Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Baseball's Foolish Realignment Plan

I know I'm late to the party on this one, but as they say, better late than never, right? I'd like to give a brief treatment to the potential realignment plan that was first reported by Buster Olney and debated as of late. I know that many others have written longer, and better, about this idea, but I'd like to give it the once-over myself.

The idea, for anyone who doesn't know, would be to have 15 teams in the American and National Leagues, to eliminate divisions, and to simply have the teams with the five best records make the playoffs. I for one think this would be a huge mistake.

First, it is important to note that aside from Buster Olney, several very well-respected baseball writers have come out in favor of the realignmnent plan. Dave Cameron and Jeff Passan, in particular, do excellent and thoughtful work, and are both strongly in favor of the plan. This means that, despite being originally brought to light by Olney, that this idea must have some credence.

Cameron, in particular, feels that the proposed plan makes for a fairer sport. He points out the disparity between the four-team AL West and the six-team NL Central, and also the fundamental disadvantage that the rest of the AL East has when faced with the Yankee and Red Sox behemoths. Essentially, Cameron concludes that "While I’ve been trained to believe that nearly every “improvement” MLB suggests is probably a bad idea, this actually seems like a pretty fantastic idea to me, in large part due to my desire to see increased fairness in the sport."

Fairness. Fairness? For those in favor of realignment, fairness really does seem to be the main sticking point. And who could disagree? I think we all should hope for a system where the best teams make the playoffs, where all fan bases can have the opportunity to root for a winner, and no team need be structurally disadvantaged. However, I don't think that this drastic realignment plan truly addresses these issues -- and if it did, the downsides far outweigh the advantages.

For the sake of brevity, I'll present the following reasons in list format:

1. If you're concerned about the AL West and NL Central being imbalanced -- which I have been for a decade -- why not just move a team?

Let the Astros, or whomever, go to the AL West. Then, you've got equal divisions everywhere. Will there be the "constant interleague" problem? Sure. But it's no more or less than with the other plan.

2. Getting rid of division races would be terrible for the regular season, and for the sport in general.

Watching division races down the stretch is the best thing about baseball. Would you rather watch the Mets and Phillies battle head to head down the stretch, or watch the Marlins and Padres jockey for the fifth and final playoff spot?

I think we've all seen what it's like when a sport has most of its field battling it out in a vague homogeneous mix. In hockey, the regular season is practically irrelevant. It's the same in basketball. In those sports, all the top teams get to coast to the finish while a few battle it out for the last few playoff spots.

Take, for instance, the National League in 2007. Down the stretch, we were treated to an incredible division race in the NL East ... I need not remind any of you what happened, but it was incredibly exciting and memorable for all of baseball. In the proposed realignment plan, that never happens. The Mets make the playoffs without any dramatics at all.

3. This doesn't solve the problem of competitive imbalance.

What baseball should be striving for is a good competitive balance, and an environment where every team can truly compete. They shouldn't be realigning the sport in order to provide a wimpy excuse where they can say "Hey, there were five playoff spots and you didn't make it! You have nobody to blame but yourself."

Would realignment in any season have helped the Pirates or Royals make the playoffs? Are we really so hung up on the Rays and Red Sox that the entire sport has to have a detrimental make-over? We've already got a wild card -- if the advantage that the Yankees and Red Sox have is, in fact, so steep to the point when it ruins the game, why not address it substantively rather than passive-aggressively?

This realignment plan sounds to me like MLB is conceding that the Yankees and Red Sox will make the playoffs every year, and they need to figure out a way to make it seem fair for the other teams to fight for the scraps. That, to me, is the real problem.

4. What is truly fair? And should the "best teams" making the playoffs even be a concern? And even if the teams with the five best balanced records made the playoffs, would that make them the best?

Ultimately, we all agree that there should be fairness in the sport. But I believe that should be as a result of policy and rule changes to the competition side, not the playoff method.

Was it fair for the Mets to miss the playoffs in 2007 while the Cubs made it with an inferior record? I think that it was. Chicago won it's division, and the Mets did not, even when they had the chance to. Was it fair for the Cardinals to make the playoffs in 2006 with 83 wins, while Philadelphia (85) and Los Angeles (88) went home? I submit to you that it was. We all know what the Cardinals went on to do that season in winning the World Series -- doesn't that make them the best?

Baseball is a game. It's not a scientific study to determine which team is "best" in a given year. I imagine that if there even were a way to determine the "best" team, that they probably don't win the World Series more than a third of the time.

I agree that there are issues in our sport that need addressing. However, radically reshaping the sport and creating a host of other issues (interleague, travel, DH, 15th place teams) is not the way I believe we should be addressing them.

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