Game Changers: No divisions and new playoff format
30 teams split between AL and NL, with six teams in each league making the postseason
Clint Hurdle didn't want sympathy. The manager wanted to take the Pirates to the World Series, or at least the National League Division Series.
Yet there he sat as midnight approached on the night of Oct. 7, saying goodbye to a 98-win season after only nine postseason innings, all against eventual NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta of the Cubs. And it was a hollow feeling that Hurdle knew well, as his Pirates had been similarly silenced by the Giants' Madison Bumgarner in the 2014 NL Wild Card Game.
But what if baseball went back to the future and eliminated divisional play? What if it placed 15 teams apiece in the National and American Leagues and went back to a balanced schedule, or at least one modified only in making an allowance for Interleague Play?
And what if you could do that and add more Wild Card teams for the postseason, allowing 12 of the 30 teams to have a shot to reach the World Series? What if you could create a best-of-three format for the four lowest seeds in each league without lengthening the break for teams that don't play in the Wild Card round?
It's possible, and here's how it would work:
• All 30 teams stay in their current league, but the East, Central and West distinctions go away. Standings are kept from first to 15th place, with the top six surviving for the postseason. The two winningest teams receive the equivalent of a first-round bye, advancing to the Division Series, while teams that rank third through sixth play a best-of-three Wild Card round. (This would be very similar to the NFL playoff format.)
• A modified balanced schedule would be created that has every team playing the other 14 teams in their league 10 times and a total of 22 Interleague games. Teams would play six games every year against their natural rivals, or at least the best possible rival -- that is, Yankees-Mets, Cardinals-Royals, Rangers-Astros, Marlins-Rays, etc. -- and then play 16 over six series (four three-game series, two two-game series) against opponents assigned randomly.
In an effort to keep strength of schedule as even as possible, teams would play two series each against teams in the top-third, middle-third and bottom-third of their opposite league, with an annual lottery for future opponents being held over the All-Star break every year.
• To leave the top two seeds in each league only a four-day gap from the end of the regular season to the Division Series, there would be no travel days in the Wild Card round. The first game would be hosted by the lowest seed on Monday (assuming the season ends Sunday) and then shift to the highest seed for a game on Tuesday and a possible game on Wednesday. A travel day on Thursday provides a cushion for a rainout or a tiebreaker game at the end of the regular season.
All four Division Series would start on Friday, maintaining the 2-2-1 format currently used. But one league would get a travel day after the second game, while the other league has an off-day after the third game. That would accommodate the staggered schedule that is currently used in the rounds leading to the World Series.
There are many advantages to these changes.
1. There would be much smaller swings in strength of schedule, with every team playing 86 percent of its schedule (140 of 162 games) evenly against the same opponents.
2. Fans would see a bigger variety of opponents over the course of the season, as opposed to three visits a year from divisional opponents.
3. As many as 10 games would be added to the postseason inventory, with the maximum going from 43 to 53.
4. Two more teams would reach the postseason.
5. All postseason teams would play a short series, not just one game.
6. The winningest teams would have a greater advantage than currently, as their Division Series opponent would have had to use two or three starting pitchers in the Wild Card round.
7. The value of pitching depth (fewer postseason off-days) would be increased.
There are disadvantages as well. Among those:
1. With 15-team leagues, not five-team divisions, only two teams win titles during the regular season. Marketing acumen would be needed to put the best spin on having the second- and third-best records in the league, to replace the division titles that aren't there to win.
2. Travel distance and time would probably increase for all 30 teams, with those in the NL Central receiving a rude awakening from how good they've had it.
3. The games-back column in the standings would be tougher to decipher, as what would really matter is distance to the No. 6 spot, not the first one.
4. Some excitement would be lost with the elimination of the one-and-done Wild Card Game, which has been great television. Cubs manager Joe Maddon says playing in that game feels like starting the postseason with the seventh game of the World Series.
5. Squeezing more games into the same postseason window means taking more chances with weather, tiebreakers and other logistical concerns.
(However, in most years you can alleviate that by skipping the traditional travel day after the regular season, getting a running start to the postseason and, if needed, you can play split doubleheaders in the Wild Card round and make up days later by eliminating travel days.)
All in all, these are logical changes that could be easily enacted. Or a version of them could be put in play along with a reduction of the regular season to 154 games.
If we're looking for a way to make the postseason both more fair and compelling, the change makes sense to me.