Thursday, May 21, 2009

MLB Interleague Play

This is the first of what will be a multi-part series of posts on scheduling in pro sports.

Baseball has an untapped source of excitement in interleague play. While players complain about visiting cities that are neither historical nor geographical rivals, the league correctly cites the increased attendance as a mark of success, as the novelty of seeing a team that doesn't normally visit your market is a significant motivation for casual fans--the sort that catch one or two games a year--to take the family to the park.

Mathematically, however, MLB is failing to make the most of the potential for interleague play to provide competitive enhancement commensurate with its entertainment value. The All-Star Game tie debacle and subsequent assignment of World Series home-field advantage to the winner of an exhibition game was a knee-jerk reaction and poor execution of logic. Furthermore, the sequence of expansions and realignments that left one league with 14 teams and the other 16 was absurd.

Currently, interleague play is combined into large schedule islands, with the matchups rotating year-to-year at the divisional level, with some exceptions made to preserve regional rivalries and balance out the number of games played (a necessary artifact of there being 14 AL and 16 NL teams).

If instead, interleague matchups were based on the previous year's final standings, two enormously positive consequences may result: first, marquee matchups, most likely including both a rematch of the previous year's World Series and a preview of the upcoming fall classic; second, natural compression of the standings, as weaker teams would have marginally weaker schedules and should theoretically last longer in the pennant races. The net result of such a set-up could be a season with no team boasting a 0.600 winning rate and no team at 0.400 or worse.

Realignment to three divisions in each league and the addition of the wild-card extended the pennant race intrigue deep into September: brilliant. However, the scheduling imbalances caused by having leagues with different numbers of teams and 4-, 5-, and 6-team divisions make things murky at best. The following steps would clear all of this up and add a ninth race to the eight playoff berths:

Step 1: Put the Brewers back in the AL Central.
Step 2: Put the Royals in the AL West.
Step 3: With 6 divisions of 5 teams each, scheduling 162 games is simple: 16 games against the other 4 teams in the division (64, a 5-game and a 3-game series in each park); 8 games against the other 10 teams in the league (80, a 4-game series in each park); 6 games against 3 teams from the other league (18, a 3-game series in each park): one from each division that finished in the same place as your team last year.
Step 4: Make the overall AL vs. NL interleague record decide WS home-field advantage, with the ASG as a tiebreaker. This will create a ninth race that will not be decided until as late as the playoff participants themselves are ironed out--and there can be a ticker on the standings that updates with each day's interleague contest.
Step 5: With 15 teams in each league, interleague play must be happening every night, thus potentially creating an additional point of interest in September, as the AL vs. NL composite record is yet undecided. Lost are the weird mid-summer interleague sideshows; gained is the "Tonight's Interleague Matchup" tagline on Sportscenter.

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