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.