Long Division

July 17, 2019

There’s been a little discussion in Readers Posts about the origin of the leagues’ divisions, and how they were first organized along geographic lines, which was striking because so many exceptions were made immediately to geographic realities that the logic was hard to understand from the git-go. Why organize the divisions geographically if you’re going to disregard geography immediately? (The Cubs are an Eastern team, but Cincinnati’s in the West? St. Louis is in the East but Atlanta’s in the West?)  If we want divisional play at all, to create the illusion of mini-pennant races, and to eliminate the degradation of some poor team finishing in 15th place, why not use some other principle in organizing the division?

Why not a hierarchy of divisions based on quality of play? Put all the strong teams in one division, the weak teams in another, and the middling teams into a third division. Give them the twin incentives of falling to a worse division and of rising to a better one by the quality of their play, or lack thereof.

Let me give you an example of how the NL could be so organized: pick an arbitrary recent year, say 2018, as year 0 of this hierarchal system. The teams would be notified before the year that they were playing for their standing in the three divisions in year 1.

The top division (call it the Champs division) consists of teams that won 90 or more games  in 2018:

 

CHAMPS

Year 0 WINS

Year 0 LOSSES

Milwaukee

96

67

Chicago

95

68

Los Angeles

92

71

Colorado

91

72

Atlanta

90

72

 

(Playoff teams in italics.) In Year 1, these teams would largely play among themselves. Say, 64 games within the division, 16 games against each opponent. They would play the next-most games against the next-best division, let’s call it 50 games, and the fewest games against the worst division, let’s say 30 or so games, with 18 games against an assortment of interleague opponents, if you really want to keep interleague play. (I don’t, but I don’t want to argue that point right now.) That’s 162 games, with a very high proportion of exciting, hard-fought intra-divisional games at the heart of the season. Dare we call them "playoff caliber games"?  In the Champs’ division, there are three teams eligible to make the playoffs.

The next-best division (let’s call them the Contenders’ Division) would play a somewhat easier schedule, 64 games against opponents on its own level, plus those 50 games against the Champs’ Division, and 30 easier games against the Strugglers’ Division (and assorted interleague games). Two of these teams would be eligible for the playoff, but as  we shall soon see, this playoffs-eligibility is going to be a rougher go.

CONTENDUHS

Year 0 WINS

Year 0 LOSSES

St. Louis

88

74

Pittsburgh

82

79

Washington

82

80

Arizona

82

80

Philadelphia

80

82

 

The Struggler’s Division  (we’ll need to think of better names, I know) plays much the easiest schedule, 84 games against its own division, 21 games apiece, plus 30 each against the Contenders and the Champs, plus some interleague games, and they, too, have an incentive of a single playoff game with the promise of more as long as they keep winning. It’s a foot in the door, that’s all it is, but that’s more than these sub-.500 teams would get under the current system. Ladies and Gents, I present: The Strugglers.

 

STRUGGLERS

Year 0 WINS

Year 0 LOSSES

NY Mets

77

85

SF

73

89

Cincinnati

67

95

SD

66

96

Miami

63

98

 

Let’s assume, for the sake of illustration (and so I don’t need to make up three new charts) that they finish in the same order in Year 1 of Hierarchical Division Play, and that all ties and incomplete seasons have been dealt with via tie-breakers, etc. Let’s just say this is the standings for both Season 0 and for Season 1—I’m just illustrating my point here.

The top three teams in Champs make the playoffs, the top two in Contenders, the top one in Stragglers. Round One of the Playoffs is one sudden-death play-in game of the Mets at Pittsburgh, the day after the season ends. Win or go home.

The winner of that game (let’s suppose it’s a Monday game) immediately flies to St. Louis on Tuesday morning to play another one-game playoff game against the Cards. This set-up obviously favors the Cards to win: they’ve got an off day, while the Pirates and Mets are fighting it out among themselves for the honor of playing the Cards, and they’re the home team. But it’s only right that they should have those advantages because they won the tougher division. They’ve still got it rough, having to win a one-game playoff, just not as rough as the Pirates, who have it slightly better than the Mets.

