Hello, I’m so glad you’re here. And since you’re here, you’re either open to fantastically wild ideas, or you’re a traditionalist who still can’t believe we have interleague play, wild-card teams, and one-game playoffs. You’re either more than happy to discuss why the DH should be universally adopted, or you’re here to tell me why the NL brand of baseball has “more strategy” because of all the situations regarding when to go to your bullpen instead of letting this happen.
Let me begin by saying that I too used to be, or maybe still am, a baseball traditionalist. I have great respect for the history of the game, but I’d also like to embrace the things that make it great and that can make it a better product for the future. This isn’t about mindlessly making changes to the status quo; rather, it’s choosing the best of what baseball has to offer and featuring it as much as possible.
With that in mind as the backdrop, here are the four radical changes I’d make to Major League Baseball to deliver on what I already see as being the strengths of the sport. At the same time, I propose these changes will minimize the things that are bad for the sport. And yes, the Sawchik Playoff series will be part of the solution in the wild-card round.
MLB Should Universally Adopt the Designated Hitter
Yes. They should. I hear your argument against it. Strategy, right? Or tradition that the pitcher should hit? It’s a quaint notion. I respect your opinion, but thoughtfully disagree.
Bullpen strategy in baseball is evolving quickly to a point where this decision of “when to pull your starter” very rarely coincides with the decision of whether or not you want him to hit this inning. Reliever specialization and matchup-based decisions are more often than not the tipping point rather than a decision around whether or not to let your starting pitcher hit one more time. There are more frequent decisions around how long can I let a particular reliever pitch, should I use this reliever for more than three outs, or can this reliever pitch for a third consecutive day?
As for the tradition argument, I’d argue that most pitchers stopped trying to be professional hitters decades ago and it’s time we recognize this for what it is: a dying notion. This is about having the best product on the field for fans to watch. Pitchers in 2017 collectively hit .125/.163/.164. This is bad for baseball.
Try this as a thought exercise. You’re already thinking about him — Madison Bumgarner. He’s a pitcher who can hit and hit home runs. Or if you prefer, Adam Wainwright. Take your pick! In the hypothetical world where the DH exists in the National League I’d argue you could let either of them DH — if you really wanted to see them hit. Would the Giants or Cardinals ever do this? The answer is no. They wouldn’t want to risk injury to a player whose primary role on the team is to take the ball every five days and throw it. So why are we still making them hit?
MLB Should Abolish the National and American Leagues
Now that we’ve universally adopted the DH, we don’t really need the distinction between the National and American League. We already have interleague play every day of the season. There are no NL and AL umpires. There isn’t an AL-only players union. We already associate all-time records with all of MLB and not league-only specific records. This gives us the freedom of making sensible decisions around radical re-alignment.
MLB Should Have Four Divisions and Make the Pennant Race Meaningful
Traditionalists will argue that the current playoffs no longer guarantee that one of the best teams will win the World Series. They’ll argue that the wild card has diminished the meaningfulness of winning your division. They’ll argue that interleague play is silly. I agree with them, but let’s embrace the fact that these things are not going away. What can we do to build upon these ideas and make them better?
First of all, interleague play and its “natural rivals” approach is very flawed from a competitive-balance perspective. I don’t want to eliminate it; rather, I want to embrace it and make it part of the landscape. The best part about baseball are the rivalries and traveling to ballparks in (and outside) of your area to watch teams play. Mets/Yankees? Royals/Cardinals? Yes please! But we can do better through radical geographical re-alignment to enhance these rivalries. At the same time, through natural geographical selection we pit market-size rivals against each other as well.
MLB East (7): Mets, Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Phillies, Nationals, Blue Jays
MLB North (8): Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, Twins, Tigers, Reds, Indians, Pirates
MLB South (7): Marlins, Rays, Braves, Astros, Rangers, Cardinals, Royals
MLB West (8): Dodgers, Angels, Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Giants, Athletics, Mariners
This setup allows us to retain the geographic rivalries. The seven-team divisions can play each division rival 14 times. The eight-team divisions can play each division rival 13 times. This allows for a single series against every other team in baseball. If you were worried that the Cubs/Cardinals series was going away, it’s not. They still get to play every year.
