Posted by: Nathan | May 24, 2009

Tweaking Major League Baseball

Despite all the ongoing steroid talk, which I think we’re all extremely tired of, I still like baseball. No, I don’t pay attention to it all that much (it’s May), but I do find something inherently relaxing and enjoyable about catching the occasional inning. Additionally, Baseball Tonight is one of ESPN’s best shows (far better than SportsCenter) because it is highlights first, analysis second, talking heads third. Like all good things, however, baseball needs tweaking. Putting aside the steroid issue for now, there are several small changes Major League Baseball (MLB) can make to improve the game.

1. Have seven-game series throughout the playoffs. Baseball is the only major sport with playoff series that has a five-game first round. If one looks at ratios of games played in the regular season to playoff games in round one of the playoffs in various sports, the problem is obvious: NBA 82:7; NHL 82:7; MLB 162:5!* How does that make sense? Basically, what MLB is telling teams is, “It doesn’t matter how well you play for six or seven months—lose three of five and you’re done!” Absurd. The first round of the MLB playoffs needs to be seven games. I suppose I’d be willing to put up with a five-game first round, however, if the MLB would…

    2. Add more wild card spots. Right now, there are 30 teams in Major League Baseball and eight playoff spots (six for division winners and two wild cards). Again, comparison is illuminating. In the NBA, there are 30 teams, and 16 make the playoffs each year; the NHL is the same way. That means in both of these leagues more than half of the teams make the playoffs every year, which unceasingly puts mediocre teams in the playoffs. The NFL has a better approach. In professional (American) football, there are 32 teams, 12 of whom make the playoffs every year. This system is ideal: there are many teams that make the post season, so interest is widespread; however, most teams do not make the playoffs, so gaining entrance to the post season has the appropriate level of difficulty.

    Baseball should adopt the NFL’s playoff structure. Let there be the usual three playoff spots awarded the division winners in each league, and add two wild card slots to bring the total up to six playoff teams in each league (12 total). In this system, the top two teams with the best records would have a first round bye, and the bottom four would play a five-game first round. The first round byes reward the teams who have spent the past SIX MONTHS winning, while the wild card teams still have a good shot to knock them out. This system would also permit four more cities to have playoff teams each year; more teams in more places means more widespread interest. Everybody gets more money (tickets, TV rights, vendors, etc.), and fans have a better shot to see their team play in October.

    3. Institute a salary cap. I remember the salary cap being discussed at length during the strike that devastated baseball in the 1990s. At the time I was opposed to the cap in the name of capitalism—let the market decide what the players are worth. I’ve come 180 degrees since then, though, because I’m tired of seeing the same teams in the playoffs every year. In March everyone knows that the big market teams (Red Sawx, Yankees, Cubs, Mets, et al.) have the best chance of making the playoffs because they can pay more for the same talent. Good players want more money, which is natural, so they go where they can get it. This leaves teams like the Royals, Reds, Rangers, and Orioles with slim chance of making the playoffs for years consecutively, and revenue goes down in those places because people pay to see their team win. It’s a downward spiral.

    The salary cap equals everything out. The Yankees have the same amount of money to spend as the Mariners. The Cubs have a payroll equal to the Pirates. Talented players are more likely to stay in the city where they become stars because their teams can now afford them. Being a Cubs fan, I realize this might hurt my boys, but I think it’s worth it in the name of parity. I do not think the MLB will institute a salary cap any time soon due to the heinous, bloated Player’s Union. The owners are not any better, of course.

    4. Move an NL Central team to the AL West. If none of the above ideas get implemented, I hope this one will because the problem is so egregious and idiotic. Right now, the National League Central Division has six teams in it—one more than most other divisions and two more than the American League West, which has only four teams! This makes the AL West the easiest division to win, and the NL Central the most difficult due to number of competitors in each division. I’ve never understood this move. We all know that the organization of league divisions is arbitrary in every sport, and it is often puzzling geographically. But other sports have at least made an effort to keep the number of teams in each division equal. Why do we punish the Astros, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Pirates, and Reds and reward the Angels, Atheletics, Mariners, and Rangers? It makes no sense. MLB should assign an NL team to the AL West to even things out. If they want to keep things simple, they could reassign an NL Central team (I think moving the Astros makes the most sense in that scenario), or pick an NL team from another division and move a Central team to that division.

    I sincerely doubt that Major League Baseball will adopt any of the above measures, and if they do not it will be to the detriment of the league. Baseball is always reluctant to change things, which can be a virtue at times. However, given the decline of its popularity and the never-ending steroid scandals, I think MLB would be wise to change things a little.

    *The NFL is left out of this comparision because the violent nature of the sport permits only one-game playoff rounds.


      1. Good post. I particularly like #2 and #4 – baseball could use two more playoff teams and the NL central is ridiculously big.

      2. I agree with all of your changes! A salary cap is much better than that stupid luxury tax the big dogs are more than willing to pay out…

        I would suggest another change: Pitcher’s get a limited amount of time before delivering again. Right now, players can step out, pitchers can back off, everyone can re-adjust whatever they want…and then 10 minutes later we see the next pitch. Back in the day, players stayed in the box and the pitchers reared back and threw with little time-wasting. Doing this would make the game more exciting and shorter in duration, which would be good for the sport. I’d have to study a little bit to see what an appropriate “pitch clock” time limit would be.

        Rick Reilly just wrote an article about this same topic and suggested that the fans get to pick a player’s at-bat music if he’s 0-4 at the time. How hilarious would that be?! Not going to happen, but good idea….

      3. Good post! I don’t think I can agree on the first point. In fact, I think basketball and hockey should go the other way – toward 5 games in the first series. I would argue that this makes it more exciting; there’s less margin for error for the higher seed. Frankly, although it’s not practical for baseball/basketball/hockey, I like the high stakes of NFL playoffs and the NCAA basketball tournament: you aren’t allowed to lose a game.

        I like all your other suggestions, especially the salary cap. The playoffs – and the races leading up to the playoffs – would be WAY more exciting if, say, the players now on the Yankees were dispersed throughout the league. And on the team imbalance, the Brewers mucked everything up by moving to the National League. Now there’s a division imbalance AND an imbalance between the American and National Leagues. Stupid Brewers.

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