Should MLB Realign Its Divisions?

By Ben Blatt

Some people believe that baseball faces a serious parity problem. While most would acknowledge that the root of the problem is in unequal payrolls, the position of many owners and the player’s union makes it unlikely that a salary cap will be created or revenue sharing will be significantly changed. One possible change that could increase parity without restricting payrolls is realignment of divisions, which has been talked about recently both by Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci.

Not every division is created equal. First, let’s look at differences in divisions, ignoring the actual teams involved. One clear difference is that an NL Central team must beat five other teams for a division title and 12 for a wild card, while an AL West team only needs to beat three other teams for a division title and 10 for a wild card.  After calculating the odds (assuming every team is equally likely to reach the playoffs), a team in the NL Central has a 23.1% chance of reaching the playoffs, while a team in the AL West has a 31.8% chance. While it may not seem huge, an AL West team will make the playoffs over 35% more often, which means more playoffs appearances, more playoff races down the stretch, and more money for the franchise.

The most obvious solution to the NL Central and AL West difference would be to move a team, most logically the Astros because of their location, into the AL West. While this would necessitate interleague series throughout the year, it would be worth it for the balance created.

Perhaps the biggest argument for realignment is that some teams cannot compete if placed in a division with economically superior teams. To look at this effect, I calculated each team’s percentage revenue share of its division—basically what size slice of the division’s money pie that each team is getting. I hoped that this statistic would be able to show us a) how much of a money advantage a team really has when compared to other teams in its own division and b) what type of an effect having more or less than five teams has. Here are the divisions and the percentage revenue share per division.

AL East Al Central AL West NL East NL Central NL West
Yankees (32.6) White Sox (22.7) Angels (28.8) Mets (26.5) Cubs (21.4) Dodgers (25.0)
Red Sox (23.4) Tigers (21.5) Mariners (25.6) Phillies (21.9) Cardinals (17.4) Giants (20.3)
Orioles (15.1) Indians (20.9) Rangers (23.9) Braves (18.9) Astros (17.3) Rockies (18.4)
Jays (15.0) Twins (18.3) Athletics (21.7) Nationals (18.6) Brewers (15.5) Diamondbacks (18.3)
Rays (13.9) Royals (16.6) Marlins (14.1) Reds (15.3) Padres (18.0)
Pirates (12.9)

While this statistic is not perfect, I believe it does show some interesting relationships that just a team’s payroll does not show. For instance, the Cubs, who had 5th largest revenue for the 2009 season, only had 21.4% of their division’s revenue. This is only the 11th largest percentage and is smaller than Oakland’s, who has had more success making the playoffs over the last eight years. The Angels, who have the 7th largest revenue, easily have the second largest share, which could explain why they have the second highest number of playoff appearances over the last eight years. I also calculated the playoff appearance percentage based on percentage of division’s revenue. I sectioned teams off into percentage of considerably below average (10%-15%), below average (15%-20%), above average (20%-25%) and considerably above average (25%+) and calculated playoff appearances over the last eight years using Forbes revenue data.

10- 15 10.8%
15-20 25%
20-25 29.6%
25+ 43.6%

While these results should not be surprising, they do show a clear trend. One thing they do show is a huge fallout when teams are very low in the 10-15% region. Most would say the best divisions would have teams that are all close to 20% of the revenue slice. Looking at the current divisions, there are a few divisions to work on. All teams in the AL West are higher than 20% and almost all in the NL Central are lower than 20%. Hopefully switching the Astros to the West would remedy most of that. The current NL West seems fairly balanced and the current AL Central and NL East are probably as balanced as they are going to be considering they contain the two teams with the lowest revenues (Royals and Marlins).

The division that sticks out the most is the AL East as the Yankees approach 33% and the Rays have just under 14%. While the Yankees are going to have a high percentage no matter what, it does not help the Jays, Rays, and Orioles that the Red Sox are also in that division. One possible fix would be to move the Red Sox to the AL Central. While the AL Central might not like this, their division is currently economically uncompetitive as the White Sox are the only team in the division with a top ten revenue and they are only at number eight. The White Sox, Tigers, or Indians would all be candidates to be switched over but we will go with Rosenthal’s suggestion of the Tigers. If we make that change and the change of the Astros to the AL West we get the following divisions and revenue percentages.

