Last night I wrote about how the biggest problem for the Pirates was that they currently play in the same division as the best team in baseball. They are currently the third best team in baseball, and the second best in the NL, but they are six games out of first place. That’s more of an unfortunate circumstance than anything else, as it’s hard to expect a team to be as good as the Cardinals have been, much less expecting that team to be better than the pace the Cardinals are on.
I didn’t want to get into the division subject too much last night, since I was focusing on not judging the Pirates too much on how they compared to the Cardinals. But today, Jeff Passan wrote an article on Yahoo Sports suggesting that divisions need to be eliminated in baseball.
As with any change in baseball, I’m sure that this idea is something that won’t go over well, since it involves a big change in how things are done. The short of it is that the top five teams would make the playoffs, in that order, without arbitrary and meaningless divisions dictating the process.
All of this is being written right now because the Pirates and the Cubs own two of the three best records in the National League, but would currently be squaring off in a one game Wild Card, with only one team advancing. Meanwhile, the Dodgers and the Mets — who currently both rank behind the Pirates and Cubs — would automatically advance to the division series because they are fortunate enough to not play in the NL Central.
Without divisions, the Pirates would be battling with the Cardinals for home field advantage, and they’d be trying to fight off the Cubs still. The only difference is that they’d have the number two seed, rather than the one game play-in.
I asked today on Twitter if there was any reason to have divisions in baseball at this point. There were a few “this is how it’s done” responses. There were several people saying I couldn’t talk about this because it sounded like sour grapes with the Pirates being in first place. Neither of those deny that this isn’t a fair system.
One of the big responses that I got was that divisions create and maintain rivalries. I’d have to disagree here. As we’ve seen with the Pirates leaving the NL East, you can still have rivals without having those teams in your division. And as we’ve seen with the Pirates in the NL Central the last few years, rivalries really spark based on competitiveness. For example, the Cardinals and Pirates weren’t really big rivals until they were both successful. You put two good teams together and have them continue to face off in the playoffs over the years, and you will get a strong rivalry. An example of this in another sport was the Patriots and the Colts when Peyton Manning was with Indianapolis.
You’d still have rivalries without divisions. The best of the old rivalries would remain, while new ones would be created based on teams battling year after year to be the best in each league.
Another potential problem was the schedule and the travel. The schedule would end up being very balanced, as you could set it up where each team played every other team the same amount of times (which would leave a handful games left over to play rivals an extra time). This avoids a situation where one team gets to capitalize on playing a weak division, while another team is forced to play many more games in a division like the current NL Central. As for the travel, that is incredibly accessible these days, and shouldn’t be a factor. If the Pirates can play in a division where three of their division mates are located in another time zone (it used to be four when Houston was around), then there shouldn’t be any issues about working without divisions.
But let’s also take a moment to go back to that “sour grapes” complaint and get to the root of why this is really an issue now. It’s not because this is currently happening to the Pirates, where a team could be winning almost any other division in baseball right now, except the division they’re in. Instead, this issue comes up because this is happening at all right now.
MLB changed their format to add a second Wild Card team before the 2013 season, adding a one game play-in between the two Wild Card teams. This is the third year of the new system, but it’s the first time we’ve seen this problem where two Wild Card teams are posting better records than two division winners. Last year, every Wild Card team would have finished behind every division winner in their league. The year before there was only one Wild Card team who had a better record than one division team, and that was the Pirates over the Dodgers. But the system was new that year, and the Wild Card team didn’t always have a commanding lead over the Dodgers.
The problem this year is that the two Wild Card teams will end up better than two of the division winners, exposing a flaw in the system. You punish the Pirates and the Cubs for being in the same division as the Cardinals, while having no good reason for divisions.
The lack of divisions would still create interest. The Pirates would have the same shot at home field advantage as they do now, needing to only pass the Cardinals. They’d still be fighting to hold on to the second best record in the league, only this time it would mean an extended playoff series, rather than just having home field in the Wild Card game. And if MLB kept the one-game format, then you’d have the Mets, Dodgers, and Cubs currently fighting for the third playoff spot, with the Nationals and Giants fighting to get in to the Wild Card game.
The division format is old, and no longer makes sense, especially when you’ve got a two Wild Card system where the two teams play just one game to advance. Two of the best teams in baseball shouldn’t be forced into a one-off elimination while two teams who finished below them wait for their opponents in a longer series. Instead, the best teams should be in the playoffs, getting the highest rankings, with no arbitrary and meaningless battle lines keeping that from happening.
**Prospect Watch: Big Day at the Plate For a Slick-Fielding Shortstop. Willy Garcia and Max Moroff are among those who homered tonight, while Wilfredo Boscan returned to the Indianapolis rotation.
**Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire Pick Up FSL Honors. The Pirates continue to get recognition in Baseball America’s Best Tools lists throughout the minors.
**Willy Garcia’s Power is Returning, Now With Fewer Strikeouts. Garcia cut down on his strikeouts in Altoona, but didn’t have the same power. His strikeouts are still down a bit, but the power is starting to return in Triple-A.