Tuesday, June 28, 2011


There has been a lot of talk (loose and otherwise) about the idea of dismantling divisions in search of something... anything new--as if "new and improved!" actually meant that.

This is likely just another example of Budzilla leaking some ideas to the press in order to see how people react (though this motive was a bit different when the world's luckiest used car salesman was spewing his swill about contraction). But just in case it isn't, it's time for me to jump in with both feet and take the discussion into a realm stranger than any visited by any of the various members of the Starship Free Enterprise.

Let's start with the premise that leagues and divisions should be preserved as they are now as opposed to the free-for-all that has been suggested. They will be preserved, but at the same time subverted. That's what Budzilla did when he introduced inter-league play, something that became tiresome within a few years and has now been bedraggled into some of the sillier sabermetric efforts to characterize the relative strengths of the leagues.

Yes, you can own a moral imperative--but the moral
high ground is out of stock...
In any event, our subversion will be, for lack of a better phrase, more subversive. It will strain the bounds of credulity due to its overactive and overheated double-entry method for awarding the extra wild card teams that Budzilla and the suits at the networks seem determined to cram down our throats.

Forget about the idea of just having 30 teams go at it head-to-head. That's a messy schedule, even messier that the spaghettini of the present day. It can't be balanced, and since there is no balance possible in a baseball universe comprised of 30 teams (could it be that Budzilla refuses to expand because there just aren't enough reputable multi-millionaires left in the world to own franchises? Was contraction actually a moral imperative? Insert bitter laugh track here...).

What we want is a schedule that combines the notion of everyone playing everyone else and a race within divisions. What we need in order to do this is a double-entry standings system which preserves the standard way of winning divisions and wild card but adds a divisional sub-component for awarding the second and third wild card teams in each league.

Got that? OK, here's a chart that demonstrates it. We use the results from the 2010 AL to keep the ping-pong ball suspended in mid-air. You've got division winners (in orange). You've got a wild card team (in yellow). That's the same old schtuff you've been seeing for years now. What's new (and improved!) is the divisional overlay, the double entry standings that permit teams who otherwise aren't quite going to make the grade to enter into the post-season by excelling within their own division.

The teams in green shading at the right--the Blue Jays and the Angels--are the two teams not already in the post-season through the front door with the best divisional records.

Now you could argue (and you doubtless will...) that the teams that should be the extra wild card teams are the ones who had the best overall won-loss records after the top four teams. My counterarguments are two: 1) that's the boring, conventional way to do it; 2) paying attention to the divisions will be more interesting once we introduce the other schedule wrinkle.

Brows suitably knitted? OK, here's how we do it. We overlay the idea that everyone plays everyone: each team plays the other 29 in two two-game (home and away) series. That totals 116 games. The other 46 games are played back inside the divisions. Those games, plus the inter-division games that occur due to the mandate of everyone playing everyone, count in the standings as a secondary selection system for the extra wild card teams.

The theory is that teams will keep playing harder, especially within their own division, once they realize that they can make the playoffs by excelling within a subset of the season.

While the 2010 example doesn't show the actual number of games that would be played in each division under the proposed system, we'll take the results from the intra-divisional standings to create a six-team postseason: for purposes of our next travesty, we'll single out the Rays, Jays, Yankees, Twins, Rangers, and Angels.

So here's the next twist. There are no play-in series. There are three best-of-five first round series, each pitting a wild card team against a division winner, with the latter team getting the home field advantage.

But...but--that leaves three teams for the second round! Well, yes, it does. How the heck does that work? It works as a round-robin tournament, that's how it works.

(In the old days when we wrote this type of stuff, it was in a book--a very thick book that folks were loath to throw across the room due to possible orthopedic consequences. Now, with blogs, life is much better: you can simply throw your lap-top or mobile device across the room. Ready, aim, chuck!)

OK, those of you who are left, in unison: how the hell can a round-robin tournament work?

Actually, it works really well. Let's presume for purpose of fleshing this out that the three teams that make it to the second round are the Rays, Yankees, and Rangers. What you do is take all three teams to the same city--in this case Tampa Bay, home of the team with the best in-season won-loss record. There the Rays have two home games, against the Yankees and Rangers. After a day off, the series moves to New York, where the Yankees have two home games against the Rays and Rangers. After another day off, the series moves to Texas, where the Rangers have at least two home games against the Yankees and Rays. If one team hasn't won four games at this point, the series continues back to Tampa for two more games. And so on, until someone wins four games. If you lose four games, you are out.

The sample result shows you how it works. The tension builds up in triplicate. Note, though, that this sample was picked to highlight a scenario that might produce some objections on the grounds of fairness. The Rays, battling back from 0-3, don't get a chance to win their fourth game because the Rangers get there first. Unfair?

Actually, no. The Rays had six chances to win four games. So did the Rangers, who managed to do just that. It's baseball's newest innovation: its own version of the pocket veto. If you get there first in the same number of games--well, that's how it goes sometimes.

Of course, it's not likely that this scenario will occur all that often. Some of you with advanced wise guy tendencies, however, are probably wondering what the heck happens in the above scenario if the Yankees actually win that last game from the Rangers. If they do that, the three teams have identical 3-3 records.

So how the heck do you have a single playoff game that gives all three teams a chance to win their fourth game at the same time? Once again, Goode Olde Malcolm has painted himself into a corner. (Or, should we say, painted three teams into a corner all at once.)

Fear not, for here is the greatest "new and improved!" innovation yet. You simply have all three teams play in the game against each other!

"Uh...Don??" "Just how do they do that?" "Can I have some of what you're smoking??"

It's simple. Each "inning" consists of three home-away matchups--NYY/TEX, TEX/TBR, TBR/NYY. There are a total of four of these (though I'm open to it being five). Teams are allowed to start two different pitchers and use differing lineups in each of the two "games" they are playing. That way there's no random luck involved in when batters and pitchers appear against each other. Each team gets eight times up, eight times in the field.

A very special scorecard will be required in order to keep track of what's going on, and a whole new scoreboard arrangement will be necessary.

OK, it's not simple. (Though it's a lot easier than keeping track of the three separate scores that this "troika game" produces--let's see: the Yankees beat Texas 5-2; the Rays beat Texas 3-2; the Rays beat the Yankees 2-1.) But it's kind of amazing to superimpose two separate games on top of each other and get one result. Two lineup cards, two separate pitchers, two chances for Mariano Rivera to earn a save.

Now this is what baseball ought to trot out there for the fans--something new and improved! Well, something new and different, at least. Something that no one has seen before! Baseball needs to have its own version of a jubilee year, and free itself from its own preconceptions and knee-jerk traditions. A number of new strategies could emerge from such a playoff system, and once in a blue moon we will have a three-way free-for-all game such as the one described above.

I guarantee you: if you ever saw a game such as the one described above, you would never--never, never ever--forget it.