AL East AL Central AL West NL East NL Central NL West
Yankees (35.2) White Sox (20.7) Angels (22.8) Mets (26.5) Cubs (25.9) Dodgers (25.0)
Tigers (17.4) Red Sox (28.4) Astros (20.8) Phillies (21.9) Cardinals (21.2) Giants (20.3)
Orioles (16.3) Indians (19.1) Mariners(20.3) Braves (18.9) Brewers (18.8) Rockies (18.4)
Jays(16.1) Twins (16.7) Rangers(18.9) Nationals (18.6) Reds (18.5) Diamondbacks (18.3)
Rays (15) Royals(15.1) Athletics (17.2) Marlins (14.1) Pirates (15.6) Padres (18)

This realignment, though, would probably never happen, because chaos would ensue if the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry split up.

While these divisions are not perfect, I think they solve some of the bigger issues in today’s alignment. It’s hard to make equal divisions when teams such as the Yankees always have a big edge and other teams are far behind. If MLB cannot come to a consensus on salary caps to make teams more economically even, realignment is always an option.

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4 Comments

  • One issue with reassigning teams to different divisions is that team payroll and revenue are not fixed. In other words, the Detroit Tigers will not always be a big spender. For many teams in the middle to upper middle, revenues and payrolls wax and wane.

    Furthermore, if teams are reassigned to different divisions permanently, the other teams in their divisions could adjust their spending accordingly. It’s sort of a game theory effect.

    Basically, I don’t think reassigning teams to divisions while maintaining the same divisional structure effectively tackles the main issues motivating talks for realignment. It just sort of circumvents the issue.

    It seems to me the only way to really achieve greater parity is to impose payroll limits of some kind. Since MLB officials have accepted that won’t happen, the next best solution might be to abolish divisions altogether. That way, the Red Sox and Yankees might continue to dominate playoff berths, but teams like the Jays and Orioles will have incentive to spend more to put out a better product.

  • You should have included a Red Sox pic, not the Yankees (speaking of the rivalry). Other than that seems like a pretty solid post to me.

  • Why on earth would the Red Sox move to the AL Central ever be considered a good move? The Central has the narrowest gap between the top spender and the lowest spender (6.1 percentage point difference, second-place is seven), and even more significantly, the difference between the first and third team (1.8 percentage points) is lower than between the first and second place teams in every other division (second-best is nearly twice that, at 3.2). It has, by far, the most parity of any division, set up perfectly for close races, not just at the top, but all the way from top to bottom.

    The realignment absolutely destroys that. The gap between first and second goes from the best by a factor of more than 2.5 to the second-worst, second only the AL East, which is apparently now supposed to just be the Yankees playground, as they rake in more than double the revenue of the second-place team, essentially doing all that can be done to cede the division title to them every year. The gap from first to last goes from the best, close enough that the Royals could make a play at things, to again the second-worst behind the AL East, with the Red Sox pulling in nearly twice as much as Kansas City.

    From just the most basic look at parity, it is an awful plan, making the most unbalanced division, the AL East, even more unbalanced, and the most balanced, the AL Central, almost as bad as the East was.

    This is the perfect example of how not to reorganize a division (not to mention putting the most easterly team in the entire United States in the Central for some reason, a terrible choice for organizing road trips.)

    The final bit of the article says “It’s hard to make equal divisions when teams such as the Yankees always have a big edge and other teams are far behind.” Making it so that the Yankees have an even bigger edge, and now giving the Red Sox a disproportionate edge of their own, is not solving this problem, it is exacerbating it.

    “While these divisions are not perfect, I think they solve some of the bigger issues in today’s alignment.”

    The first part of this is right. The second needs work.

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