Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I Have Solved the Baseball Season

Major League Baseball made news earlier this week when it floated (by leaking) the idea of postseason expansion.  Seven teams in each league would make the playoffs, the team with the best record would have a bye to the ALDS, and the remaining six would duke it out in a wildcard round of three three-game series.

It's not clear that the proposal was well received.

But never fear, MLB — because your humble servant Phutatorius set aside some time yesterday to think through the question, and without all that much time or effort (really!), he has conceived the Ideal Model for MLB competition.

And here it is.
  • Divisions are henceforward eliminated.
  • The regular season will consist, as it does now, of 162 games for each team.
  • Only 122 of those games will be scheduled before Opening Day.  Those 122 games will break out as follows: 98 games in-league, evenly distributed — i.e., a "balanced schedule" — among the 14 other teams.  E.g., the Indians would play one four-game series and one three-game series against each other team in the American League, with one of those series at Progressive Field and the other on the road.  Interleague play will consist of 24 games, to be parceled out in an unbalanced, rotating format.  Teams can retain their cross-league "rivalries," such as they are.
  • After each team has played its 122 games, the bottom ten teams in each league's standings will be eliminated from World Series contention.  These teams will play their final 40 games against one another.  Scheduling considerations for these games is TBD, but criteria could include geographic proximity (ease of travel), traditional rivalries, distribution of star power, etc.  The principal objective in scheduling will be equity — make each of these bottom ten teams' 40-game slates roughly as appealing as all the others, so they have an equal opportunity to capitalize at the gate and draw eyes and ears to their TV and radio broadcasts.
  • More importantly, though, the remaining five teams in each league will play their remaining 40 games against each other: ten games each.
  • At the end of the season, the team at the top of each league's standings — taking all 162 games into account — will advance to the World Series.  Other than to break a tie at the very top of the league table (best of three seems like an appropriate format), there are no postseason games, outside of the Fall Classic.
  • [OPTION: Move the All-Star Break later in the season, after the 122 games and before the last 40.  The break will give the Leagues time to set the new schedules and play any needed tiebreaker games to settle who is in the Final Five.  Teams can use the time to reset their rotations and plan travel.]
So this is a big change.  What are the advantages?

First, this Model makes it substantially more likely that the best team in baseball wins the World Series.  Baseball is by far the sport most susceptible to random, game-to-game variation.  The best teams play .600 ball over the course of a season.  If they're extraordinary, they'll play .667 ball.  A team's quality proves out far more reliably over 162 games than it does in playoff series.  October Baseball Cliché #1: "anything can happen in a short series."  Beyond randomness and variability, matchups can distort results.  Untimely injuries play a huge role.  And in the MLB postseason, more than any other, a team can sneak into the playoffs just under the wire, "get hot at the right time" (October Baseball Cliché #2), and take home the Commissioner's Trophy ... notwithstanding that everyone knows they weren't the best team, or even close.

By contrast, the Model rewards sustained excellence over 162 games within a framework that ensures the best teams are playing each other down the stretch.

Second, the Model ensures that contenders play contenders, exclusively, over the last six weeks of the season.  Meaning: pennant-critical games aren't played against teams that have given up, traded away their best players, are tanking for draft picks, and/or are giving low-stakes at-bats or innings to September callups.  Meaning: a Final Five team that is ten games back in the pennant race is guaranteed ten games against the league leader, which also has another thirty games against the #2, #3, and #4 teams at the 122-game mark.

Third, the Model provides two pennant races.  In the first, all teams are pulling out all the stops to get into their leagues' Final Five, with the result that games in mid-July and early August could take on a late September vibe.  Teams that have their Final Five standing well in hand won't slacken their pace over these 122 games, because the schedule provides their best chance to "bank" wins for their overall totals, against the average-to-poor teams.  And the second pennant race will surpass the first in sustained drama and competitiveness.

Fourth, the 162-game season and World Series can be completed in three weeks' less time than the regular season + league postseason series + World Series currently take to play.  The scheduling creep we have now — on both sides of the calendar, into late March and early November, with the constant threat of postponements — is no good for anybody.

Fifth, the Model eliminates the longstanding unfairness of teams competing for league-wide wildcard spots while playing unbalanced schedules — i.e., teams in weaker divisions get a huge advantage in wildcard races.  (Consider the Indians, who went deep into September chasing a wildcard spot last year in large part because of an 18-1 record against Detroit.)  To be sure, you don't need this model to solve this problem.  It would be enough just to revert back to a balanced schedule.  Still, though, it's one more element in the plus column here.

Sixth, the Model restores the old tradition of the regular-season pennant race.  It's pennant or bust, and teams don't play for division titles or wildcard berths.  Some folks might not be so nostalgic about this.  But a lot of us look at yesteryear's wildcard banners posted in our teams' stadiums and think, Really?  We needed to memoralize THAT?  And more importantly, that system held up for a reason: all-or-nothing pennant races are fun.

Seventh, the Model doesn't reward, or even tolerate, mediocrity.  There will be no 88-win team in the World Series.  Period.

But the cons.  What about the cons?  

There are a few, to be sure:
  • Twenty teams are eliminated after 122 games.  Yeah, that sucks for those twenty teams.  But really, what are the odds that a World Series-deserving team couldn't crack the top five in its league after three quarters of the season?  Seems pretty low to me.  It's theoretically possible, sure, that Team #6 could have gone on a tear down the stretch and taken home the pennant.  Still, though, it's unlikely, and complaints in this vein read like complaints about the NO UNICORNS ALLOWED sign at the Kentucky Derby.
  • Relatedly, twenty teams are assured that their last 40 games will be irrelevant.  But there are quite a lot of irrelevant games being played now.  Here, at least, teams will be free to experiment with young players, test new game strategies (openers, etc.), and focus on improvement for the following year, without fans, the media, or even the league offices faulting them for distorting pennant races.
  • MLB loses revenue and attention from the Division Series and League Championship Series.  This is a big deal, and it's probably the most significant impediment to adopting these reforms.  A counter to this is that the Final Five games played in August and September will get more attention and draw more TV eyes than down-the-stretch games under the current model.  And at least in late August, MLB isn't competing with the NFL.  We don't have the empirical data to know how the gains and losses net out, but if this is expected to be a real problem, we can toggle back from our absolutist position about postseason play and allow for League Championship Series.  Reintroducing the LCS cuts a fair bit into a number of the advantages I described above, but even this Altered Model would be an improvement on what we have now.
  • If the Final Five teams in each league can only play one another, then scheduling becomes problematic, as one of the teams will have to sit idle every day.  One possible fix is for the teams to play 32 games against one another, with the remaining eight played against contenders in the other League.  That's not great, either, because it necessarily introduces some amount of competitive imbalance, but the system could be configured to reward teams with easier games, based on their records at the 122-game mark.  (E.g., the team at the top of the AL standings plays two three-game series against the #4 and #5 NL teams, and a two-game series against #3.)
Thoughts?  Questions?  How do we get this done, TODAY?