The Mets need to win two straight games on the road against good opponents, while the Pirates get to play one home game and one away game. Let’s assume the Mets beat both the Pirates and the Cards. They would fly to LA Wednesday morning to play a three-game away series against the well-rested Dodgers.

But wait, this gets even worse for the Mets: the first day in LA is a day/night doubleheader. No big deal for the Dodgers—they’ve had a few off-days, so their staff is relatively well-rested, certainly their bullpen is. But this is a very tall order for the Mets—they’ve been travelling for at least three days, and I’d guess they’ve been riding their bullpen pretty hard in these do-or-die games. If LA sweeps the doubleheader, that’s it. They ‘ve won the three-game series, no need to play on Thursday.

Unlikely as it is, though, let’s suppose the Mets sweep the doubleheader. This means that they’ve gone 4-0 on the road in three cities, none of them New York, against teams that are nominally a little bit better than they are. I don’t imagine this would happen very often, but if it did, I’d say the Mets have earned the right to continue in the playoffs.

Continuing in the playoffs means that they have now earned the right to fly to Chicago to play a best-of-five series,  starting on Friday, all in Wrigley. Naturally, the first two games of this five-game set are another doubleheader. Since teams need to win three games to win this round, there’s a Saturday game scheduled for sure, and another Sunday doubleheader, if more games are needed.

You may wondering, about now, how the Cubs would cope with a four-day layoff. Obviously the  Mets (assuming they make it as far as to Chicago) are exhausted, having played four or five games in four days, all on the road, but you may consider the Cubs to be disadvantaged by the four days off. We will deal with this problem in a short while. (HINT: I consider it a feature, not a bug.)

I should also add, about now, that I LIKE something about this set-up that you may be disliking intensely: I LIKE the idea of the Mets playing exhausted against a well-rested team. This whole set-up is based on the idea that that the regular season means something, means a LOT of something. I want to privilege the team that wins the most regular season games. I want them to have it easier than the team that wins the second-most games, and I want them to have it a LOT easier than the team that just squeaked into the playoffs with a below-.500 season.

If that below-.500 team can win a game, or a few games, where the odds are stacked against them, more power (or pitching or fielding) to them. I like that, too. What I don’t like is the playoffs representing a totally clean slate, where we all start over from scratch, strong teams and weak teams alike, all play about the same number of home games as away games, all have to win the same number of games. Fuck that noise. I liked the old pre-1969 system better, where the best team in the league went straight into the World Series, no questions asked. That was what the regular season was for, to weed out all but one team.

But if you insist on playoffs (I’m still meh on them) this is how to do it, to give some teams all-but-impossible cliffs to scale and to give others a soft landing because they earned that landing over the 162 regular-season games. You want the soft landing? Play better in the regular season, and earn it. YMMV.

Back to our regularly scheduled rant: let’s say, at this point, the Mets’ arms just give out. It’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t give out. This set-up requires that teams have great depth, starting rotation depth, bullpen depth, bench depth, deep depth, and punishes those teams that don’t.  I’m not talking injury here, though the managers would need to make sure they’re not asking their players to do more than they are capable of doing. Most likely, the Mets’ over-extended staff is just going to make some tired-arm mistakes, long before this point. So let’s say the Cubs take the five-game series from the Mets, as they would four times out of five, and eleven times out of thirteen. I find it kind of fun to root for a team that has (and has richly earned) the odds against them.

At this point, normality resumes: the Brewers play the Cubs in a normal seven-game series, first two in Milwaukee, next three in Chicago, last two in Milwaukee, and it’s on to the World Series.

How do we deal with the problem of the best teams having too much rest? The Cubs in this scenario had four off-days before they met the Mets (gret the Mets, step right up and….) –is that too much rest? Really? I find it pretty ideal. There are about four advantages to having off-days, and only one (dubious) disadvantage. The advantages are:

1)      Resting your players after a grueling season

2)      Allowing minor injuries to heal

3)      Clearing your heads, aside from physical relief (spending time with family, fishing on the lake, etc.)

4)      Time to plan for your upcoming opponent—watch videos, work on rarely used plays, etc.

