On Monday night, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers will compete against each other in the 163rd game of their respective seasons. The winner of this match will progress to another single elimination game (against the Cleveland Indians), while the loser will be done for the season. This is the case because after 162 games, the Rays and Rangers both have 91 wins, 71 losses and a .562 winning percentage.
Baseball that’s played at the Major League level – far more than most elite competitions – depends on a lot of randomness to deliver outcomes. As fans of the sport, we’ve come to understand certain principles, made evident by BABIP, home run per fly ball rates and other statistics proven to have more to do with things outside of a player’s control than what we might refer to as his skill. This randomness is the reason why the regular season baseball schedule consists of 162 games instead of 82 competitions or 16 match ups.
We need 162 games to learn which teams are best. It’s believed that over this amount of head-to-head battles, the most deserving clubs will emerge ahead of the least deserving clubs. Even after 162 games though, it’s very close. With a little bit more luck going their way, the 86-76 Kansas City Royals, the 85-77 New York Yankees, or the 85-77 Baltimore Orioles might be in the same position as the Rays, Rangers, Oakland A’s, Boston Red Sox or Detroit Tigers.
Using this same reasoning, we might also conclude it’s unfair to assume that only skill would be responsible for a Major League Baseball team winning a seven game series. It would seem ridiculous to award anything for the winner of a best of five series, and deciding which team is better by holding a single competition between the two is the equivalent of sporting lunacy.
It’s really difficult to argue that anything in baseball should be decided by a single game, but a single game, with the highest stakes possible, happens to be the most exciting context for a sporting event to take place. Bringing up its limitations is akin to mentioning the nutritional value of an eclair. Most of us are aware that it’s not the smartest sustenance, but that doesn’t preclude it from being the most enjoyable. Certainly, elements outside of the control of the participants have a pretty good chance of deciding things, but a show of skill plus randomness usually ends up being an enthralling exhibition.
And besides, we can rest assured that the two teams competing in the single game at the end of the season are close in skill, because after 162 games they’re even in terms of their record. Right? Unfortunately, if we’re going to assume that, we’d also have to assume the 162 games that both Tampa Bay and Texas played from April to September were played against equal competition.
This is decidedly not the case because there exists an entity in the American League West called the Houston Astros.
The appeal of sports comes from the appeal of narrative. We want to watch a story unfold, and whether or not one outcome is more likely than another, we depend on two competing parties both wanting to win. The Houston Astros, with a team payroll costing less than Alex Rodriguez’s annual salary, spent 2013 unconcerned with winning baseball games. They broke the terms of an implicit contract with baseball fans, and because of this, the Texas Rangers benefited.
Unlike teams from other divisions in the American League, the Rangers were allowed to play 19 games against the Astros this season. They won 17 of those encounters, scoring 126 runs in the process. By comparison, the Rays were only allowed to play Houston seven times. They won five of those games.
Unfortunately, there is no fair way to regulate that a team do its darnedest in terms of player acquisition to field a winning team. However, there is a way to ensure that the damage done by a franchise wanting to spit in the face of fans is restricted only to the supporters of that specific club. It’s called an even schedule.
When the Astros joined the American League ahead of this season, Major League Baseball had the opportunity to restructure itself in a fashion that would make things more fair. It failed to do this, and its failure was made worse by last year’s addition of a second wild card team. Such a reward implicitly treats the schedules of all teams as even, when it’s anything but.
Teams play 19 games against the four opponents in their own division, six or seven games against the ten opponents in other divisions within their league, and then 20 games against inter-league opponents. Playing 19 games against the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros is unlikely to ever be comparable to playing 19 games against the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles or Toronto Blue Jays. This year, it led to the following disparity: Tampa Bay’s schedule was the fourth most difficult in baseball, while only three teams in the American League had an easier schedule than Texas.
The ridiculous clinging to a dated divisional breakdown places far too much emphasis on the arbitrarily geographic divisions that were put in place at a time when air travel and other forms of transportation weren’t nearly as developed as now. Divisional rivalries are great, and the additional games against individual teams who play somewhat nearby are nice, but fairness is infinitely better, as is an inherent protection against the integrity of the game being put into question by a franchise deciding to mail in a season.
Only in baseball could the record of a 91-71 team be more impressive than a club with a .562 winning percentage.