How Best to Realign Major League Baseball: A Freakonomics Quorum
Earlier this summer, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that Major League Baseball and the players’ association had recently discussed a form of realignment that would result in two leagues of 15 teams, rather than the current structure of 14 teams in the American League, and 16 in the National League. This sent the sports world into a tizzy as baseball geeks everywhere weighed in on how best to realign MLB. There are a lot of ideas out there: shorten the season so each team gets one day off a week (said to be a favored position of Commissioner Bud Selig), move the Houston Astros or Florida Marlins to the American League; create three divisions of five teams each; do away with the divisions entirely; add an extra wild-card team to expand the playoffs.
There’s also a discussion about finding ways to address the disparity in miles traveled. According to this neat interactive graphic put together by Paul Robbins at the New York Times, in 2009, the Dodgers traveled a league-high 59,742 miles, while the Nationals traveled less than half that, 26,266 miles.
Not to be left out, we decided it was a good time to convene a Freakonomics Quorum. We rounded up a handful of sports economists and asked them the following question:
What proposed realignment changes seem to make the most sense from a competitive and economic standpoint for Major League Baseball?
Thanks to everyone who participated. Ideas ranged from expanding the league to 32 teams, to finding ways of reducing the Yankees’ odds of winning the World Series. That said, a fair amount of consensus emerged over the notion that moving the Astros to the AL West makes quite a bit of sense, and that doing away with divisions altogether will probably never happen.
Andrew Zimbalist is a sports economist and professor of economics at Smith College.
There’s a joke economists like to tell. Two finance economists are walking down the street. They spot a $20 bill and as one leans down to pick it up, the other utters: “don’t bother, if it were real someone would have picked it up already.”
Sportswriters and commentators love to pontificate with fervor about how to make baseball better: eliminate the DH from the AL, add the DH to the NL, shorten the season, add more teams, end interleague play, do away with divisions— the list goes on, and on.
Then there’s the question of what to do about the fact that the NL has 16 teams and the AL has 14, and more unequal still, the NL Central has 6 teams, while the AL West has 4. Before I offer my two cents, or 20 dollars, let me emphasize what should be obvious: if there were an easy answer to these questions, MLB would have done it already. There are always trade-offs and there’s no perfect solution.
That said, why not move the Houston Astros from the NL Central to the AL West? That would make the leagues equal and create a strong, natural rivalry between the Astros and the Rangers.
To accommodate the scheduling, there will have to be at least one interleague series happening at all times – two at a time would probably be best, yielding 13.3% of all games being interleague. (Interleague play can be appealing, particularly when geographical rivalries are engaged, but there’s no reason to reserve a chunk of the season for all interleague play, as is currently the case.)
For the postseason, add a second wild card team in each league. This will add excitement to the regular season and reduce the disadvantage of small market teams (e.g., the Rays) that are stuck in strong divisions with big market teams. Have the two wild card teams in each league face off in a best of three playoff, with home field advantage going to the team with the higher winning percentage. Then proceed under current rules.
In the spirit of fine tuning, it might make sense to have the Rays and Nationals change places in the AL East and NL East. It would save on team travel, create a natural rivalry between the Marlins and Rays (with the Braves lurking close by) and restore the Washington franchise to its historical home in the AL (while potentially engendering a new rivalry with the Orioles.)
If baseball continues with an imbalanced schedule (though it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make it less imbalanced), then the Houston fans will have to put up with a few more late night games (like the Rangers do already). Perhaps the West Coast games can start at 6:30 pm.
As I said, if there were a simple, straightforward solution, MLB would have done it already.
J.C. Bradbury is an associate professor at Kennesaw State University, and is the author of two books on baseball: The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed, and Hot Stove Economics: Understanding Baseball’s Second Season.
When the league moves teams around, it creates winners and losers: teams will get more favorable schedules at the expense of others getting less favorable ones. Owners buy teams with certain revenue expectations, and movement alters these revenue streams. When we fans start thinking about realignment, we often don’t consider that the potential losers and owners who feel harmed are going to fight the change.
One of the issues that chased Fay Vincent from the Commissioner’s office was a realignment plan that he felt was in the best interests of baseball; however, a few owners disagreed and fought him. Baseball would ultimately realign in a way that most owners liked in 1994, so I don’t think anyone is itching for major changes just yet. Here are my thoughts on two realignment scenarios that have been rumored.
One plan is to create two 15-team leagues. Moving one team from the NL Central to the AL West adds symmetry with three five-team divisions per league, and eases the creation of balanced schedules within divisions. Houston is the team rumored to be moved, which would create a natural intra-division rivalry with the Texas Rangers. So, this move seems geographically and politically feasible. The downside is that the odd number of teams in each league means interleague play must occur all-season, which probably isn’t a bad thing considering that the novelty has lost its luster. I wouldn’t be surprised if such a minor realignment happened.
A more radical proposal is to eliminate all divisions and have a certain number of top teams make the playoffs from each league. A seeming unfairness of the current division-winner playoff structure is that inferior teams in weak divisions make the playoffs over superior teams in tough divisions. However, I think this structure has almost no chance of coming into existence. Owners in divisions with strong-drawing visiting teams—like the AL East—will be reluctant to give up this valuable asset. But more importantly, divisions create rivalries and generate fan excitement. A city that has endured years of bad teams can celebrate winning a division championship, but just making the playoffs isn’t all that exciting. Winning your division is similar to winning a conference championship in college sports… well, maybe it’s a little less important, but division crowns are more celebrated in MLB than in the NBA and NFL. And when teams have clinched playoff berths, attempting to win a division title gives end-of-season games meaning.