This is a more balanced approach to scheduling and allows each team to see the game’s star players. Why should Twins fans only get a chance to see Giancarlo Stanton mash 500ft monster blasts once every blue moon? Does a Pirates fan even know who Mike Trout is? Why are we hiding the stars and confining them to their leagues and divisions? Let the fans see and appreciate all the star players.
This format will allow for four division winners, who will all be granted a bye in the first round of the playoffs. This will make for meaningful pennant races and bring back the excitement of winning your division. Winning a division against four other teams and playing those four teams nearly 80 times isn’t exciting. As a Brewers fan, by the time we get into August and September it’s all I can do to watch another series against the Reds or the Cardinals. At the same time, because you’ll only play four series against your divisional foes, it will make those four series just a little more meaningful – especially for the teams battling atop the divisions.
MLB Should Expand the Wild-Card Round To Eight Teams and Adopt the Sawchik/KBO Playoff Format
Travis Sawchik opined that MLB should adopt the KBO playoff format for the wild-card round. This is something I can support.
While we’re at it, let’s face it, the best team is probably not going to win the World Series anymore. Once we stopped playing for a league pennant and had one World Series to crown the best American baseball team, we introduced the idea of the best team not winning the title. It’s a fact that the regular season no longer has much of an impact on the playoffs. We’ve established this.
Joe Sheehan recently wrote in his newsletter that each team in the 2017 playoffs, through expected value calculations, would be expected to have a 4-3 record in any seven-game series, and a 3-2 record in any five-game series. More specifically, he wrote:
“It’s not that the postseason is ‘luck’ or ‘random.’ It’s simply that it’s short, too short for the true differences in ability among baseball teams to play out. You’d rather have the better team, but over five or seven games, ‘better team’ is an almost meaningless distinction except at the extremes.”
The playoffs are simply a tournament for the “better teams in baseball to determine a league champion.” If we wanted the best team to be the champion we’d quit after the regular season and see who had the most wins. It’s for this reason I’ve been suggesting that we as baseball fans #embracethetournament.
I’m not as radical as you think. I’m not telling MLB to change the rules to let the 12th-best team into the tournament — they already do that (2012 Cardinals). I’m not telling MLB to change the rules to let a wild-card team win the title — they already have (2014 Giants). I’m not telling MLB to change the rules to allow an 85 or 86-win team into the playoffs — they already have (2017 Twins, 2015 Angels).
What I am suggesting is that the expanded playoff pool would increase the popularity of the tournament, and allow MLB to showcase their star players more. The wild-card round could certainly feature the KBO playoff format where the 4-8 seeds host the 9-12 seeds for a best-of-two home playoff series whereby the home team needs to win only one game and the away team needs to win both to advance. We won’t need any Game 163s because teams will have already all played each other three times during the regular season and we can break ties head-to-head.
In this format, this is what the 2017 playoffs would have looked like:
#1 Seed – MLB West Champion – Los Angeles Dodgers
#2 Seed – MLB North Champion – Cleveland Indians
#3 Seed – MLB South Champion – Houston Astros
#4 Seed – MLB East Champion – Washington Nationals
WILD CARD ROUND:
(#12) St. Louis Cardinals @ (#5) Boston Red Sox
(#11) Minnesota Twins @ (#6) Arizona Diamondbacks
(#10) Milwaukee Brewers @ (#7) Chicago Cubs
(#9) Colorado Rockies @ (#8) New York Yankees
I’d prefer seven-game series for the Divisional round, Final Four and World Series, but could live with five-game series for the Divisional and Final Four rounds because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really make it any more or less random.
Major League Baseball has a solid product, but it could be better. By allowing more playoff teams, even if for just one or two games, it creates a chance to see more of the league’s stars in the national spotlight. This is also achieved by letting every team in baseball play every other team in baseball each year (though I concede I don’t know the effects on scheduling). By re-aligning the divisions, MLB can emphasize the natural geographic rivalries without a hokey home-and-home interleague series, while these larger divisions bring back some meaningfulness to the term “pennant winner” by including a bye. Finally, the removal of the American and National Leagues allows for re-seeding of all the playoff teams based on record in each round (if #12 advances, they’d play #1 in the divisional series), and allows both leagues to play under a common DH rule. Don’t misunderstand my grasp on reality here; I understand this would likely never happen — but why not? Can you come up with a reason other than tradition?