The biggest concerns with my proposal are: 1) If baseball can persist in the new markets; 2) How parity is addressed within divisions; 3) Is AL South a sustainable division; 4)Is the extra time for the top two teams fair or an undeserved burden?

Of the four concerns, the first will be the most difficult to address. The proposed locations for a new Western team primarly focuses on forming new markets in seemingly strong fan bases. Albuquerque has proven to be a solid foundation for minor league baseball while Portland has proven to be a great host city in the other professional sports (including soccer). On the other hand, the locations for the southern team focuses on dividing the tremendous Atlanta market and localizing support. All three locations are baseball rich and have shown the ability to sustain teams in other professional sport. While the markets will likely be sufficient, the overlying question is if there are enough MLB caliber players for two more organizations. The globalization of baseball surely helps this dilemma, but whether or not two competitive teams can be formed quickly will remain an obstacle.

Next, parity is quelled by the addition of two playoff spots provides each team an unquestionable opportunity to make it to the playoffs. If you have one of the four best records in your league, then your team is guaranteed to play in October. For example, all four teams in the would be highly competitive AL Northeast could earn a spot in the playoffs.

The third concern is a short term concern. While the AL South wouldn't start as the most prolific division, baseball, like most sports, is cyclic to a significant extent and all the divisions will reach highs and lows.

Finally, the fourth concern is an issue faced in football as well: Is the extra time off fair for the top two teams? If a team is tired, has worn out arms, or has veteran players who need some rest, then there will be little discontent; however, if a team is young and rolling then some time off some from baseball could be destructive. Ideally, there would be four (or a maximum of five) days between the last game of the regular season and the first day of the post-season. Currently, there are two or three games between the the last regular season game and the first post-season game.

The largest possible margin of difference is three days while the smallest is one day between the current and the proposed formats. The only players who will have serious complaints (i.e. not using the break as a scapegoat) are players in their prime who are hot at the time of the break. Both younger players - not used to such an arduous schedule - and older players - worn out from the long season - will appreciate the rest while players who are cold will have an opportunity to fine tune themselves.

The other main concern is that it will leave teams who play in the first round of the extended playoffs in an unfavorable pitching order against the top teams in the second round. Consequently, this forces teams to have deeper pitching rotations. This protects against teams utilizing the "second-place" strategy since teams are almost guaranteed a cyclic playoff position with the expanded spots which leaves the only gained opportunity as pursuing a championship. Ideally, the wildcard spots would function as entry post-season positions as they do in the NFL. Obviously, there is less parity in baseball than football, so such an acclimation cannot go unquestioned; however, it is not an oblivious stretch. Ultimately, there is no prevention for a team that purposely tanks as the Pirates have done.

Below are hypothetical pitching orders for teams based on size of the pitching rotation and the length of the first round series. It is assumed that the team with the pitcher higher in his respective team's rotation wins the game; this assumption is quite sizable. Not accepting this assumption asserts that the spot of the specific pitcher in his respective rotation is not a critical component of a team's success in the game. Either way, the lower seeded team has a reasonable chance to win in all of the scenarios.

FOUR PITCHER ROTATION
- Two Game Series in First Round -
Upper Seeded Team: Ace - Two - Three - Four - Ace - Two - Three
Lower Seeded Team: Three - Four - Ace - Two - Three - Four - Ace
Result: Upper Seeded Team wins 4-2
- Three Game Series in First Round -
Upper Seeded Team: Ace - Two - Three - Four - Ace - Two - Three
Lower Seeded Team: Four - One - Two - Three - Four - One - Two
Result: Lower Seeded Team wins 4-2

THREE PITCHER ROTATION
- Two Game Series in First Round -
Upper Seeded Team: Ace - Two - Three - Ace- Two - Three - Ace
Lower Seeded Team: Three - Ace - Two - Three - Ace - Two - Three
Result: Lower Seeded Team wins 4-2
- Three Game Series in First Round -
Upper Seeded Team: Ace - Two - Three - Ace- Two - Three - Ace
Lower Seeded Team: Ace - Two - Three - Ace- Two - Three - Ace
Result: Evenly matched

FOUR PITCHER ROTATION (Upper) VS THREE PITCHER ROTATION (Lower)
- Two Game Series in First Round -
Upper Seeded Team: Ace - Two - Three - Four - Ace - Two - Three
Lower Seeded Team: Three - Ace - Two - Three - Ace - Two - Three
Result: Lower Seeded Team leads 3-1 win final three games being evenly matched
- Three Game Series in First Round -
Upper Seeded Team: Ace - Two - Three - Four - Ace - Two - Three
Lower Seeded Team: Ace - Two - Three - Ace - Two - Three - Ace
Result: The first three games are evenly matched, and the final games are split 2-2

THREE PITCHER ROTATION (Upper) VS FOUR PITCHER ROTATION (Lower)
- Two Game Series in First Round -
Upper Seeded Team: Ace - Two - Three - Ace- Two - Three - Ace
Lower Seeded Team: Three - Four - Ace - Two - Three - Four - Ace
Result: Upper Seeded Team wins 4-1
- Three Game Series in First Round -
Upper Seeded Team: Ace - Two - Three - Ace- Two - Three - Ace
Lower Seeded Team: Four - Ace - Two - Three - Four - Ace - Two
Result: Upper Seeded Team win 4-3

Essentially, this text matrix shows that the teams have the same chance of winning regardless of the pitching rotation.

All in all, big market teams are unfazed and small market teams are given a chance to contend while being encouraged to continue to develop into a championship contender (as opposed to simply making the playoffs); this is assured by creating more incentive for continued playoff revenue (in other terms, sustaining "longer" and "higher" peaks in cycles of contention) greater than the cost of retaining and acquiring players at reasonable values.

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