The future of baseball is predicated, of course, on the United States surviving (and thus having expelled from the White House) the nation's ironic, cataclysmic Anti-Christ. We (yes, it's back to "we" for this post...) remain cautiously optimistic, thus we will suggest how to save baseball from its own bestial force of reason with a series of changes that go beyond our fateful yet fanciful "190-foot rule."
Not that we expect much (if any) of it to happen as we are about to lay it out, but everyone is entitled to his/her fantasy so long as they don't try to impose it on others.
What will baseball in 2024 need (aside from the 190-foot rule, of course)? An infusion of cash. Since there is a chance for another "altered" season in '21, things could actually start to get a little tight. That cash can easily come from expansion, and the view here is that 2024 is the year to add two teams.
Our choices for those two teams: Montreal and Charlotte. The reason for this will become clear immediately, particularly if you refer back to the title of this post ("four leagues").
Yes, four leagues. We need a bigger change, something signaling that the game is actually moving into the twenty-first century.
The leagues are geographic in structure. We propose that they look like this:
EASTERN LEAGUE: Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Blue Jays, Pirates, Orioles, Montreal.
SOUTHERN LEAGUE: Braves, Rays, Marlins, Astros, Rangers, Nationals, Reds, Charlotte.
MIDWEST LEAGUE: Royals, Twins, Cardinals, Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, Indians, Tigers.
WESTERN LEAGUE: Dodgers, Giants, A's, Padres, Angels, Mariners, Rockies, Diamondbacks.
We're not interested in divisional play with an eight-team league structure. It's more sporting to have eight team leagues, which brings the twenty-first century back to a variation of the game's original formulation. In that way, baseball retains one of its key elements: a sense of the past embedded in the present and future.
The top three finishers in each league advance to the post-season. But wait: there is a wrinkle here, another idea from a different context in the past that needs to be implemented to create some responsiveness to uncertainties and anomalies that could crop up in the league standings. Consider: it's possible for one league to have teams finishing fourth or fifth that have better overall season records than the teams finishing third in their league. We should accommodate any such team(s) who find themselves in such a situation.
We're thinking of the long-lost "fairness doctrine" that used to provide some checks/balances on American media. While we're not holding our breath for a return of that in the next four years, we can at least incorporate a variant of it somewhere in our public life. Baseball is probably the least unlikely choice.
So, the initial round, which may or may not happen depending on how orderly the order of finish is within leagues, could be called the "fairness round," but (as Jim Bouton would say if he were here) that "sounds horseshit" so we'll just stick with the "wild card round." Here are how the rounds work in this setup:
Wild card/"fairness" round: Any fourth/fifth place finishers with better season records than third place finishers in other leagues will play a one-game sudden death advancement game, opponents to be determined at random. This gets us a slate of "third place" teams for the next round.
First round: 3rd place teams (or winners from a wild card round) will play best-of-3 series against the second place finishers. (If a fourth place team plays and beats a second-place team, the third place team gets the home field advantage.) Note that this round will be assigned at random, and will not be based on playing within leagues: this will have an interesting possible ramification at the end of the process.
By the way, we should note that all of the rounds up to but not including the World Series will be played at a neutral site.
Second round, aka the "division series": First round winners play the 1st place teams in a best-of-5 series.
Third round, aka the "championship": The four surviving teams from the second round play best-of-7 series.
Fourth round, aka the World Series: played in the home parks of the participants. We leave it open as to whether the series is best-of-7, or best-of-9 as it was briefly in the 1920s.
Note that such a structure brings us into a twenty-first century scenario (similar to a more fanciful, free-wheeling version of this scenario that we proposed back in the 1995 Big Bad Baseball Annual) where the World Series opponents would be teams from the same league. Let's be honest, all you East Coasters out there: would it not blow your mind if the Yankees and the Red Sox were actually to meet in the World Series? We thought so.
We had a few other ideas for the post-season, such as creating an post-season slot for the team that has the best record in interleague play (remember, 36 games, so it's more of a presence than ever before) if it isn't already in the playoffs (if applicable). That would add a "wild card vs. wild card" opening salvo á la what we currently have with the second wild card team.
There is more to such a reform, of course, than just the 190-foot rule. Since ballpark dimensions are now highly fixed by postmodern stadium design, additional measures to curb HRs will be needed to reorient things so that the teams in the 2024 Western League will be participating in what we might call the "ball-in-play league." This involves a variation of the approach adopted by the Los Angeles Dodgers when they first moved west; forced to play in a football stadium with a 250-foot left field foul line, they erected a 40-foot screen to curtail home runs. (One shudders to think what the homer count would've been had they not done so...)
So teams in the Western League will be asked to do the same thing from the foul poles to the power alleys, in order to curtail HRs. The target result is a reduction of HRs by 35%, which would take things from 1.28 HR/G (the MLB average in 2020) down to roughly .90--a figure that, unimaginably, is the mid-point between the HR/G average in 2013 and 2014. (As we've all learned the hard way, four years can create a lot of havoc.)
Such a change would likely drive doubles up to a per-game average at or near a major league record (1.93, set in 1930). The shape of XBH in the Western League would likely be at serious odds with those in the other leagues (for example: 1.93 2B/0.44 3B/.90 HR in the Western League; 1.59 2B/0.15 3B/1.25 HR elsewhere). The differences in style of play will be immediately apparent.
We noted in the previous post that a shift in analytic thinking needs to occur, and such a need is becoming more desperate as time goes on. The shift from applying actions to theories that push baseball further into the invidious "Three True Outcomes" clusterf*ck (there is no other word that will really do, folks...) to applying controls that can stabilize run scoring without the type of extreme performance shape that has manifested itself from 2017 on is barely on the horizon line of those who either run the game or participate in the increasing "embedded discourse" that is providing justification for the existence of teams that hit under .220 for an entire season.
As the table at right demonstrates, all that changed in 2020. No less than five teams smashed their way onto the list, including four teams that pinballed their way into the top (er, bottom...) ten. We still have eight teams from the low point of the deadball era (1908-10) on the list, and there are still seven teams from the "second deadball era" (1963-72) residing in the mire. They've been joined, however, by five teams from 2020 whose best excuse is that a somewhat colder-than-usual September took the wind out of their sails and influenced their numbers more because of the length of the season.
We'll find out about this trend for sure over the next couple of years, but we would caution you if you decide to bet against it. We've crossed a threshold here, and while HRs will doubtless remain all too plentiful, many of the other type of hits will continue to wither away before our eyes. For the Rangers, they have some rueful symmetry in play, with their first team in Dallas and their most recent season being tied for fifth worst team BA. That's an achievement that a franchise can truly hang its ten-gallon hat on, n'est-ce pas? Backing away from the populist hegemony of those "Three True Outcomes" may be as difficult as tamping down the neo-fascist insurgency, but what makes it that much more unsettling is realizing that the folks tearing at the fabric of baseball are clearly supposed to be able to know better. What we present here is a path through the forest: it is still an open question as to whether anyone will decide to change direction and see where it can take us. As we like to say at this point: stay tuned.