How Realignment Could Improve the All-Star Game

During FanGraphs’ editorial weekend in Denver last month, this correspondent excused himself to spend some time in the Rockies clubhouse and Coors Field press box. There I found Rockies beat writer Thomas Harding realigning baseball in his reporter’s notebook.

This contributor finds playing expansion czar to be an interesting thought exercise. Soon that afternoon, some Mets beats writers also joined the discussion, sharing their thoughts. Anytime there is a realignment-based post on this Web site or elsewhere, it tends to generate interest. Many of us like to play commissioner.

We’re almost certainly headed toward a future of 32 teams. MLB is in its longest expansion drought in the modern era. Rob Manfred has expressed a desire to expand — and preferably to add at least one international location. One of the major benefits Manfred has cited in the move to 32 teams is the ease of scheduling it would create. Namely, the game would not have to schedule a constant, rotating interleague series.

In fact, it would allow MLB to dramatically reduce the need for interleague play altogether.

This author is a realignment extremist, in favor of geographically based divisions that would not only stoke regional rivalries but reduce the need for interleague play. I was invited on Vince Gennaro’s radio show on Saturday, and he noted how regionally oriented baseball interest is compared to the NFL, born on national TV. Imagine, in this spirit, the introduction of a Rust Belt division (Indians-Reds-Pirates-Tigers) the meaningful rivalries it would cultivate. I proposed the idea to Reds reliever Jared Hughes last week and he discovered another virtue in it — namely, the possible reduction of travel. One of players’ greatest concerns in forthcoming realignment is what it means for air miles logged.

Interleague play has produced benefits, monetary and otherwise, but perhaps in its current form the returns are now diminishing.

There are a number of reasons to argue against interleague, one of which is competitive fairness. In an era of multi Wild Cards and potentially even more Wild Cards in a 32-team future, teams ought to be playing more balanced schedules, more games against league foes. More intraleague action, more Brewers-Diamondbacks, more Dodgers-Brewers, more Phillies-Dodgers games would be good theatre this season. Moreover, in an age when every game is televised and every highlight is immediately accessible via social media and elsewhere, there’s little in the way of mystery.

Mystery can be valuable, though, and a quality from which the sport could benefit — which brings us to tonight’s event. The All-Star Game is important, if not to the standings, at least as far as television ratings and ad dollars are concerned. It was the game’s second-most watched event after the World Series last year. It is typically one of the most watched baseball games on the calendar, but its ratings have greatly diminished for a variety of factors. In a sampling of public opinion during Monday’s chat, however, the FanGraphs audience seems less and less interested in the game.

Many have suggested fixes for the game to heighten interest: a U.S.-vs.-World format, player-drafted teams (they select the majority of roster spots in the current format), and so. What the game could really benefit from is novelty, though — what it once possessed when it was drawing more than 30 million viewers.

Irregardless of your opinion of the band Coldplay, they’ve sold a lot of records, and one of their secrets — one of their rules — is to “always keep mystery.”

Mystery is, in part, what made Shohei Ohtani such a fascination. This generation of fans hadn’t seen this sort of dual-talent before; it had not existed in 100 years.

Mystery is, in part, also why we love prospects. What makes the Futures Game a great event is that it’s often our first look at top prospects in live action on television. (Modest suggestion: the Futures Game should perhaps be moved to a primetime slot, where it wouldn’t be lost on the Sunday regular-season sporting calendar.)

We live in an era when players — in part because of free agency, but also because of interleague — have often faced each other on prior occasions. There is a reasonable chance that this year’s World Series participants will have met in the regular season. We can measure the relative strength of each league via interleague play. Jeff looked at the NL’s domination of the AL this offseason.

To be different is one way to be interesting. Part of what set baseball apart from its North American professional sporting peers for so long is that its leagues did not intermingle. By reducing interleague play to just meaningful rivalries, or by just eliminating it altogether, there would be more intrigue, more of the unknown in one of the sport’s most-watched events.

With a camera on everything, with Statcast measuring everything, there are few secrets left. Baseball and its jewel events could use some more mystery.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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4 years ago

So interleague play only be the rivalries? No thank you. if you are an NL team- never seeing a guy like a Mike Trout? Sorry, but that’s a joke.

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

It was that way for most of the history of Major League baseball, no joke.

4 years ago
Reply to  Thomas

true, but that changed 25 years ago just about now. I have a really tough time seeing NL owners agreeing to never getting the Yankees at home, when they’ve been getting them every 6 years at home.