Thursday, March 21, 2013
Time to return to balanced schedule
By David Schoenfield
Our old ESPN colleague Peter Gammons had a strongly worded series of tweets a couple days ago:
You know, it's amazing it took this long for an organization to realize the potential benefits of purposely being awful, which is what the Astros are doing, which is what the Cubs did last year. Why finish with the fifth- or sixth-worst record when you can bottom out and get more of a sure thing in the draft? This strategy is made a little easier now with the cap on draft budgets that ostensibly hold down the signing bonuses for top picks.
It's certainly a risky strategy in that you'll lose revenue via declining attendance, and even the first pick in baseball is no sure thing (see Hochevar, Luke) but the Nationals (selecting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper No. 1 overall in back-to-back years) and Rays (B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria and David Price were all top-three picks) essentially rebuilt by being really bad over a period of years. (Of course, this never worked for the Royals, although they never had a top-three pick until taking Alex Gordon in 2005.)
I also agree with Peter that it's absurd that a team that plays in the fifth-largest metro market in the country may be eligible for revenue sharing.
The biggest problem here, however, is what Peter alludes to: The unbalanced schedule can have a huge impact on the playoff races. The A's, Rangers, Angels and Mariners get to play the Astros 19 times. The Orioles, potentially fighting those AL West teams for a playoff spot, get to play the Astros six times. The Rays play them seven times. Studies have shown that the advantage of the Astros joining the AL West is worth about three wins to the other AL West teams (assuming the Astros are as bad as everyone predicts). Obviously, three games can be the difference between winning one of the two wild cards or going home. Teams play 162 games to determine which 10 deserve to make the playoffs, but the 10 most deserving don't always get to go. What kind of system is that?
Look at last year. The Cardinals won the second wild card with 88 wins. They went 21-11 against the Astros and Cubs. The Dodgers, playing in a tougher division, won 86 games. They had just 12 games against the Astros and Cubs, going 8-4. Switch divisions and maybe the Dodgers make it and the Cardinals don't come within one victory of reaching the World Series.
Or the Tigers, who reached the World Series merely as a result of geography. They had the good fortune of playing in a terrible AL Central. They won fewer games than the Rays and Angels, yet won their division while those teams -- better teams -- had to stay home.
I understand the need to have divisions; we get six "pennant races" every year instead of the two we had in the old days. This arguably creates a more fair system for smaller-market clubs like the Royals and Indians, who don't have to directly compete against the larger payrolls of the Yankees, Red Sox or Angels. (Although if that's the reason for divisions more so than geography, why not create a "small market division"? Move the Tigers to the AL East and the Rays to the AL Central.)
Fine, keep the divisions, even if it does means allowing a weaker team into the playoffs from time to time. But you can't have teams playing drastically different schedules competing for the same wild-card berths.
In the end, it is an issue of integrity. Suck up the higher travel costs and make the schedules more fair. Go back to the balanced schedule, where teams play all the teams in their league an roughly equal number of times. I want to see the 10 best teams in October.