Sunday, May 09, 2010

Totally projecting: Roy's record reaffirming realignment

It turns out there are a couple convenient lame justifications for diving into MLB realignment, even if it's making this blog more single-issue than a fringy mayoral candidate.

The one spur is Roy Halladay, as you know, has been credited with six wins in seven starts with the Philadelphia Phillies, with an ill FIP (two home runs allowed and a 48-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 56 innings). It seems like Doc, with another 27 or so starts ahead on his 2010 docket, could be on his way to the 25-win season some in Canada predicted when he went from an American League also-ran to a National League power. Some people might not even be sated with 25. Couldn't he win 28, matching what the recently passed Hall of Famer Robin Roberts did for the Phillies in 1952?

(Another way to pose the question is to ask how few losses Halladay will have at season's end. It's the same query yet it avoids parroting the media overemphasis on a pitcher's win total. Bonus!)

The perceived gulf between the AL and NL is obviously a big part of why people are predicting Halladay could hit a statistical mark only one NL pitcher, since divisional play was created in 1969, has reached while working in a five-man rotation. And Tom Seaver did it in 1969, no less.

That segues right into the second spur, the Wall Street Journal piece that pointed out, for the million and sixth time, how MLB's current alignment has screwed over Halladay's old team. It would not do to accuse Canadian ball fans of having ulterior motives, but perhaps we want Halladay to finish a record such as 24-2 or 28-1 since it would help prove the NL is really, really bad. As the Journal put it:
" ... The American League is clearly the stronger of the two, based on interleague records and the differences in performance of players who jump from one league to the other. Since interleague play began in 1997, AL teams have won eight of 13 World Series and 12 All-Star Games (there was a tie in 2002). They have compiled a .566 winning percentage against NL clubs over the past five years. Now that (MLB commmissioner Bud) Selig has blurred the line between the two leagues — he's abolished their separate league offices and umpiring crews — the time may be ripe to go all the way.

" ... if the leagues were united in one 30-team league, and each team had to play all the others a similar number of games, no more than two National League franchises would have even qualified for the postseason in the past five years.

"In 2008, the Toronto Blue Jays finished well out of the playoffs and in fourth place in the brutal AL East, which includes the powerful Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. But in an adjusted schedule where all teams played one another, Toronto's actual .531 winning percentage that year would have been .564, with the improvement coming from playing the National League teams more often.

"That would have put Toronto in seventh place in the 30-team league, good enough to make the playoffs. That year's World Champions, the Philadelphia Phillies, would have finished in ninth place, out of the playoffs.

"The 2006 Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels suffered a similar fate, missing the playoffs despite weighted winning performances that placed them ahead of three National League playoff teams — the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and (World Series champion) St. Louis Cardinals." (emphasis mine)
The Journal's argument was for one 30-team league. That ain't happenin'. (The very notion has been well-parried by Jason Rosenberg at It's About The Money.)

It's for the best to ignore any blue sky realignment scenario such as a promotion-relegation system. The chance of that being installed in a North American league is remote for the same reason the National Football League won't adopt college rules for overtime and pass interference. Ego and simple chauvinism will not permit acknowledging someone else might have a better idea.

Major League Baseball is also married to having the AL and NL and calling its final the World Series. And there is no such thing as "pretty married." Maybe they do it that way over in Europe where they call soccer "football" (them and everyone except Canada, Australia and the U.S.) and teams get promoted and related at the end of the season. We don't know. Frankly, we don't want to know.

A personal theory, though, is MLB is due to make some change to zazz up its product. All this talk about realignment might really be over the shelf life of the current format.

Baseball is coming up on 20 years since it went to a six-division format in 1994. It had four divisions and a balanced schedule (those were the days) for 25 seasons, from 1969-93.

Look at the other leagues:
  • The NHL was split into two conferences and four divisions for 25 seasons (1974-75 through '98-99).

  • The NBA adopted two-and-four format a bit earlier and maintained a little later (34 seasons, '70-71 through '03-04).

