The past sixteen seasons of Major League Baseball were a farce. The Yankees victories in 1996 and 2000 should not have happened. The Red Sox should not have ended their 86 year drought in 2004. The Marlins should never have played for a World Series title, let alone win two titles.
Forty-four percent of the World Series participants since 1995 should never have been there. Fifty percent of the World Series Champions did not belong in the postseason. If baseball had never changed to three divisions and a wild card in 1995, baseball history as we now know it would read much differently.
MLB has gone from a seven month endurance test to crown a champion to a three week crap shoot between eight teams. MLB introduced interleague play and unbalanced schedules that results in vastly different paths to the wild card slot in each league. With Commissioner Bud Selig and GM’s considering expanding the number of wild card slots, MLB is seriously looking at weakening its product even further. From SI.com the other day,
Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said expanding the playoffs “would probably be good for the fans.”
“Certainly other sports have more teams and I think that’s very beneficial, ” he said. “The way the game’s gone the last decade, a lot of parity and a really a lot of good jobs by not just the big market teams getting in, I think whatever keeps people in the race and keeps the fans that love their team s with the hope of getting in and maybe another a team or two get in I think that would be great.”
MLB is absolutely correct that they need to make changes to keep fans interested and give teams a better chance at being competitive. MLB is absolutely wrong in thinking that expanded playoffs are the way to go. MLB needs to get back to its historical roots and be creative in making the game more appealing throughout the long season.
I have a few ideas that would benefit MLB as they move forward. My goals are the same as Bud Selig’s: make the season more interesting to fans; give teams a better opportunity to compete for a title; and grow revenues.
My inspiration is the English Premiership, soccer’s top league. The league consists of twenty teams playing a 28 game schedule with a home and away game against each team. The team with the most points at the end of the year wins the title. The top four of the twenty teams also compete in the Champions League, a year long tournament of the best teams in Europe. Another two or three teams compete in the UEFA Europa League. Finally, all twenty compete in the FA Cup and the Carling Cup, which are a single elimination tournies comprised of club teams from around England. In all, there are upwards of five titles up for grabs over the season.
As Joe Posnanski correctly pointed out the other day, American sports generally need the payoff of playoffs. We cannot change MLB to a 162 game competition with the World Series title going to the team with the best record. We can however go back to two leagues with two divisions and a balanced schedule without interleague play. The AL East and AL West champions play a seven game series to get into the World Series. The NL East and NL West champs do the same.
I also propose that two separate tournaments, or Cup Series, be run during the regular season to maintain fan interest throughout the season, especially in those markets where the World Series is a distant dream. I am looking at you Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Florida, Washington, Baltimore and Toronto. These Cup series games would not count in the regular season standings.
The first Cup series will involve the thirty teams being broken into groups of five, playing for six distinct Cups: The Great Lakes Cup, The Northern Colonies Cup, The Midwest Cup, The Western Cup, The California Cup and The Cup of The South. The same five teams will compete for the same cup each year. Each Cup will of course have some sort of corporate sponsorship attached. Each Cup will be conducive to pouring beer or champagne into it, if you know what I mean.
The second Cup series is called the Challenge Cup and will again be heavily sponsored. It involves the league’s thirty teams being randomly drawn into ten three team groups. After a round robin set of three game series, the ten top teams will advance to a single elimination playoffs culminating in the Challenge Cup Final. The Challenge Cup Semis and Final will be played in pre-determined locations each year.
With these modifications, I have just given every team three opportunities to win some sort of title. Even if Kansas City has no chance at the World Series, they certainly can take a run at the Midwest Cup title each year. With a bit of luck, they can get hot and take advantage of the crapshoot that is the Challenge Cup. As I will detail a bit later, I have added 18 to 31 meaningful games to each team’s schedule during the season.
I have also satisfied the traditionalists that would love to eliminate the wild card and get back to placing importance on the regular season. With only four teams competing for the World Series each October, we are going to ensure that the World Series champion was one of the best teams over the entire season.
