While the local and national media have been distracted by the Mets and Dodgers financial woes and have used those stories to project all sorts of cockamamie schemes, the commissioner has been on a different wavelength altogether and barely anyone has noticed. Whether or not you believe Bud Selig, here’s what he said last week about contraction in an interview with Chris Russo:
“The only thing I can tell you about contraction is we haven’t discussed it at all,” he said. “I’m not sure where that came from. We have not discussed contraction at all.”
What Selig has been talking about is realignment. Selig hasn’t divulged how broad his realignment vision is, and it’s likely that too many owners are comfortable with the current divisional alignments that major changes would be approved. He has put out some interesting concepts such as “floating realignment” in which have-not teams could move from to/from the AL East in order to get more stadium revenue from the unbalanced schedule’s greater number of intradivision games. That concept never got off the ground, but here may be some wiggle room for realignment that could come from a very simple numbers argument. Feast your eyes on the following table, whose data comes from NY Times resident geek Paul Robbins.
The path of each team can be seen on Robbins’ Google Maps mashup. Certainly no owner, front office, manager or player is going to get sympathy from fans about the pain that comes with having to travel frequently on plush charter jets. Still, there’s something to the large disparity in travel miles from top to bottom. As you might expect, many of the West Coast teams accrued the highest mileage. But why did the A’s have the third lowest, and the Padres the fifth lowest? Why did the centrally located Cubs finish fourth highest while their crosstown rivals hit sixth lowest? There’s no single factor to blame as scheduling is as much an art as a science. However, you can rest assured that Selig has an idea what part of the solution is: realignment.
The big four major sports don’t realign their leagues on a whim. In every case over the last 20 years, realignment has come with a league expansion event. Changes based on mere geographical “friendliness” do not occur frequently. Before 1994, the NL West would’ve been better named “NL Other” due to having two teams in the Eastern time zone (Atlanta, Cincinnati) and another in the Central (Houston). The leagues/teams have absorbed highly variable travel costs as the price of doing business.
- 2004 – NBA changes from four to six divisions. Adds Charlotte Bobcats to Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division. Moves New Orleans Hornets (previously Charlotte) to Western Conference’s Southwest Division.
- 2000 – NFL changes from six to eight divisions after adding 32nd team, Houston Texans. Conferences’ Central divisions become North; South divisions are added.
- 1998 – NHL changes from four to six divisions after the Hartford Whalers (Northeast Division) move to North Carolina to become the Carolina Hurricanes (Southeast Division). Newly formed Southeast Division also contains two recent expansion franchises.
- 1998 – MLB expands to 30 teams, adding Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks. Milwaukee Brewers switch from American League to National League, leaving the AL with 14 teams and the NL 16 teams.
- 1995 – NHL approves Quebec Nordiques (Northeast) move to Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche (Pacific Division). Both conferences have 13 teams.
- 1994 – MLB changes from four to six divisions. Both leagues’ West divisions have four teams each, the respective Central and East divisions have five teams each.
Many other relocations, such as the Minnesota North Stars’ move to Dallas or the Vancouver Grizzlies’ move to Memphis did not automatically cause realignment. The Washington Nationals naturally stayed in the NL East after they moved from Montreal. Divisional status quo also happened for the Houston Oilers-turned-Tennessee Oilers/Titans and the Cleveland Browns-turned-Baltimore Ravens.
The Texas Rangers would love nothing more than to leave the AL West and cut down the roughly 20 West Coast 9 PM CT start times their fans watching in the Metroplex have to endure every season. Unfortunately for the Rangers, no changes will happen just to placate one franchise. If two teams resist, then there’s a movement – especially if those two teams are the Cubs and Cardinals. In 1992 Fay Vincent initially pushed for a 1992 makeover in which the Cubs and Cards would be placed in the NL West, whereas the Braves and Reds moved to the East. It would seem unlikely that reverting to a two league, four division setup would gain traction, as there simply aren’t enough teams in the Pacific and Mountain time zones (eight team total) to deal with the problematic time shifts for the Central-based teams who would be stuck in the West.
Selig frequently says that he tinkers with realignment concepts frequently while he’s traveling, much as you or I would. The conservative nature of The Lodge makes such tinkering more a mental exercise than anything, but it’s good to hear that he’s giving it some attention. The biggest problem Selig may be facing isn’t cumulative travel or TV time shifts. Rather, it may be the sheer number of teams. Prior to expansion in the 90′s and interleague play, the balanced schedule offered easy, predictable scheduling. Every team in your league was guaranteed to come twice every year. Once you add teams and reduce intraleague games by introducing interleague play, it becomes practically impossible to maintain a balanced schedule.
It becomes more difficult once additional interleague series are added, since those will compete with intraleague or intradivision play for space within a 162-game season. Note that I’ve only allowed for two interleague series in this scenario. 14 teams is easy to work with, which is one reason why some have advocated for contracting two teams. It’s not a good reason given the big picture, but it’s not hard to see why it might be considered favorable – at least from a logistical standpoint. With 16 teams in 3 divisions, that oddball 6-team division will always complicate matters. MLB could add two expansion teams to make a 32-team league as I’ve wished for in the past, but there is absolutely no internal interest in expansion at this point so it’s a nonstarter. Nevertheless, 30 teams is extremely awkward.
There may be one admittedly strange way to smooth out scheduling and travel. That would be to keep the American League at 14 teams over 3 divisions while making the National League 4 divisions of 4 teams each.
A variant of the NL distribution has 12 intradivision games per team, which allows a bump vs. the “NL South” to 9 games, achieving parity with the other divisions and some semblance of a balanced schedule, if that is a goal. I wouldn’t expect the National League to do this because, as the more conservative of the two leagues, it just doesn’t seem like they’d be in a rush to introduce another pennant and an additional two teams to the playoff format. If the American League were doing this in concert it might make more sense. Since the AL isn’t expanding, the NL isn’t going to change. Regardless, the seemingly endless number of possibilities for realignment sheds light on how difficult it is to plan for MLB’s short and long term. For the fans’ sake, I hope that Selig can get the owners to at least honestly discuss the pros and cons of different scenarios. Surely there are practical ways to make realignment work for owners, players, and fans alike.
P.S. One thing you can’t expect from Selig and the owners: some form of a promotion/relegation system like the one used in European soccer. The delta of franchise values between MLB and AAA teams is much too vast for any owner to take such a risk. Many teams that have been relegated have never made it back and have even become insolvent, a phenomenon known in British soccer as entering administration.