Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 1)

Hypothetical aliens have excellent perspective, because even once you explain to them basic human values, emotions, societal norms, and the like, they are still liable to ask, “What about…?”  It is those things about which  they ask—after they have understood and accepted all of the important stuff—that are usually the areas most in need of being addressed by the people who have gotten used to whatever it is that strikes the aliens as positively goofy.

Hypothetical aliens can ask questions about all sorts of things, from religion to government to organizational structures for businesses.  Today, right here on, they are asking about Major League Baseball.  And for three Wednesdays in a row, leading up to opening day on March 31, The Hungry Preacher will be engaging these aliens, understanding their concerns, and offering solutions that—if followed by the powers of Major League Baseball—will restore peace in the universe between baseball fans and aliens of all galaxies.  These three posts will essentially be one long post broken into 3 parts.

So aliens have read the rulebook.  And they understand the value that we humans place on physical fitness, the rush we get from competition, and the community identification we get from rooting for our favorite team.  They don’t care about insignificant stuff like stirrup socks, they understand supply and demand (or monopolies, as the case may be) as it pertains to the price of beer, and they think varying dimensions of fields add a quirkiness and charm that is enjoyed by the fans and players alike.  But here’s what they don’t get:

“What about uneven divisions?”
There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball.  How many leagues does that make?  Two: the National League and the American League (a “league” in baseball is like a “conference” in other sports).  It’s been two for a long time, and that’s fine.

So 30 needs to be divided into 2 leagues, but the catch is that there cannot be an odd number of teams in each league, because the leagues don’t usually play each other except for on special occasions (about 3 weeks out of the season, plus the World Series).  Having 15 teams in a league would be great for those 3 weeks, but not so good for the rest of the season, when there would always be 1 extra team per league twiddling their thumbs for 3 days while the other 14 teams played each other.  So you need an even number of teams in each league, which means 30 teams divided by 2 leagues does NOT equal 15; no, 30 divided by 2 equals 16 with a remainder of 14.

People who value symmetry find this annoying.  And it does create a slight competitive imbalance.  And it makes for some irritating moments when everyone else in the league is celebrating interleague play and you’re the National League team stuck playing, say, the Pirates (or, worse yet, BEING the Pirates, but I digress).  But it’s not THAT big of a deal, so say the aliens.  The competitive advantages and disadvantages on a league level necessitated by having uneven leagues are significant but able to be overcome.

But the disconcerting issue for the aliens is how those teams are divided up into divisions within each league.  Divisions, you see, are smaller groupings of teams within each league that used to allow scheduling, traveling, and “making the playoffs” to be more manageable.  These smaller groupings made it so that most teams could play teams geographically closer to them more frequently, enhancing rivalries and cutting down on travel time.  And if a team “won their division” they got to go to the playoffs to play the other division winner in their league.  This worked well when there were 12 teams per league and 6 teams per division. 

It worked less well when there were 14 teams in a league, and 7 teams in each of that league’s divisions.  Once both leagues had 14 teams, someone decided that two divisions was not enough, and each league birthed a third division for themselves.  The leagues maintained their three divisions once MLB expanded to 30 teams.

A positive product of this realignment of divisions was that teams that had relocated or come into existence since divisions were originally formed got to re-stake their geographical territory (e.g., Atlanta got to tell everyone that they are in the Eastern time zone).  And schedule makers got to emphasize divisional play more than they had in the previous few years—at least in the American League, where from 1979 until 1996 each team played each of the teams within their division 13 times as opposed to the teams in the other division, which they played a mere 12 times each.

But if those who value symmetry had a hard time with leagues of 16 and 14, they were driven to convulsing on the floor in the fetal position by the size of the new divisions which ranged from 4 to 6; specifically, the National League has divisions of 5, 5, and 6, while the American League has divisions of 5, 5, and 4.  Each division winner, plus one “wild card” team, make it to the playoffs.

All of this is background to the aliens who ask: “Don’t the teams in the division of 4 have a better chance of making it to the playoffs than the teams in the divisions of 5, and especially those in divisions of 6?”  Oh, aliens, your naiveté is just adorable.  And the answer to your question is, of course, “Uh, yeah.”

This was the case when the NL used to have divisions of 6 and the AL had divisions of 7.  The difference between 6 and 7 is not insignificant.  But 6 and 4?  No, seriously—that’s just wacky.  There’s a lot of attention paid to the discrepancy between large and small market teams in baseball, and rightfully so.  But if aliens were starting a team and were told they could EITHER have a payroll double that of the league average OR be in a division of 4 teams instead of 5 or 6, they would seriously consider the 4-team-division offer, and would probably try to quickly sneak out of the meeting before the offer was rescinded.

What if someone wanted to play a dice game with you, and said, “Let’s each put $100 in the middle, and we’ll take turns rolling dice.  If you roll a 7, you get to take a dollar.  If I roll either a 7 or a 4, I’ll take a dollar.  Wanna play?”

Aliens would say, “No thank you.  That’s goofy.”  26 owners of Major League Baseball teams said, “Sure, as long as I don’t have to play an extra set of games on the West Coast.”

Of course, making the post season is not ONLY about statistical probability.  Teams generally try to put contending teams on the field.  But (theoretically) ALL teams do that, so what will make one team more likely to get to the playoffs than another?  Payroll?  Sure.  International scouting?  Of course.  Performance enhancing drugs?  Back in the day, but certainly not anymore.  Is playing in a division with 33% fewer teams than another division as significant an advantage as any of those things?  Aliens know it.  And they’re asking about it.

Check back next Wednesday for more concerns from the aliens, as well as possible solutions.  And the less-sporty among WPFF readers, don’t despair: Friday’s post will be something non-sporty in nature.  See you then.


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