Rays, Pirates, and Realignment

As of this writing (or at least the beginning of this writing; I rarely have time to finish a post in one night), the Rays and Pirates have identical 50-44 records. Both teams were dreadful for the first half of the last decade. And that’s where the similarities end.

With all due respect to the Pirates, their 50-44 record and the Rays’ 50-44 record were not created equally. The Pirates just finished taking two of three from the AAA-caliber Astros and one from the sputtering Reds to claim first place in the NL Central. The Rays, meanwhile, just lost a heartbreaker to the Yankees, the dregs of their bullpen falling apart just hours after the rest of the ‘pen wasted a brilliant effort in a 1-0, 16-inning loss to the Red Sox in the wee hours of Monday morning.

With the loss, the Rays fell 6 1/2 games behind New York in the wild card, all but ending any hopes of their competing for a playoff berth. The Pirates, in contrast, not only wrested first place from the Brewers, but gained much-needed momentum by beating a division contender, albeit one with a losing record to-date.

The Rays have outscored opponents by 34 runs. Those opponents include the Yankees six times and the Red Sox eight times, and they play those two 22 more times this summer. The Pirates have played the Astros 12 times and the Cubs nine times and have outscored their opponents by 14.

Based on the unbalanced schedule, one could make a case that the five best teams in baseball (Philly, Boston, NYY, Atlanta, and the Rays) all play in eastern divisions this year (though Rangers fans may take issue), and that the Rays would be seven or eight games up if they played in the NL Central, while the Pirates might be fighting the Orioles to stay out of the basement in the AL East.

But that case is no fun. In the real world, the Pirates lead their division, and have a reasonable chance to make the playoffs for the first time in almost twenty years, and that’s probably the best story in baseball in 2011. They have a long and storied history, play in the best park in the league, and have great fans. The Rays, meanwhile, have one of the game’s worst parks, a small fan base in one of the smallest metropolitan areas with a baseball team, and no real history prior to 2008. Their sympathy factor is low as well, as they’ve made the playoffs two of the last three seasons.

What’s most fair isn’t always the most fun or the most entertaining.

This brings us to the realignment strategies everyone’s throwing around. Major League Baseball has decided, for some reason, to add a second wild card team from each league to the playoff mix. Members of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance have taken a particular interest in possible realignment plans, sharing theories and suggestions in blog posts and listserve emails. Thinking about the Rays and Pirates has helped clarify my thoughts on realignment.

The impetus for realignment seems to be the notion that teams would be competing for the same playoff spot on an uneven playing field, as if that hasn’t been the case for years. NL Central teams have to finish ahead of five teams to win their division, while AL West teams only have to best three other teams. Somehow, the popular solution is to move the Astros (or the Brewers or the Diamondbacks) to the American League, so that each league has three divisions of five teams competing for five playoff spots.

In reality, adding a second wild card team mitigates the effect of the division size inequity. Teams will be competing not against their divisions, but against their leagues, and the difference between fourteen and sixteen teams is unlikely to affect many playoff berths. Throw in year-round interleague play, and this can’t possibly be the best solution.

If fairness is the reason for realignment, the answer is not moving one team to the tougher league, immediately decreasing that team’s chances of making the postseason. The answer is eliminating the divisions, balancing the schedule such that each team plays substantially the same slate, and sending the five (or four, which has worked pretty well) best teams in each league to the playoffs. Only then does a team like the Blue Jays or Orioles have the same chance to reach the playoffs as the Dodgers or Rockies, each of whom has made multiple trips this decade despite similar resources.

If the divisions were eliminated, as many fans and writers have pointed out, baseball would lose the thrill of multiple pennant races. Sure, there may be a good fight for fifth place, possibly featuring three or four teams, but there would be little incentive for first and second place teams facing off in late September to ride their starting pitchers deep into games.

Baseball isn’t about fairness. Baseball was most fair from 1903 to 1968, when there were no divisions and the best team in each league went straight to the World Series. What happened then? The Yankees won it all. Just about every year, it seemed. In the National League, the Cardinals and Pirates and Reds stole a pennant here and there, but the New York teams won more than their share. Baseball was more predictable and less exciting when it was fair.

Where does that leave us? Contraction is not an option, as almost every team is making money, and those that aren’t (Dodgers, Mets) have rich history and millions of fans in huge markets.

Expansion is a fun idea, and Portland and Charlotte and San Antonio could surely support teams, but the league added four teams in the nineties and may be maxed out, particularly in a struggling national economy.

The best answer, if you ask me, is to change nothing. Baseball is making millions, fans are watching games, and nine different teams in nine different cities have won the last ten World Series. A fifth playoff team won’t stall that progress, and may add intrigue down the stretch, but it will water down the playoffs some (for better or worse), giving sometimes-unworthy teams a reasonable chance to steal a championship from any of several superior teams.

If I could change one thing about baseball, I would reconsider the unbalanced schedule. Baseball doesn’t need to be completely fair, but we don’t need 18 Twins-Royals games every year either. I could take or leave interleague play, but if it’s a part if baseball, teams should play similar interleague schedules (maybe a three-game series against each team in the other league, or 14 AL teams, in the case of an NL team).

Sometimes change is good, even when it’s not demanded by a specific shortcoming. Another wild card team could spice up baseball’s playoffs and add intrigue to the regular season. Let’s just not pretend baseball is broken and go wild dreaming up solutions. The Astros might never forgive us.

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One Response to Rays, Pirates, and Realignment

  1. Nick says:

    I would like to request that, in honor of the Phillies’ Antonio Bastardo, you construct a list of the best surnames in baseball

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