July 17, 2007

Ordinal Numbering and the Pennant Races

I maintain my primary personal email address on Yahoo!. My email account is attached to my personal settings on the system so that when I visit Yahoo! Sports, a small box is set-aside with my baseball team's of choice - the Phillies - most recent scores as well as their record and standing in the division.

As I write this today, before the team plays the Dodgers in Los Angeles, Yahoo! tells me, "(46-46), 3rd NL East". The team has been in third place for most of the season which might not seem too bad. After all, third place is right behind second place which is one off from the top.

Pretty good, it would seem. But while the Phillies are the third-best team in the National League's Eastern Division, they are third out of five teams. There are now six divisions in Major League Baseball. Four of the six have five teams. One division has four teams and one has six.

Major League Baseball teams are divided into two leagues, the National and American Leagues, a remnant of the time when they were two separate business operations. The American League became a major league in 1901 and by 1905, the two leagues had worked out an arrangement to play a championship series at the end of each season. We call this series, the World Series.

Baseball was the last of the four major professional sports in the United States to stage post-season play-offs. Until 1969, the regular 154-game and then 162-game season served as a six-month playoff series in which every team in the league competed against the others. The team with the best record at season’s end was the league champion.

This system is most familiar to us today in European football leagues. For example, Manchester United football club won the English football Premiership. They 89 total points for the season in a system in which wins count for 3-points and ties for 1. They finished six points ahead of second place Chelsea. In baseball-speak, we might say that Chelsea finished two-games back.

Man U had the best record. The season is over. They are the champions.

Some will argue that European football (and basketball) is not a fair comparison. There are parallel club competitions which crown their own champions like the English Football Association Cup. Imagine if every professional baseball team from Single-A minor league teams all the way up to the Boston Red Sox competed in a season long knock-out tournament. Professional soccer in this country has its own version called the U.S. Open. That is the FA Cup.

The fact remains that there is one league champion in England which is the team with the best record over the course of the season.

The National League and the American League each expanded from ten to 12 franchises in 1969. They divided each league into two-divisions, an east and a west. Each division would crown a champion and then play each other for the league’s championship and right to play for the championship in the World Series.

The play-offs were expanded by Major League Baseball in 1995. The now 14-team leagues were divided into three divisions each. Each of the six division-champions would qualify for the play-offs as well as a wild-card team, the club with the best-record who did not win a division.

The justification behind the expansion of the number of divisions and qualifiers was that it would maintain the interest of fans late in the season when their team would have otherwise been eliminated from post-season qualification. Rather than have two pennant races or four divisional races, there would now be six divisional races and two playoff qualification races. Eight races! Woo hoo!

Rumor has it that there was a proposal to create 15-divisions of two teams each to enable all 30-teams to enjoy a pennant race. Well, there was not such a proposal but why should any team be made to feel excluded? They should not and we could take it to the logical conclusion like they did when I played little-league and give every player a trophy. If only we really did all win when everyone wins.

The consequence of the current Major League Baseball playoff scheme is such that there are zero pennant races and two wild-card races.

We as baseball fans remember with fondness, honor with pre-game ceremonies, and price with commemorative prints and autograph baseballs great moments and games that decided seasons.

There never would have been the Bobby Thompson’s homerun to win the pennant for the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 had it taken place today. Both teams would have been on their way to the playoffs. In fact, it is likely that many of the stars, Willie Mays, Thompson, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider might have been rested that day to rest for the playoffs.

Our current playoff system has actually created more late-season meaningless games for the best teams and more late-season meaningful games for the good-but-not-great teams. In this sense, we are rewarding mediocrity. Well, maybe not mediocrity, but certainly devaluing the games of the teams that proved themselves over the course of the season.

This led me to wonder what the current season would look like were we using pre-1969 standings. The standings here are for all games until the All-Star Game which was last Tuesday. These standings are five-days of games stale and not too-stale as the positions are relatively unchanged in the past-week.

These are the current regular standings in the format with which we are familiar.

I also adjusted for interleague play because it brings an unequal level of imbalance to each team’s schedule.

Teams already play unbalanced schedules. That means that each team currently plays about 19-games (give or take a couple depending on the number of teams in the division) per-season against each team in its division. This fosters divisional, and therefore geographic rivalries. For example, the Phillies play the New York Mets 19-times a year, the Boston Red Sox play the New York Yankees, the Chicago Cubs play the St Louis Cardinals, and the Los Angeles Dodgers play the San Francisco Giants and so-forth. Each team plays the balance of the teams in the same league six or seven times each. It is unbalanced but kept within the league.

Interleague play messes with this balance. Each team plays only five or six other-league teams per year. For example, the Phillies do not play all 14-American League teams each season; the Phillies play about five or six.

Major League Baseball schedules Interleague play in roughly three-year cycles so that each team will have played every one of the teams in the other league in a three-year period. This means that one year, a National League team might have to play the best of the American League in the Yankees and Red Sox six-times while another National League team might score the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers. This is unbalanced and creates unfair grounds of competition.

From each team’s All-Star break record, I subtracted their Interleague games. I then calculated the winning-percentage for each team and ordered them by this percentage. I used the formula for games-behind described in “How to compute standings in baseball” at http://www.math.toronto.edu/mathnet/questionCorner/baseball.html.

What emerges is a picture of what a league-wide winner-take-all pennant race would look like. It is pretty exciting.

These are the standings.

In these standings, Cleveland is in first place in the American League, but by only a half game over Seattle and Boston. Detroit and the Los Angeles Angels are right there, three games behind Cleveland. This would be a very exciting pennant race! Five of the 14 teams are right in there - more than 1/3.

The National League would also have five teams right in the race. Milwaukee would be in first place, half a game up on the Los Angeles Dodgers and one game in front of the New York Mets. The San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves are close behind. My second-place Phillies? They would be 8 1/2 games back.

I would welcome a change in league schedules and standings to this form. They could eliminate the divisional and championship playoff series which would transform the last month of the regular season into playoff-level games. We would watch tight pennant race games in September rather than World Series games in November.

This would be exciting and would then guarantee that the World Series pitted the team with the best record in the National League against the team with the best record in the American League.


Anonymous Serge said...

While those numbers are just estimates, it would definitely be fun to watch the games in live action as those numbers slowly grow as time passes.

1:42 AM  

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