Divisions in baseball need to be benched

Were the postseason to begin today, the National League’s second- and third-best teams would play each other in a single winner-takes-all game for the honor of going on the road and playing a series against the best team in baseball. In the meantime, the teams with the fourth- and fifth-best records in the league would face off for a ticket to the NLCS.

If this seems screwed up, it’s because it is. The wild card opened up a world of possibilities, including the one playing out in the NL Central today: The three best records happen to come from the same division, and baseball’s playoff system is in danger of penalizing teams for having the temerity to exist in relative geographic proximity to other good teams.

Pittsburgh's Gregory Polanco and St. Louis' Kolten Wong are part of the toughest division in baseball. (Getty)
Pittsburgh's Gregory Polanco and St. Louis' Kolten Wong are part of the toughest division in baseball. (Getty)

This, of course, is ridiculous, and even if the New York Mets ride the weakness of the National League East or the Los Angeles Dodgers the strength of their $300 million payroll to pass up the Central’s St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs or even all three, an odd truth in baseball still will exist: winning a division is more important than winning, period.

Considering divisions are little more than constructs – they didn’t exist until 1969, further split 25 years later and are so subject to whims that teams change leagues without much hullabaloo – their power over baseball is strangely addictive. It held true in other sports, too, until NBA commissioner Adam Silver this offseason said the league plans to award teams with better regular-season records instead of giving division winners artificially high playoff seeds.

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“That,” Silver told reporters, “is a vestige of a division system that may not make sense anymore."

Even if the issue is more egregious in the NBA, it doesn’t lessen the nonsensical nature of baseball explicitly saying the value of its regular season is only as important as the quality of teams in a particular division. A few years ago at the annual general managers’ meetings, executives around baseball discussed the subject, according to sources present. Like many of the ideas bandied about, it was dismissed and not revisited. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider a look at the playoff system – and, consequently, a look at the divisional system itself.

“If you go with top three records,” one GM said, “[you] should eliminate divisions entirely, no?”

Well, yes. Five years ago, before the second wild card and playoff game even existed, that very idea was suggested in this space with a phrase that never did catch on: unalignment. And it still stands today: The most fair way to mete out playoff positions is to keep the American and National Leagues intact and throw every team into a pool of 15 fighting for five spots.

“I don’t think there’s a reason we have divisions,” one executive said this week. “Other than we’ve had it for a long time.”

The most compelling reasons for keeping divisions aren’t altogether compelling. There is the most common answer, espoused by one assistant GM: “I think there is something to be said for winning your division,” he said. When asked what that something was … he really didn’t have much of an answer.

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“Because we’re baseball,” another executive said. “And nostalgia is our thing.”

It’s true. Division titles, because six are awarded annually, don’t mean nearly what they once did. And division races wouldn’t necessarily go anywhere, either. In fact, in the NL this season, instead of Washington chasing the New York Mets and San Francisco nipping at the Los Angeles Dodgers, the playoff scene would be a giant, thrilling jumble. The Dodgers a game back of the Cubs to avoid the play-in game. The Giants a game and a half behind the Mets for that final playoff spot. No safety net for teams that end up in a cake division and no penalty for those in a meatgrinder.

It’s sports as egalitarianism, and the principle of fairness far outweighs all of the emotional arguments in favor of divisions. Rivalries are not spurred by divisions. They can span 3,000 miles as easily as they can a seaboard. Kansas City’s enemies this season are not bound by some magical circumference. Look to the west (Oakland), north (Toronto) or east (Chicago) and you’re bound to find someone aggrieved by the Royals. The best rivalries are organic, and, much like baseball today, they will grow and complement the historic ones that run no risk of dying because the teams happen not to be in a smaller grouping.

Actually, the interest level in those division rivalries might not be as large as believed. According to a paper in the Journal of Applied Business Research, attendance during the 2005 season for out-of-division games was nearly 1,350 fans higher per game than those in division. This season, an examination of five teams good, bad and in between showed mostly the same.

Apparently, division rivalries still mean something to the Dodgers and their fans. (Getty)
Apparently, division rivalries still mean something to the Dodgers and their fans. (Getty)

The Dodgers are the highest-drawing team in baseball, and they have sold 1,800-plus more seats on average for in-division games. On the other hand, the New York Yankees – the team with deep-rooted division rivals – draw 350 fewer during in-division games. Middle-of-the-pack Texas and Oakland do better with non-AL West teams, while Pittsburgh’s out-of-division crowd is more than 4,500 higher per game than in the NL Central.

It’s not a financial thing then, either, which leaves few arguments in favor of divisions. With just one path to the playoffs – a top-five record instead of the division title with a wild-card fallback – teams will act differently. For example, the Dodgers may well have pursued David Price with more fervor knowing the possibility of a one-game playoff loomed that much larger. Granted, anything that creates more player movement and action is a boon to baseball, so change here could have a net positive.

Where the plan runs into trouble is in limiting travel. Teams’ unbalanced schedules – facing division opponents 19 times each with other teams far fewer – aim not just to nurture division rivalries but cut down on travel time. The grind of the 162-game season is real, and no matter how luxurious ballplayers’ flights, compounding that many games in 183 days with more travel is potentially dangerous.

Surely divisionless baseball can find a way around this, whether it’s aiming for all teams to be closer in miles traveled (instead of Seattle flying twice as long as the Reds, Cardinals and Cubs) or slowly weaning teams from a fully unbalanced schedule to one with more balance – and more off-days.

Very few things can provide improvement to the regular season and the postseason. Baseball without divisions – or at least with a de-emphasis on divisions when it comes to playoff seeding – is a better game, one truer to what should be a main tenet: The teams that perform best during the regular season experience the spoils of the postseason. Sometimes the best answer is the simplest.

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