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Should MLB Eliminate Divisions?

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The divisional setup of MLB makes for some head-scratching matchups in the postseason. Should the whole thing be scratched?

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports has an idea. He wants to abolish divisions in baseball. The reasoning for this should be clear to Cubs fans: As we sit right now, the second- and third-best teams in the National League, the Pirates and Cubs, are looking at a one-game playoff simply because they happen to play in the same division as the Cardinals.

Is there something to this proposal? For the first 100 years of baseball history, each league played in a single division with the winner advancing to the World Series. But when baseball expanded to 12 teams in each league for the 1969 season, they decided to split into two divisions because, as AL President Joe Cronin said "You can't sell a twelfth-place team." This also created a second round of playoffs which meant more revenue for the owners.

When baseball expanded again in 1993, they went to three divisions with a wildcard entry into a three-round playoff structure. And as you no doubt know, they added a second wildcard in 2012 with the one-game playoff.

Arguments in favor of abolishing divisions

The main argument is one of fairness. Teams from all three divisions are competing for the same spot in the playoffs, but they aren't playing the same schedule. This year, the N.L. Central is clearly better than the other two division in the league. The Toronto Blue Jays have not made the playoffs since 1993, the longest current playoff drought in MLB. And unlike the Pirates and Royals, whose long playoff droughts were a result of them putting crappy teams on the field year after year, the Blue Jays have generally been good over that time period and in a couple of seasons, have been very good. But they had the misfortune of playing in the AL East with the Yankees and Red Sox juggernauts generally claiming both possible playoff berths from that division.

The second wildcard was created in part to alleviate the issue the Blue Jays had making the postseason. But the one-game playoff round has created a new inequality. Now the second-best team in each league can be out of the World Series hunt after just one game. And as most baseball analysts will tell you, one game in baseball can be a crapshoot.

Beyond the fairness issue of teams with the best records not making the playoffs, the divisional structure and the unbalanced schedule creates a different inequality. The Cubs have to play more games against the very good Cardinals and Pirates teams whereas the Nationals and the Mets get a chance to fatten up on the Braves, Phillies and Marlins. Single standings for each league would mean that each team could play 10 games against every team in their league and 22 interleague games. Sure, there would be some inequality based on which interleague teams were on your schedule, but the schedule would be a lot more fair. (Or course, MLB could just eliminate interleague games, but they're not going to do that.)

Under such a proposal, the top three teams from each league would get a pass into the division series and the teams that finished fourth and fifth would get the one-game playoff. This would, in my mind, create a more exciting stretch run. For example, right now the Pirates and Cubs would get the bye into the NLDS, but the Dodgers and Mets would be right behind them, threatening to knock either team into the one-game playoff. The Giants and Nationals would be barking at both the Dodgers and Mets heels, rather than at just one each.

Might this change have a negative impact on rivalries like the Cardinals and Brewers? I really don't think so. Geography dictates those rivalries more than just being in the division. The Cardinals were the Cubs' rivals long before there were divisions. If the Astros were still in the NL I could see it destroying whatever rivalry the Cubs had with them, but that's not much of a loss. It might even renew some old rivalries like the Cubs' long-dormant rivalry with the Mets.

Another bonus to eliminating divisions: Were it not for the strike, the 1994 Texas Rangers would have opened the playoffs against the White Sox. The Rangers record was 52-62 at the time. The 66-47 Indians would have opened the playoffs on the road against the 70-43 Yankees. The 63-49 Orioles would have stayed home. That's just bad for baseball all around and it could happen again, this time without a strike.

Arguments against abolishing divisions

Passan asked people in the game about why there still were divisions, and the biggest argument in favor was "tradition." That's a stupid reason. For one, the tradition for 100 years was that there was one single set of standings for each league. Two, doing something stupid because you've always done something stupid is stupid.

A better argument was that more games against divisional rivals brings out more fans, but Passan cites some attendance figures that say that games against divisional rivals don't actually bring out that many more fans per game.

I don't know about this. I think for a team like the Pirates, an out-of-division game against the Mets or Phillies might have a lot more appeal than a game with the Reds or Brewers. But for the Cubs, I'd argue that there's a certain electricity in a game against the Cardinals or Brewers that doesn't exist when they're playing the Padres, assuming all other factors are equal.

So let's grant that extra divisional games to help attendance a little. But I'd argue that good weather, summer vacations and winning baseball have a far, far greater impact on attendance than divisional rivalries do.

Another objection that can be quickly dismissed is Joe Cronin's claim that "you can't sell a twelfth-place team." You can't, but it's been pretty clearly demonstrated in recent years that you can't sell a fifth-place team in a division either.

A solid argument that Passan brings up against it is that it might be a travel nightmare, with teams having to fly all around the country to play each team the same number of times. But the current schedules don't make a lot of sense either. Let's at least study the issue and make up some mock schedules before ruling one way or the other on this matter.

Something that I'd bring up is the idea of the pennant. This is something pretty unique in baseball and it's a heritage from the times when the leagues were actually quite separate entities. While "World Series Champion" has always been the title every team strives for, "winning the pennant" for your respective league has always been considered a very big deal too, whether or not your team went on to win the World Series.

Winning your division meant you had the right to fly a flag with "Division Champs" on it. The Cubs might not have won a World Series title since 1908 and an NL pennant since 1945, but they can proudly fly flags that say "1984 and 1989 NL East Champs" and "2003, 2007 and 2008 NL Central Champs." Divisional titles give each season more "winners" and happier fanbases.

There would also be the problem of who exactly the "pennant winner" is. Does the team that advances to the World Series claim the league pennant, or does it go to the team with the best regular season record? With divisions, it's not really a question. But it would be if all teams were lumped into one division.

At the risk of alienating half of you who are still reading, they'd call this "silverware" in soccer, meaning you get a silver trophy for display. They don't have league playoffs in European football, so the team that finishes first in the league takes the title and the trophy. But MLS has playoffs and trophies for both the playoff champion ("The MLS Cup") and the team with the best overall regular-season record ("The Supporters' Shield"). Of the two, the MLS Cup is more prestigious. That's the one that gives your team the right to put a star by your team logo on your jerseys. But teams do try to win the Shield as well and it is something to be proud of.

(By the way, the MLS Supporters' Shield has a great and interesting history. If you're unfamiliar with it, you should check it out.)

MLB could do the same thing. Going back to 100 years of tradition before 1969, the league pennant could be awarded to the team with the best record. If they want to hand out more flags, give a "league playoff pennant" to both teams that advance to the World Series.

One more argument that can be chucked out the window is that the teams that win the World Series likely will not have "won" anything in the regular season. That was an argument against the wildcard, but that ship has long since sailed.

(By the way, Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post wrote his own reaction to Passan's proposal. One of his proposals is interesting, to say the least.)

So those are the pros and cons as far as I see them. Should MLB make the switch? The issue certainly deserves more study and debate. The more I think about it, the better the idea sounds.