The wild card berth, which was instituted in 1995, is a better way of giving teams in tough divisions more opportunity to play in the postseason, and Commissioner Bud Selig has discussed expanding wild card eligibility to include more teams. With three division champions and one wild card team in each league, there is the possibility of eight races for fans to follow. With two divisions there are only two marginal playoff races and no opportunity for intra-division rivalries. Eliminating divisions means that there will be fewer playoff races by reducing marginal opportunities for postseason play. This makes for a less exciting September, with fewer fans acquiring an interest in October baseball. Therefore, I think division-less leagues are not likely.
Dave Berri is a sports economist and an associate professor of applied economics at Southern Utah University. He is a past president of the North American Association of Sports Economists, and is the general manager of the sports economics blog Wages of Wins.
One issue with two 15 team leagues is that interleague play may have to be a part of the entire season. Although teams get the occasional day off in the regular season – generally on Monday or Thursday – teams play most days. But if you have 15 teams in each league, at any one time one team in each league must be playing a team in the other league. And that means at the end of the season teams will be competing for the playoffs in one league while playing against a team from the other league.
A solution to this problem is to expand to 32 teams. And that does make sense – at least from the perspective of the fans. Currently Milwaukee – with a metropolitan population of about 1.5 million – is the smallest city to host a baseball team. Portland, Sacramento, Orlando, San Antonio, San Jose, Columbus, Charlotte, Indianapolis, and Nashville are all a) larger than Milwaukee and b) already host a professional team in one of the other three major sports leagues (i.e. NBA, NFL, and NHL). So it appears there are at least two markets where baseball could expand.
Of course there is a reason these markets are left vacant. Robert Baade and Victor Matheson have noted that since 1991, 26 of the 30 Major League Baseball teams have had a new stadium built or an existing stadium extensively renovated. The cost of this construction has been $9.39 billion. Of this, $5.5 billion has come from taxpayers. How can baseball extract this amount of money from taxpayers? By keeping viable markets open and thus giving existing teams the ability to threaten to move if better facilities are not provided.
Beyond the inability to expand, let me briefly comment on a proposal that I think is linked to the idea of realignment. There is also a movement to expand baseball’s playoffs to five teams in each league. So if 15 teams play in each league, 33% of the each league would be in the post-season if the playoffs are expanded.
My sense is that an expanded playoffs is really motivated by a) a desire to increase baseball’s revenue and b) the desire to reduce the chances of the Yankees to win the World Series. Of these two motivations, I would guess that (b) is a bigger issue for Bud Selig. Selig has been campaigning for improved competitive balance in baseball for years (although competitive balance across the past few decades is much better than what we saw in the early 20th century). I suspect this campaign is really about limiting the ability of the Yankees to win the World Series.
One key issue about baseball’s playoffs is that outcomes are quite hard to predict. The teams in the post-season are not very different and baseball performance from week-to-week can vary tremendously (even for the best players). By expanding the playoffs, the odds of the Yankees navigating all the way through to another title get even longer. And for Selig – the former owner of the relatively small market Milwaukee Brewers — it would probably be a good thing if the Yankees’ path to yet another World Championship was made more difficult.
Realignment in Major League Baseball is long overdue. This is par for the course though: MLB honors its past more than other pro sports leagues, often in costly ways. It took until 2002, for instance for the AL and NL merger of 1903 to be fully integrated into a single league for operational purposes. That’s almost a century, and to this day, the degree of integration on the playing field between the now misnamed “American League” and “National League” remains minimal. The NBA and NFL, both products of more recent mergers, long ago dispensed with vestiges of their pre-merger past. Ten years on from operational fusing of the two leagues, it is indeed time for the game on the field to adapt.
That the current design of MLB’s competition has serious flaws is elementary to the concepts of fairness and indeed sport itself. Sport is meant to be played under a single set of rules, yet the DH rule in the AL fundamentally changes the game. That one division, the NL Central, is 50% larger than another, the AL West, stretches credulity. Both of these flaws exist because MLB cares a lot about, and even trades on, tradition. The NL game is played under the traditional rule in which pitchers bat just like any other fielder. Having the majority of games played within one’s own “league” caters to the higher demand for games between traditional rivals.
But we’ve had almost forty years of play with the DH, are well into the second decade of interleague play, and fan interest remains as strong as ever. Cross-town and in-state rivalries cater to regional interests in interleague play. The DH rule was a successful innovation for the AL, helping to increase scoring and attendance at AL games. These limited innovations broke with tradition, and they have been quite successful.
I view current proposals for “realignment” as the next step in unifying the league. Moving the Astros to the AL to balance team numbers and introducing more interleague, rival-type games makes perfect sense (I’m a lifelong Astros fan, and it hurts to contemplate leaving the NL, but so be it). It is no longer important to restrict games in most periods to intra- or interleague. Commentators have argued that a more fully unified league schedule would require uniform treatment of the DH rule, which also makes sense. Although I’m a traditionalist myself, I am more interested in returning to a uniform rule on the DH than in eliminating it from the game. MLB may be hidebound by its traditions more than other pro sports leagues, but the game evolves. The league has become more integrated off the field in recent years, and realignment will do the same on the field of play.