Baseball is Better Off Without Divisions

Life isn’t fair because there’s too much we can’t control. But when there’s something unfair that we can control, it’s time for a change.

Major League Baseball has had two separate leagues since its inception, and each league was split into East and West divisions starting in 1969. Twenty-five years later, a Central division was added to each league, and a wild card spot allowed a non-division winner into the playoffs for the first time in the league’s history.

Win your division, and you’re in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter the circumstances, just win your division. That’s the way it’s always been, and after all, baseball is a game of tradition.

But what are divisions? They’re just groups of five generally geographically close teams.

Moreover, divisions aren’t equally balanced groups of five teams; they’re just five arbitrarily placed together teams. So to say that a team needs to be better than four other arbitrarily picked teams to make the playoffs would just be unfair.

Most of that “unfairness” is eliminated with the addition of a wild card. In four of the last five seasons, the AL East has been home to two of the three best teams in the American League, but thanks to the Wild Card both teams have qualified for the postseason.

But sometimes teams aren’t so lucky. The best five teams record-wise don’t always get to the playoffs because the divisions are often not equally talented.

If the season ended right now, the Angels, owners of the fifth best record in the AL, would not make the playoffs. Their record is 38-32, but the Indians are leading the AL Central with a 36-32 record, so Cleveland would be the team playing into October.

Sure, we’re not even half way into the 2012 season, but situations like the Angels’ predicament have happened plenty of times before. In fact, they’ve happened not so long ago.

In 2009, the Rangers finished second in the AL West with an 87-75 record, good for fourth best in the AL. But Minnesota and Detroit were locked up at 86-76 atop the AL Central, so they had a one-game playoff to see who would advance to the postseason. Texas was just out of luck.

Basically the same situation played out the year before with the Yankees finishing third in the AL East with an 89-73 record—the fourth best in the AL. Chicago and Minnesota were each 88-74, so Chicago made the playoffs after winning their 163rd game of the season.

But that wasn’t even the most extreme example of unfairness from that 2008 season.

The Los Angeles Dodgers won the NL West that year with an 84-78 record. Three other National League teams (the 89-win Mets and the 86-win Astros and Cardinals) finished with more victories than the Dodgers. And that’s not even considering the Marlins, who also finished with 84 wins, despite playing one less game.

Naturally, the Dodgers deserved to make they playoffs because they had the best record in a group of five arbitrarily grouped teams.

And worst of all is the 2005 San Diego Padres. They won 82 of their 162 games, but qualified for the postseason because the other four teams in their division could only muster 77, 75, 71, and 67 wins.

San Diego got to feast on the worst division in recent memory, while the NL East saw it’s worst team (Washington) finish 81-81. MLB schedules have each team play 45% of their games against divisional teams—San Diego got a bunch of cupcakes, while the NL East teams spent nearly half their schedule beating themselves up.

Baseball is rearranging their schedule next season when the Astros switch from the NL Central to the AL West. But I suggest that MLB changes the landscape of the league ever further for the 2013 season. I think that they should completely do away with divisions.

Eliminating divisions entirely would do two things to help equity in baseball. One, it would remove the unbalanced schedules that hurts teams in overly-competitive divisions. Two, it makes sure that the teams with the five best records make it to the postseason.

For years, the Toronto Blue Jays have been in a mess of trouble if they wanted to make the postseason. It’s not just that they’re fighting an uphill battle trying to finish the year with a better record the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. They also have to spend 9 out of every 20 game playing these tough opponents before they play out-of division teams.

Brett Lawrie is really angry because his Blue Jays have a doubly hard time making the playoffs since they're stuck in the AL East.

Some teams, like the 2011 Tigers for example, have that 45% chunk of their schedule against just terrible opposition. After Detroit, no other team in the division had a winning record.

The Tigers played that 45% of their schedule against divisional teams with a dismal .452 winning percentage. I bet Toronto would have killed for that instead of their brutal schedule of teams with a combined .535 winning percentage.

Now that there are fifteen teams in each league, every day will have at least one interleague game. So with that in mind, why not give ever team an even schedule? Each team can play two-thirds of their games against the other fourteen teams in their league with the last third being interleague games. No team faces an unnecessarily hard schedule, and nobody gets a Boise State-style cakewalk schedule.

With balanced schedules and no more divisions, MLB would basically ensure that the the five best teams in each league would make the playoffs. No more 82-win division champs. No more crazy tough schedules.

What’s there to lose? Sure, there will be fewer Red Sox/Yankees games, but that will make each matchup mean more. And yes, there will be longer flights, but teams can have extended road trips to visit geographically close teams in a row (a 12-day road trip against the Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, and Twins).

And when it all comes down to it, I’d rather have a profitable sports league spend a bit more on travel to have a more fair way to pick playoff teams.

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