Lastly, I have given MLB a couple of ways to increase their revenue base without simply expanding the playoffs. They now have six regional Cups to sell sponsorship on, they have more regional rivalry games which should attract fans and they have a Challenge Cup series to market and sell television rights.
With my planned changes outlined, I will know get into more specific detail. There are sure to be some practical issues that I have not considered. Please feel free to add your two cents in the comments section.
The rest of this post will cover the following: outlining the teams in each Regional Cup and how the tournament works; an overview of the Challenge Cup tournament; defining the divisions in each league; and providing an overview of the resulting regular season schedule. I will address possible issues and concerns as I go.
The Regional Cups:
Those are six pretty exciting Cup series. As a Blue Jays fan, I am pumped about renewing our rivalry with Detroit in the Great Lakes Cup, which also features the battle of Chicago. The Northern Colonies Cup features three of the best teams in baseball right now, along with the battle of New York and Pennsylvania.
The Midwest is probably my favourite set of matchups, with the battle of Ohio and the battle of Missouri included. The Western Cup features the battle of Texas, while the Cup of the South has the battle of Florida and Maryland. The title of best team in California is also up for grabs.
Essentially, I have taken the best of interleague play, yanked it out of the regular season and turned it into a tournament. Each team will play the other four teams a three game series in a round robin format. Two series would be played at home and two on the road. The four teams with the best record advance to a best of three game semi-final. First place hosts fourth place, second place hosts third. The winners of those series play a three game series to decide the champion.
One issue to be resolved is the designated hitter. My preference would be to have the entire Regional Cup played with the same set of rules. Options include the winning team picks the rules for the following year, alternating rules each year or having each region select one set of rules they will adhere to.
I will go through the scheduling after I have gone through the Challenge Cup and regular season. The games will be sprinkled throughout the regular season, with all Regional Cup games going on at the same time. Teams will play a minimum of 12 and maximum of 18 Regional Cup games.
The Challenge Cup
I outlined the Challenge Cup earlier. The league’s thirty teams will be randomly drawn into three team pools with a restriction that no two teams can be from the same division. Each team will play the other two in its pool three times. The team with the best record moves on to the next round. A single game elimination is held in the event of a tie.
Ten teams will advance to the single elimination stage of the tournament. Four of the teams will play a single elimination game to make the elite eight. There are a few ways to pick the bottom four: based on win/loss record in Challenge Cup with tiebreakers; based on regular season record at the time of the playoff round (best four teams regulated seeds 7 though 10); or a random draw. I think randomly drawing the four to play their way into the elite eight would make for a decent ESPN Sportscenter.
The beauty of the Challenge Cup is it brings the excitement of single elimination games to the fans and sponsors without upsetting the regular season. The setup is such that any of the league’s team has a legitimate chance at making it pretty far into the tournament.
Again I will go through the tournament scheduling in a bit. Teams would play between 6 and 10 games. The playoffs to get from ten teams down to two would take place over a three day weekend. The Challenge Cup final would be on a Sunday night as the only game on the schedule.
The Regular Season
The above outlines my recreated East and West divisions in each league. Milwaukee has been moved back to the American League East to leave fifteen teams in each league. The National League looks exactly as it did in 1993 with the addition of the Diamondbacks to the NL West and the move of the Atlanta Braves to the NL East. The American League is also back to its original form, with the Tampa Rays added to the AL East.
We are left with eight teams in each East division and seven teams in each West division. For scheduling purposes, I wanted each team within its division to play its opponent an equal number of times. I also wanted an equal number of games against the other division in the league.
My two cup series add an additional 18 to 31 games to each team’s schedule. The magic number of games to meet my scheduling objectives is 126 games. The AL and NL West will play the teams in their division 13 times during the regular season and play the AL East and NL East teams 6 times. The AL and NL East play each team in their division 12 times, playing the AL West and NL West teams 6 times.
