There’s Too Much ‘Division’ in Major League Baseball: Craig A. Nard

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — In addition to the norms and tacit codes of baseball—the systemic glue that makes competition possible within a cohesive and unified structure—there are the explicit rules of the game, the mundane scaffolding that must be constantly inspected. At this time of year, I get caught up in the rules regarding the wildcard.

Make no mistake, the addition of four wildcard teams to the postseason mix has been a tremendous success in terms of maintaining fan interest long after the back-to-school buys have been made. But the wildcard team selection rules don’t pay enough tribute to the regular season grind, sporadically wrong those they claim to take advantage of, and are based on an outdated divisional structure within each of the two leagues.

A wildcard berth is awarded to the two teams in each league that have the best record but have not won their division. The teams are subjected to a “one-and-done” game format, while the division winners enjoy a best-of-five series. This difference is largely based on the mantra, “The regular season must mean something,” meaning: department winners must be recognized. But wouldn’t seeding playoff teams based on winning percentage be a more meaningful reflection of the six-month regular season (I see you, NBA) with its team average of 6,061 at bats?

In addition, seeding based on the winning percentage will eliminate the occasional injustice frequented by wildcard teams. For example, the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates had the second-best record in baseball with 98 wins, but the Chicago Cubs had to play in a one-game showdown with the loser going home, which the Pirates promptly did. Still, the New York Mets, who won the East, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the champions of the West, had eight and six wins less, respectively. In 2018, both American League wildcard teams – the New York Yankees (100 wins) and Oakland Athletics (97 wins) – had better win rates than the Central Division winner, the Cleveland Indians. And this year, with 106 wins, the Dodgers had the honor of hosting the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League wildcard game, while both the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers, with 88 and 95 wins, respectively, went on to rest. and get ready for their Division Series.

A more representative playoff system would seed the top five teams in each league based on winning percentage, with the last two teams playing one game, winner-take-all. And one game is what the wildcard teams would earn.

Intertwined with the wildcard selection rules is the fact that each of the two competitions is organized around divisions. The division’s era began in 1969 — the same year Bowie Kuhn took the helm of the commissioner’s office — when each league created two divisions of six teams. (A third division was added in 1994.) Divisions involve an unbalanced schedule, meaning teams within a division play against each other more than teams from outside their division. The main reason for an unbalanced schedule is to ease players’ travel burden. But while less taxing travel for 81 games is certainly desirable and shouldn’t be trivialized, we should also keep in mind that Major League Baseball is a national game with superstars and great teams across the country. These stars and the loyalty to the teams they play for bring excitement and revenue to all markets, including small and medium. (A significant minority of Americans live in states outside of the state where they were born, and, as any home team that has hosted the Yankees or Red Sox knows, a vast majority moved after establishing team loyalties.)

History and tradition are powerful forces, but in this context, divisions seem strange, artificial constructs that no longer carry the burden of persuasion. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is disgusting not to have a better reason for a rule of law than that established in the time of Henry IV.” Or at least in the time of Bowie Kuhn.

Craig A. Nard is the Galen J. Roush Professor of Law and Director of the Spangenberg Center for Law, Technology & the Arts at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

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