The single disadvantage is rust, and I’m not sure I believe in rust. It exists, yeah, but does it exist purely as an excuse by the well-rested team that loses? I think so. You never hear, "Well, we won that series, but, man, we had to overcome a lot of rust", it’s always offered by the losing team, and it’s lame. Even if it were real, though, too much rest is one (dubious) thing, and I see at least four off-setting advantages.

To study "too much rest," you’d need to work off a database of post-season games where one team had a lot of rest and the other team had none—Bill says that there just aren’t that many games where those conditions apply. I tried arguing with him that, Shirley, we could find some such games, and we could extrapolate from those, but he wasn’t having it. Anyway, I think the burden of proof is on those who argue that rust exists. I can’t imagine that a few carefully designed workouts, supervised to prevent the injuries of game conditions, and a few simulated games in the middle of an off-stretch, wouldn’t mitigate the rust almost entirely.

The Cubs in this scenario represent the extremes of actual practice—a few teams have, I imagine, gone into the post-season, or some stage of it, after having had four days off. But the Brewers here are in uncharted territory: a full week between the season’s end and the start of the Cubs-Brewers series.

Well, as I said, I consider that a feature, not a bug. I was going to propose this challenge to doubters: we could try it and see if in fact teams with a week of rest ever get blown out by being rusty, but then I came up with a better challenge. We could give every team in the playoffs (except the Mets, here, the least qualified) the option of switching with the team below them on the pecking order. For example, the Brewers, looking at the prospect of a whole week between games, can decide to give that week off to the Cubs, and instead play the schedule assigned to the Cubs, hosting the Mets for up to five games in three days, needing to win three in order to advance.

Would the Brewers EVER prefer to play an extra series rather than accepting a BYE? Ever? Ever, ever, ever? Can you conceive of circumstances under which playing at least three more games, with an outside chance of losing the series, would look more attractive than coping with a week of rest? If you can, you should go into the writing of Science Fiction because you have quite the imagination.

No, that week of rest has many positives and very few negatives. The Brewers would need, of course, to come up with a schedule of workouts, days completely off, activities, throw-days for each of its pitchers, and so on, but I think that’s mostly a pleasant option.

Another problem-that’s-not-a-problem here is that this hectic schedule would be going on simultaneously with a similar AL schedule. When would the games be played so they wouldn’t conflict on TV?

That’s actually easy. Even the hardest days to schedule, the double-header days, can be done:

NL 1 goes on at 11 AM (CST) and NL 2 goes on at 5 PM (CST).

AL 1 goes on at  2 PM (CST) and AL 2 goes on at 8 PM (CST).

On different networks, naturally, as they are now. These would be marathon baseball-fests, sometimes overlapping, so you’d get a lot of channel-switching, but let’s face it, many games would be recorded anyway, and most games in your "other" league don’t get watched that closely in the post-season. Fans who want to watch every pitch can do so easily, given the recording capability available to everyone these days, and those who don’t aren’t inconvenienced in the least.

Best of all, perhaps, is that we could have a World Series in early October again—no freezeouts, no early snowstorms, no more baseball in football weather.

This is a plan that satisfies both throwbacks (like me) and radical innovators (again, like me). I like the fact that the team that wins the most games (or at least wins the most in the toughest division) has a huge leg up on lesser teams in the post-season—no guarantees that they’ll get to the Series, but they’re certainly not going into the post-season with a blank slate, equally advantaged and disadvantaged with the other teams. I also the idea of playing my in-division opponents often in the regular season—when you had only seven opponents to play all season long (pre-1961) you got to know those opponents as well as you knew your own team, which I thought was great.  A drawback of the current system, for me anyway, is wondering "Who?" all game long when my team plays an opponent they haven’t played in a long time. And throwbacks like the early October World Series.

Radical innovators should like the fact that every team, theoretically, has a shot at the World Series, even late into the season. And they ought to like the seeding changes that I’ve built into this.

Those seeding changes are as follows: the Mets not only get to play at least one sudden-death game in Pittsburgh by winning their division, but perhaps more valuable, next year they get to switch places in Season 2 with  Philadelphia, the last-place team in the Contenders Division. Likewise, the Cardinals, by dint of winning the Contenders Division, take the place of  the Braves, who get consigned to the Contenders for Season 2.