The result is that each team is playing between 144 and 157 games during the season, losing 3 to 8 home dates. I think my proposal is at least revenue neutral to each team. The incremental revenue generated from sponsoring the Cup series and the increased attendance during each series should offset the lost revenue from having fewer games. There is potential to expect a small bump in regular season attendance in those markets where a team is doing well in one of the Cup series.
The strength of this revised regular season is that it every team within a division plays the exact same schedule and only allows the best four teams an opportunity to win the World Series. The awarding of a wild card playoff spot in each league despite significantly different divisional and interleague schedules is unfair. To add more wild card spots might move the league from being a farce to being a joke. No baseball fan wants that to happen.
The Regular Season Schedule by Week
The above table is a roughed out weekly schedule for the regular season. I propose focusing the first month of the schedule on the regular season before putting in a three game set of a Cup series every second week. The last four weeks of the season will be focused on the pennant races with the exception of the Challenge Cup finals.
Starting in late April and continuing every second week until the end of August, half the week’s schedule will be devoted to a Regional or Challenge Cup series. The use of five teams in each regional pool and three teams in each Challenge Cup pool results in six and ten teams not participating in a given week’s Cup play. I would expect those teams to match up for regular season play. The week of July 18th is earmarked for completion of Regional and Challenge Cup play. Every series will have implications to the upcoming Cup playoffs. The dog days of summer are no longer, at least from baseball’s perspective.
The best part of my proposed schedule? There will no longer be anyone dubbed “Mr. November”. I have set it up to end the season before the end of October.
Two Practical Concerns
The two biggest issues that most baseball fans will immediately point out are the comparability of individual season statistics to prior seasons, and the implications of the two Cup series on the regular season.
Moving to a 126 game regular season will have a big impact on counting stats. Ichiro would have to swing at every pitch to ensure 200 hits in a season. Roy Halladay would be lucky to win 15 games. Albert Pujols would still hit 30 home runs and have 100 RBIs.
A small part of me says, ‘who cares?’ The number of regular season games has changed throughout the history of baseball, though generally more games have been added. The purpose of the game is for a team to win a championship, not to track individual stats.
I do realize that individual stats are the currency in which baseball is discussed. My compromise would be to count Regional and Challenge Cup stats in the regular season individual statistics. We are left with the inconsistency of some teams playing 144 games and some teams playing up to 157 games. I would counter that there were only two players that played 162 games last year, 21 that played more than 157 and 94 that played more than 144 games. The reduction in games should not have a large impact on offensive stats.
For pitchers, I do not see the number of starts decreasing for the top of the rotation. What will likely happen is that the fourth and fifth starters will lose some starts. I choose to not lose sleep over this issue.
The second issue of regular season impact is more interesting. An unequal number of games results in a difference in innings pitched. This could impact a pennant contender down the stretch. I do not have a solution to this issue other than to instruct team managers to manage their rotations. I believe that is what they are paid to do.
More interesting is the possibility of certain teams adjusting their rotation to save their best pitchers for the regular season games and using the Cup series as a chance to rest regular players. I view the issue from the opposite angle. Teams like Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Toronto may opt to adjust their rotation to focus on winning one or both of the Cup series.
I would not blame the ten teams with a legitimate chance at winning the World Series from focusing on the regular season. That still leaves twenty teams without a legitimate chance at the postseason. I have no problem if these teams focus on the Cup series and in the process increase their chances of success over the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies of the world.
Wrapping up, I hope I have got you thinking about how we might make baseball better. Your comments are more than appreciated.
I suspect if you have read this far, you are still scratching your head about my first paragraph denouncing the Yankees, Red Sox and Marlins’ World Series wins. As a bonus, I have included below my chart of who would have made the postseason if MLB had stuck with two divisions in each league and no wild card. Would is a wishful word that is probably too strong for the circumstances. Team schedules would have been different, as would team records. In any event, it is still an interesting table.