  • The NFL had six divisions for 32 seasons (1970-2001), before it went to eight in 2002 after expansion to 32 teams.
So, tongue firmly in cheek, there is more to realignment talk than the attendant issues of addressing competitive balance, revenue disparities and AL East widows having a hard shell of cynicism that all the Blue Jays' ninth-inning comebacks against AL Central teams can't crack.

They should remedy the fact that a Blue Jays fan can only be anhedonic about the team being 19-14, since it has yet to face the Yankees and is 10-4 against the AL Central. Granted, it's impossible not to enjoy Fred Lewis' ninth-inning three-run homer that decided today's game against the Chicago White Sox. There's an off-chance it forced Joe Cowley to madly revise his game story at the last minute, after all.

Beyond that, Major League Baseball is bored. The other two major leagues and the NHL have had the fun of fighting off competitor leagues, ill-advised expansion and franchises hopping from one city to another and possibly back.

They must feel left out. Using 1970 as a baseline, since that was the year Bud Selig bogarted Seattle's team and made it the Milwaukee Brewers, MLB has 22 teams which have continuously played in the same city for the past 40 years. That compares pretty well to the NFL (17), NHL (12) and NBA (11).

Those pro sports operators are like the rest of us. They like to switch it up every so often.

MLB is pretty locked into its traditional league lines, but keep in mind those are more happenstance, accidents of history. Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland and Detroit had National League teams once upon a time. Milwaukee, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington were in the American League. Baseball would look much different on the west coast if the Pacific Coast League had succeeded in establishing itself as a major league in the 1950s. Vancouver could have had the first team in Canada. There was also the Continental League threat in the early '60s.

Toronto was almost a National League city. The San Francisco Giants were thisclose to moving there before the Blue Jays franchise was granted.

Point being, it's all very elastic if you take a long enough view, and there's enough reason to believe the situation might change for the Jays sooner rather than later. It seemed best to mention this with the club holding a 19-14 record (built mostly on a 10-4 mark vs. the AL Central) with 51 games yet to come against the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.

Someday, MLB will have some alignment and scheduling that will prompt one to look at a team's actual record without first checking how it breaks down by division. Ooh, look, the team which leads the AL Central has also played 21 of its first 32 games within the AL Central. Gotta be a coincidence.

Meantime, Halladay's record for the Phillies might be the story of the summer for a Jays fan, even if the team manages to play .500 baseball. (Tip for Rob Neyer's Jays essay in his "eras" project: 2005-10 is the Roy Halladay era.)

A baseball fan of a certain vintage, with the exception of Pedro Martínez' 23-4 season in 1999, only knows gaudy won-loss records through old baseball cards. It's been exactly two decades since the last 25-win season and that by Bob freakin' Welch, who was the third-best pitcher on his own team.

One has to go back a few more years to the last time a pitcher earned 24 wins while being charged with less than five losses (Dwight Gooden in 1985 and Roger Clemens in '86 each managed 24-4 marks. Ron Guidry was 25-3 in 1978). No pitcher in the modern era has had 20 wins with two or fewer losses, although Greg Maddux was 19-2 in a strike-shortened 144-game schedule in 1995.

Small wonder it seems like every Seamhead of my acquaintance is riveted by whether Halladay could end up in that aforementioned Tom Seaver territory. Part of that is baseball being an exercise in statistic memorization by nature. Part of that is pride of having appreciated Halladay before he went to a big-market team and last but not least, being reminded it won't always be this way for the Jays. There is yet hope.


Leaker19 said...

I've been critical of tinkering with the schedule, but as it stands now, the Blue Jays could finish in the neighborhood of 93 wins, but that would historically be too low for WC consideration. It probably is time for a change. It might be time to recognize that a strong third in the A.L. East is likely better than a majority of other clubs.

Anonymous said...

If the Jays played in the NL, even with this year's roster, they would
win 110 games...I kid you not.
Because that league that still forces pitchers to hit even though they swing like girls is just the IL warmed over.