Thirty-Two Is a Magic Number for MLB

Please pardon this break from playoff-related content.

Writing for Baseball America earlier this month, longtime baseball scribe Tracy Ringolsby reported there’s “building consensus” that MLB is soon headed toward expansion and a 32-team structure and perhaps a 156-game schedule.

There have been rumblings of expansion for some time.

As a guest in the Rockies’ broadcast booth back in August, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about expansion. He again suggested that the stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa must first be resolved. But once those situations are put to rest, MLB seems committed to expansion. Manfred has said baseball is, ultimately, a “growth industry.” Manfred then, during the broadcast, mentioned other incentives for expansion that this author hadn’t previously heard the commissioner address.

“I think 32 [teams] would help us from a schedule and format perspective,” Manfred said. “It would really be an improvement. Even numbers. Getting rid of the [five-team divisions] would really be a good deal for us.”

So expansion would largely be motivated by a desire for growth, but it would have a significant ancillary benefit, too: the addition of two more clubs would allow the league to restructure dramatically the way its divisions are aligned, its playoffs are structured, and the way its season is scheduled. Reshaping divisions could also reduce travel for players, which would please the MLBPA. The relentless demands of the schedule and the travel it requires are both increasing concerns for players. Ringolsby addresses those issues in his Baseball America piece. He also proposes radical geographic realignment with four, eight-team divisions, as follow:

East: Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Washington.

North: Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota, Montreal, both New York franchises, and Toronto.

Midwest: Both Chicago franchises, Colorado, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Texas.

West: Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Montreal seems like a favorite to land an expansion team. As for team No. 32? There are many options. Portland is perhaps an increasingly popular one, and the city made a bid to lure the Expos in 2003, as Jay Jaffe noted in a deep dive on the subject last week for Sports Illustrated.

An increase to 32 teams would force a split to two or four divisions per league, and this author suspects MLB would favor the later. The introduction of eight separate four-team divisions would increase would create even better odds for clubs, however arbitrary and manufactured those divisions might be. Either four- or eight-team divisions would likely result in a playoff expansion, an extra division winner, or extra wild cards. (When has a playoff format ever contracted?)

But this author suspects the sport would benefit from four divisions rather than eight. Eight-team divisions would place even more importance and prestige upon regular-season success. With larger divisions and perhaps more balanced schedules, there could be a benefit in playing different intraleague teams more often. There would be more schedule diversity and the chance for more rivalries to emerge organically. In the present arrangement, teams play only a home and away series with each non-division league foe per season. The adoption of a four-division system would also possess an advantage over the eight-division one in that such a structure reduces the possibility of a mediocre or even a sub-.500 team, of reaching the playoffs.

The following is a guess from this author on what four, eight-team divisions would look like:

Best Guess on What 8-Team Divisions Would Look Like w/32 Teams
Brewers Phillies White Sox Toronto
Giants Nationals Rangers Yankees
Dodgers Reds Mariners Orioles
Cubs Braves Angels Tigers
Rockies Pirates Astros Red Sox
Padres Mets Athletics Indians
Diamondbacks Marlins Royals Twins
Cardinals Expos* Expansion 2* Rays

Basically, it would look like the pre-1994 divisions with expansion teams added.

Nor does this address the advantage for Major League Baseball of operating with an even numbers of teams — namely, in that it would liberate baseball from the tyranny of odd numbers. Specifically, it would allow the league to stop worrying constantly about the state of interleague play.

In fact, this author will argue that the game would be better off without interleague play and with more geographically focused divisions.

Having some experience in covering college football, I was able to observe the effects of geographic proximity on great rivalries — Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Georgia, Ohio State-Michigan, South Carolina-Clemson, UCLA-Southern California, etc. Baseball, too, could benefit from allowing geographic proximity heighten and create rivalries, which would ultimately increase interest and promote business. And if there’s a future with less interleague play, it might make sense to pair the best of the interleague rivals together in the same division so that they play more frequently.

More Mets-Yankees, more Cubs-White Sox, A’s-Giants, Dodgers-Angels, and Orioles-Nationals wouldn’t be bad for the sport. Maybe the owners of the No. 2-ranking franchises would feel differently. In any case, I made some modest proposals of my own earlier this year.

As for possible roadblocks to such an arrangement, here’s Jaffe again:

The MLB Players Association was said to oppose seven-or eight-team divisions due to the stigma of finishing so low in the standings, and teams in two-team cities voiced concern. … Would the tight-fisted Mets and White Sox want to compete in the same markets with the free-spending Yankees and Cubs?

If the players are reluctant, that represents an obvious impediment; however, this author isn’t so sure that, in the cable and internet area, there’s a need for a major city (New York, L.A., Chicago) to have an anchor in each league. Wouldn’t the game be better off with those rivalries in the same division? The MLBPA would be better off, I’d think, with the new alignment fostering more incentive to compete, thereby increasing payroll spending.

There’s also this: without interleague play, both the All-Star Game and World Series would become more interesting — and perhaps produce greater TV ratings — because they’d offer the novelty of players and clubs that hadn’t faced each other during the regular season. There’s something to be said for an element of mystery.

And perhaps it would be more equitable for Wild Card qualification, as well, featuring a higher concentration of games between the teams fighting for those final spots. Shouldn’t Wild Card races be determined more by head-to-head meetings and intraleague play?

When the 31st and 32nd teams are added — and it seems like MLB is intent on adding them — baseball must change. With change comes opportunity. Expansion will offer a chance to schedule and align in a smarter, more interesting, more efficient, way.

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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5 years ago

With 162-game (or 156) seasons, I hope interleague play stays. There’s always a thing for seing every player every year (obviously not all pitchers), even if it’s back-to-back two-games series. This doesn’t happen with how it’s built right now. It can also be a sore to face the same team 19 times in a season. Furthermore, it makes no sense, assuming expansion comes to Montreal, to keep Montreal and Toronto in different leagues without interleague play. This format destroys tons of local rivalries. In 1992-1993-1994, Montreal and Toronto were among the kings of baseball, yet they never faced each other (a strike also got in the way).

5 years ago
Reply to  Takiar

Interleague play isn’t giong away. Right now folks see every team 1 time in every 6 years at home. That’s not changing much.

I do think 32 is happening sooner rather than later. Only thing with interleague play is we could see 4 4 team divisions per league- where you would see every team 1 time in every 8 years at home.

Jim Hmember
5 years ago
Reply to  stever20

Four team divisions are my fear with 32. Make a division title mean something. 8 team divisions would be progress. A division title in the NFL is a joke – “congrats, you beat three other teams”.

5 years ago
Reply to  Jim H

But the converse is a problem – that some teams may be out of contention for decades. Imagine being in 6th or 7th place for 5 months year after year. That would be a tough pill for those cities. In 4 team divisions, teams would potentially be a lot more competitive all the time with teams breaking through more frequently. That would seem to stimulate more excitement throughout the sport as opposed to having franchises that could linger in the depths for years.

5 years ago
Reply to  Dooduh

It might be easier for a perennial non-contender to eventually sneak into the 2nd or 3rd spot in an 8 team division than to win a 4 team division. If a team is bad and they’re in a 4 team division with a powerhouse at the top I think the feeling would be more hopeless.

5 years ago
Reply to  Takiar

As interleague is currently worked into the sport, you only get to see every player every 3 years or so, with some exceptions. It is a rotating schedule where you get the opposite leagues East, then Central, then West divisions each in their own year, plus a few “rivalry” matchups. You do not get to see the the Yankees and the Angels in the same year unless you are the Dodgers. or the Cubs and the Rockies in the same year unless you are the White Sox.