Meaningful Games In September

I touched on it briefly in today’s link dump, but I wonder to what effect the so called Wild Card race has ruined the late August Yankees / Red Sox series that finishes up this evening.

Normally the stuff of a Buzz Bissinger book, the top two teams in the American League East, within a game and a half of each other atop the standings, have been duking it out (almost literally) over the last three days, and I can’t bring myself to care. Perhaps I’m alone, but the standings in the American League have taken the luster off what’s normally an important matchup.

As we enter September, the Tampa Bay Rays, another AL East team, are the closest team to the Yankees in the American League Wild Card race, but they find themselves a most likely insurmountable seven and a half games back. This isn’t to suggest that the Wild Card, itself, is the problem. It’s not. It adds a level of excitement and normally does a good job of countering the negative effect that MLB’s divisional breakdown has when it comes to ensuring that the best teams reach the postseason.

However, the talent gap between divisions in the American League is so vast that we’re presented with a problem that I don’t see going away any time soon without realignment or putting an end to divisions in baseball.

An end to divisions? I know it seems sacrilegious to suggest, but the talent levels of the rosters of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, combined with the emergence of the Tampa Bay Rays and the ongoing improvements to the Toronto Blue Jays have essentially demolished the importance of the Wild Card and East division title. Meanwhile, the titles for the other American League divisions are tainted when the third place team in the other division would either win or be a close second anywhere else.

While it’s not as drastic or likely to be permanent in the National League, something similar is happening with the Philadelphia Phillies running away with the NL East and the Atlanta Braves not worrying about finishing second. As good as the Milwaukee Brewers have been this season, the Braves would actually be ahead of them based on winning percentage points if they were in the same division. Atlanta would also be three games up on the NL West leading Arizona Diamondbacks in a world without geography lessons.

The whole reasoning behind playing 162 baseball games in a season is to allow the true talent levels of teams emerge. In that sense, the team with the best record at the end of the regular season is in most cases, the best team for that year. The playoffs are an already flawed, but exciting, way of extending the true purpose of the season. The legitimacy of MLB’s playoffs shouldn’t be put into further question by keeping the best teams in both talent and over 162 games of the season from competing against each other.

Divisions make sense in a world where travel is done by bus and train, but with modern conveniences like air travel and computer optimized schedules, there’s no real justification for further breaking down what are essentially conferences in baseball, other than tradition and the potential for excitement.

While a divisionless baseball universe might not make a Yankees / Red Sox game specifically more exciting, especially not if you’re Mark Teixeira, it would at least promote the possibility of more meaningful games.

If you were to take the current standings and sort them by winning percentage, you’d get something like this in the American League:

  1. Boston Red Sox,  –
  2. New York Yankees, –
  3. Rangers, –
  4. Tigers, –
  5. Rays, 0.5 GB
  6. Angels, 2.0 GB
  7. Indians, 5.5 GB
  8. White Sox, 6.0 GB
  9. Blue Jays, 7.0 GB
  10. Atheltics, 15.0 GB

That’s five teams all within seven games of a playoff spot as we enter the final month of the season versus only three teams that can say the same thing with the way things are currently done. In the National League, it would only mean one additional team still in the playoff race.

With all the recent talk of playoff expansion and the increased excitement such a rule change might make, eliminating divisions makes the final month of the season more exciting, without further jeopardizing or calling into question the integrity of the regular season, something that’s vital for a game that’s decided by so much randomness that it requires 162 games for a truly great team to emerge.

Comments (21)

  1. I can’t say I understand why you opened this piece by referencing Red Sox/Yankees when their match-ups would be just as meaningless in the system you propose. Not that I don’t think eliminating the decisions is a good idea but I just find there to an odd disconnect between your opening observation and what you ultimately propose.

  2. * divisions (obviously)

  3. How does a two wildcard system with a one game playoff not solve this problem? Teams would fight to the death for the advantage of being able to start their ace in the first playoff game. Yankees Red Sox would be interesting right now and the Jays would only be 7 games out of a playoff spot.

  4. I’m a big fan of this. I would also go back to a 154 game balanced schedule so we could move up the playoff start date. Top 3 teams in each league get buys. 4 versus 5 in a one game playoff. If you think 1 game is unfair, it is just more of an incentive to finish in the top 3. So you would have a race to finish in the top 5 and a sub-race to finish in the top 3.

    Leagues stay the same – 14 teams in the AL, 16 in NL.

  5. I would rather they look to expand the playoffs by two teams in each league and have 2 divisions per league with 4 wild card spots. Division winners get a 1st round bye, and the next best 4 teams duke it out in best-of-3 or best-of 5 series to play the division winners. Makes the pennant races relevant again while ensuring other top teams have a good shot at the playoffs.

