One of the themes emerging here in the early going of the 2023 MLB season is the overarching dominance of the AL East. This has caused many to wonder if the playoff format should be changed and also to start looking ahead to possible realignment.
As noted in this week’s power rankings, the entire division is essentially playing like the best team in baseball. The updated record right now for AL East teams when they don’t play each other is an absurd 99-49. The five teams are collectively playing like a 108-win team outside the division. Ridiculous.
Those wins have to come from somewhere and the ripple effect has ended up leaving the AL Central looking pretty terrible. Only the Twins have a winning record and they are exactly .500 outside their division. The division as a whole is a pathetic 32 games under .500.
It’s too early in the season to start closely monitoring playoff position in the standings on a daily basis, but for the purposes of this discussion, here’s how the American League playoffs would currently look in terms of seeding:
1. Rays (AL East champ)
2. Rangers (AL West champ)
3. Twins (AL Central champ)
5. Blue Jays
If we lined everyone up by winning percentage, though, here’s how it would look:
1. Rays, 32-12, .727
2. Orioles, 28-15, .651
3. Rangers, 26-17, .605
4. Blue Jays, 25-18, .581
5. Astros, 24-19, .558
6. Yankees, 25-20, .556
t7. Red Sox, 24-20, .545
t7. Twins, 24-20, .545
The Red Sox and Twins have played a series against each other and the Red Sox took two of three, so that means with using tiebreakers, the Twins entered Thursday essentially ranked eighth in the American League if we dropped divisions. And yet, they’d hold the three seed right now by virtue of being the best team in the worst division in baseball.
If things stayed exactly like this (hint: they won’t), the Yankees will have been screwed out of a playoff spot while the Red Sox would have a major gripe as well. After all, the AL East has five of the top seven records in the league.
Given that the schedule is more balanced these days, we’re bound to see stuff like this pop up when there are weaker and stronger divisions just based on the ebbs and rosters of roster construction. It isn’t new to have a situation where the divisional alignment sets things up that feel unfair. The 2015 NL Central had the three best records in baseball. Two of them had to face off in the Wild Card Game and the winner of that got to see the division champ in the NLDS, meaning there was no chance for two of the three best teams in baseball to even make the LCS round simply based on playoff format. Remember the 1993 NL West? The Giants won 103 games and didn’t even make the playoffs.
Those are just two extreme examples of many over the years. We could go on and on. It has happened time and again.
Still, in this day and age, fans and media like to discuss what changes need to be made to make things more fair and leagues then attempt to rectify such perceived injustices. It isn’t lost on me that this discussion will get hotter and hotter the longer the Yankees and Red Sox are the two teams in the positions they are (instead of, say, the Orioles and Rays).
The simple answer to the cries that the Yankees and Red Sox will possibly be screwed out of a playoff spot by format is to simply that they should finish in the top three of their division. Or, more succinctly: Be better and win more games. If people want to change the format, it shouldn’t be due to specific teams being left out and instead should be to improve how the playoffs as a whole shake out.
And though I’m not sure there’s an actual problem, if we wanted to discuss “solutions,” here they are.
1. Eliminate divisions
I’m a strong “no” on this one, but I’ve seen some movement for it. The theory here would be that the schedule is a lot more balanced now anyway and that makes divisions less important. As such, if there weren’t divisions and simply two 15-team leagues, we’d get a better idea of which teams were the best and most-deserving playoff teams.
The biggest issue here is the schedule is only “more balanced” and not 100% balanced. With 30 teams playing 162-game schedules, it’s never going to even out and if a schedule needs to be concentrated in one area, I like how they’ve set up the possibility for rivalries to emerge on a regional basis. Even if they change (hold that thought), I still think divisions are needed for the scheduling portion.
2. Go by best record for playoff seeding
Look back above to the second set of standings I listed, which was basically the AL standings as a whole. If we ignored divisions and just took the best six teams — which really seems like a good idea in a meritocracy — that would be how things lined up at present.
The problem here is if you’re going to have divisions, you’d possibly be ignoring the division winner for the playoffs. If that’s the case, why even have divisions in the first place? So that puts us back up to the top option in eliminating divisions.
This is where I’ll again point out that we’ve survived divisional injustices many times in the past and we’ll survive it again. I’m not willing to scrap divisions entirely or just ignore them in playoff seeding because two high-profile teams couldn’t finish in the top three in the best division.
I’ve been asked several times these past few weeks about realignment. The problem is I just don’t know how it’s possible to realign the divisions right now. The placement in the American and National Leagues, respectively, was fairly arbitrary, but many have come to hold the league of their favorite team sacred. I don’t want to mess with that, not MLB-wide. The divisions are already set up regionally within each league, too, so how would we realign?
Would we be trying to steer teams into the “right” position to make the playoffs seem “fair?” How would that work moving forward? Do we just shuffle the teams before each season based upon how good we think they’ll be and try to apportion them with something like two playoff teams, one fringe contender and two sub-par teams per division? We’re going to do that every year or even revisit it every three? I know it sounds outlandish, but I’m laying it out like this to make a point. Most of the realignment talk, to me, is reactionary to how the AL standings look right now.
It’s just hard to see anything in this area being realistic right now.
Still, here’s the correct answer:
4. Stay the course for now
Right now, nothing changes. Again, divisional inequities have been happening since divisions were implemented. It’s just part of the deal. We’ll end up with good teams being left out and the 87-win Phillies winning the NL despite finishing 14 games behind two different teams in their own division in the regular season. Stuff happens. Sometimes that’s what makes it fun.
Now, for those pining for changes: Things will end up changing at some point in the relatively-near future, I predict.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has made it clear that MLB won’t be pursuing big changes until the A’s and Rays ballpark issues are resolved. The A’s seem to be moving toward a conclusion. The Rays’ lease for Tropicana Field with St. Petersburg runs through 2027 and talks have been ongoing, so let’s just assume things are resolved by then.
Once things are firmed up with new ballparks for both of those teams, the wide assumption is Major League Baseball will expand by two teams.
Expansion to 32 teams means it’s easy to go with two leagues of 16 teams and four divisions of four in each league. Or maybe they go with larger divisions of eight (I doubt it, but it’s possible).
There’s your realignment.
Until then, everyone worried about the one or two AL East teams with a winning record being left out in the cold for the postseason will just have to, frankly, suck it up and deal with it. We’ve survived such — please note dripping sarcasm — travesties in the past and we’ll survive this time around, too.