Every year, four clubs switch divisions like this, so every team is struggling not only to make the playoffs but to avoid finishing in last place and being sent to a lower division, with fewer playoff slots and worse playoff conditions. The amateur draft would heavily favor the Strugglers Division, so we would see a lot of movement (and a lot of competition for that movement) in the divisions—it would be hard to remain in the top division year after year, because you’re playing the toughest opponents and every year you’re getting the weakest drafting positions. Seems to me it would be very hard to maintain Champs’ standing for very long, and it would be easy to move up out of the lower divisions.

It might be even better if we’d move the bottom two teams in the Champs’ and Contenders’ division to the division below them, creating a killer mentality: either you out-and-out MAKE the playoffs, or you get sent to a lower division.

Or the system might work better if, instead of having the top three teams in the Champs Division make the playoffs, we make it the top four teams, with the fifth-place Champs team switching places with the top Contenders Division team, and the Mets dropping out of the playoffs entirely except that they get to change places next season with the bottom-rung Contenders’ team. Does this seem like incentive enough to you for the teams in the Strugglers’ Division, to move up? I kinda like the idea of their getting an Asian gentleman’s chance at the playoffs, too.

Also, anticipating one other objection, if the leagues expand to sixteen teams apiece, this still works; there’s no necessity to have an equal number of teams in each division, as history has shown. It’s just convenient that fifteen divides by three neatly. Which division would get the extra team? I have no idea –what do you think?

 
 

COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
Hey, how about that, nettles9?
1:04 PM Jul 21st
 
Steven Goldleaf
Very thorough article, Nettles9. I enjoyed https://tht.fangraphs.com/when-east-was-west/ so much I'm going to repeat it here in the hope that the link will copy this time.

DJ--as history has shown, you can make people swallow anything if you package it right.
1:03 PM Jul 21st
 
DJ_Man
It’d be interesting to see some computer simulation (or just some math) to see how often a team in the lower division would have a better W-L record than a team in the higher division (that would be dependent upon the interdivisional schedule).

It seems to me that the average follower can’t comprehend the idea that divisions (or leagues) can be unequal in strength. (Maybe this structure would drive home that point.)

However, just watch when some guy’s favorite team wins 85 games in the weak division while some other team makes the playoffs in the strong division with just 84. He’ll grumble, and he won't be an isolated case.

8:37 PM Jul 20th
 
nettles9
https://tht.fangraphs.com/when-east-was-west/

Article about 1968-1969 Major League Baseball division decisions.
10:41 AM Jul 20th
 
Steven Goldleaf
The fourth-best team THIS YEAR probably wouldn't be the team that finishes fourth in the Champs division--they're playing unequal schedules, mainly against each other, and would be lucky to finish much over .500. The beauty part of this system is that the eleventh-best team basically wins the chance to get its chain yanked. My interest there would be in seeing how long the Mets (in this example) could last, given the breakneck pace, the non-stop travel, the games on the road, the games against strong opponents. It would be a minor miracle for them to survive Game One, but I'd like to see them try. If they made it to round three that would be a major miracle. The fourth-best team in the Champs Division is getting a GREAT chance to advance--the Champs division gets all sorts of advantages: BYEs, home games, etc. but they have to finish 1-3 in their division. This makes the regular season valuable--the current system, that makes teams relatively equal once the post-season starts, minimizes the regular season, and I hate that.
7:05 AM Jul 18th
 
phorton01
You prefer the pre-1969 format yet you would allow the 11th best team a chance to get to the World Series? And the 4th best team is told to suck it up and go home?

Yes, there are similarities to the English soccer format. But they would never let a top team in the 3rd division get into a playoff against the 1st place team in the Premier League.
3:59 AM Jul 18th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Yeah, I should have noted that this concept owes much to our British forebears, though I reinvented it freely. Maybe someone who follows relegating leagues can tell us if they've worked on any wrinkles I haven't covered, in this American threebears version.
3:55 AM Jul 18th
 
wdr1946
This is how the English football (i.e., soccer) leagues operate. There is a "Premier" division and lower divisions, and teams are "promoted" and "relegated," moving up and down the ladder. There are something like 80 teams, with every significant town having at least one.
2:10 AM Jul 18th
 
 
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