  6. The problem with drastic changes (as opposed to just adding one WC) is that the only teams truly disadvantaged by the current system are Toronto, Baltimore and Tampa. And Tampa made the WS recently, so does MLB want drastic changes just for the Jays and Os?

  7. Adding wild cards means that more teams are getting into the playoffs, causing the importance of the regular season to fall into question. No divisions means four best teams advance no matter what.

    I don’t want more playoff teams or one game deciding something it shouldn’t, it’s already enough of a crapshoot as it is.

    It’s a good point from Darnell, but I would say that a competitive franchise in Toronto is very good for baseball considering its regional market size and potential growth nationally.

  8. I think the best way to level things is to do away with the divisions and go to one table, balanced sched. Now, that means doing away with interleague likely, but it is the most fair to all teams as far as I can tell.

    Hell, I’m a Yankee fan and this series is largely irrelevant to me…though seeing tonight’s trainwreck with Burnett on the mound for a possible nervous breakdown has some appeal.

  9. the 10 team playoff idea solves this much better – it puts real specific importance on winning your division as opposed to settling for the wild card. i don’t think NY/Boston would be taking these games lightly if they knew a 3-game series with Tampa/LA awaited the loser of the race. (similarly, i’d like to see all other rounds bumped up to 7 – 5 game playoff series are ridiculous.)

    i wouldn’t mind seeing an end to divisions and a balanced schedule – it would work nicely – but it’s not the easiest way to solve this specific problem.

  10. the clouds between the lights in that picture looks like a dick and two balls.

  11. Doing with divisions would be great. If the top4 make it, there’s none of that 83win-WorldSeries Champs bullshit like the 2006 Cardinals.

  12. Dustin – this may be the best thing you’ve ever written. The biggest problem facing baseball is the ancient reliance on geography to allocate winners and losers. The time has come to end the time zone tyranny.

  13. I totally agree with your point Dustin.

    The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough places in the playoffs, it is that the current system gives the opportunity for inferior teams to get in solely based on geography. They could even present this change as “baseball returning to its roots” since before 1969 there weren’t any divisions.
    Ideally I would like to see this take place, the season drop down to 154 games, and have the first round of the playoffs expanded from 5 to 7 games …to make it slightly less of a crapshoot, and to make playoffs start a bit earlier.

  14. I still don’t see what the opposition to a one game wild card playoff is. Its a simple baseball rule; if you don’t win your division, your best shot at the playoffs is a one game playoff. it was true before the wildcard, I see no problem with it being true within the wildcard system. The ‘first wildcard’ plays at home, and the winner goes on to play the top division winner. I can’t understand the opposition to that at all.

    • Too much unnecessary weight being put on one game after 162.

      • That’s the tiebreaker for divisions. Its possibly my favorite thing in baseball; the 163rd game. Don’t see at all why it shouldn’t apply for wildcard teams. Gives a clear advantage to division winners, adds spice to pennant races and gives us the most intense baseball game physically possible – TWICE A YEAR! But yes, this is something to avoid at all costs.

  15. One aspect too often ignored is how little advantage one extra home game is come playoff time. How about the better team getting five home games – 3 home, 2 away, 2 home – and save some of the travel and the travel days that kill the playoffs rhythm? I’m all for teams flooring it to the end of 162, but there has to be a carrot there, too.

    Or, here’s a CRAZY one: team with the best regular season record gets home field in the WORLD SERIES. Insane…I know.

    I think if you’ve been proven to be the best over 162, you should get a lot more benefit than one extra home game per series, and it just might limit some of the crapshoot teams you see winning. I want to see greatness rewarded, not just who got hot.

  16. Bang on sir. I’ve been on my soapbox about this for quite a while now. Eight playoff teams in MLB is plenty. Get rid of divisions, balance the schedule (if it takes getting rid of interleague I’m down with that…but that might be too radical for MLB’s glacial pace when it comes to change – oh noes!) and you’re guaranteed to get the four best teams from each league in the playoffs. What a [Getting Blanked]ing concept.

    Also, Red Sox-Yankees games would become more special because there would be less of them. Right now this rivalry bores the [Getting Blanked] out of me. I would like to see other teams besides the AL East teams nearly half the season every season please. Is it too much to ask? Probably. But I can dream dammit.

    • There’s an interesting problem with doing away with divisions. Imagine the teeth gnashing from Fox and ESPN by NOT having 18 games a yearof Red Sox-Yankees. You’d have to convince them too.

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