MLB Can Learn From NHL

MLB is long overdue for a realignment. With Thursday’s election of Rob Manfred as successor to current Commissioner Bud Selig in 2015, baseball may finally have its opportunity. But, will it be welcomed?

The NHL adopted a radical realignment strategy prior to the 2013-14 season, much to the groans of critics. However, a one-year sample size of the complete overhaul–from reducing the number of divisions and introducing an entirely new playoff format–achieved thunderous approval with arguably the most exciting playoff games in league history.

There’s no reason America’s Pastime can’t follow in the footsteps of the NHL and elevate the game back to its former peak of popularity by introducing radical realignment:
No divisions.
Two balanced leagues, American and National, each with 15 teams.
Seattle moves to the NL, Arizona moves to the AL to help better balance travel miles.

Reduced regular season schedule from 162 games to 144 games as follows:
Each team plays the other 14 teams in their respective league 6 times (3 home, 3 away) for a total of 84 games.
Each team plays all 15 teams in the other league 4 times (2 home, 2 away) for a total of 60 games.

Why this scheduling works:
It keeps an emphasis on division/intraleague games, with 84 of 144 games being against teams within the same league (58.3%).
It ensures fans get to see every team in their home ballpark every single season.
The level of competition is more even, as every team in baseball plays each other every season and provides a better measure of who the best team is.
It shortens the season to 144 games, ensuring more time for multiple postseason series.

Five of 15 teams in each league qualify for the postseason. This number is the same as the current number, but the one-game wild card playoff has been eliminated.

Similar to the NHL model, at the end of the regular season, the top three teams from each league earn a spot in the Divisional Round (Round Two), with the two next best teams in each league earning a spot in the Wildcard Round (Round One).

The Wildcard Round is a best-of-three series between the number four and fives seeds from each league.

At the conclusion of the regular season, the top seed in each league is given the option of whom they would like to play in the Divisional Round–either the second seed, third seed, or the yet-to-be-determined winner of the three-game Wildcard Round. This puts a huge emphasis on winning the league, as you have the option of picking who you want to play in the Divisional Round. The top seed may elect to play a lower seed (the Wildcard winner); however, the opponent is unknown until the Wildcard Round is decided, meaning the top seed has less time to prepare for that opponent. By electing to play the third or fourth seed, you may elect to play tougher competition, but would know who your opponent is and better able to prepare for them. Additionally, this election puts the second seed at a disadvantage by being forced to wait to find out their opponent. 

A hypothetical example of seedings and postseason elections based on the 2013 final standings in the American League:

1. Boston (97-65)
2. Oakland (96-66)
3. Detroit (93-69)
4. Cleveland (92-70)
5. Tampa Bay (92-71)

In this hypothetical example, Boston elects to play Detroit instead of waiting for the winner of the Wildcard Round between Cleveland and Tampa Bay. Oakland is then forced to wait to see who the winner is and would host the Wildcard Round winner in the Divisional Round. Assuming Tampa Bay beats Cleveland in the three-game Wildcard Round, the Divisional Round matchups would be as follows, based on Boston’s election:

1. Boston vs. 3. Detroit
2. Oakland vs. 5. Tampa Bay

The following rounds (except the World Series) are then played in their current formats (five or seven games) and location. Home-field advantage is determined in subsequent rounds based on regular season records and current tiebreaking procedures.

An additional criticism of the current rules is the determination of home-field advantage in the World Series. With radical realignment and a more balanced schedule and with every team playing each other, home-field advantage would be awarded to the team with the better regular-season record, or determined by the current tie-breaking procedures.

By following the first step taken by the NHL, MLB can adopt radical realignment and restore its foothold as America’s Pastime.

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