The tanking epidemic has hit Major League Baseball like a rising tide. It seems as many as a dozen of MLB’s 30 teams have been eliminated from postseason contention before the first spring training exhibitions. Take the Texas Rangers for example.
With Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta on the market still, the Rangers elected to sign utility infielder Darwin Barney and pitchers Bartolo Colon and Jon Niese. Texas is not only trying to lose, they are throwing their 2018 season in the trash and rebuilding. They aren’t the only ones.
Tanking is some sort of disease in MLB play right now. The sanctioning body is seemingly split between contenders and tankers, with a heavier race to the bottom than to the top. This spells nothing but trouble for MLB, as their focus rests on entertaining the younger, casual fans with an exciting game that rewards risk – nothing is less risky and less exciting than designed failure.
Overseas, England’s Premier League soccer combats deliberate losing with a relegation system, the likes of which have not been used in North American sports. Their format is as follows:
- 20 teams in Premier League, 24 teams in the lower leagues (Football League Championship, Football League League One, Football League Two, etc)
- The bottom three teams in the year-end Premier League standings, the highest level of the sport, are relegated to Football League Championship.
- The top two teams in Football League Championship are promoted to Premier League, with teams third, fourth, fifth, and sixth in the table holding a playoff for the third and final promotion spot.
In Premier League, tanking results in straight up dropping out of the league. While that seems extreme to implement a structure that eliminates and relegates bad teams, it’s equally extreme that a market enriched with intentionally horrible teams exists in 2018. There has to be some sort of pushback, and MLB instituting an EPL system of relegation and promotion such as this fits the boot.
In this piece, we’re going to see what the MLB landscape over the last two years would have been like if this system was in play with all 30 clubs in the majors. Of course, for this simulation, we won’t have upwards of 40 teams like English soccer has in their top two sanctioning bodies.
We must use what we have, and what we have is 30 teams. Nonetheless, the system will effect playoff races, championships, dynastic potential of clubs, and even MLB Draft results.
Here are the ground rules for the hypothetical:
- 20 teams in MLB every year, the bottom 10 in Baseball League Championship (let’s go with that).
- The American League and National League denotions no longer exist. With just 20 teams, we have four divisions based on geographics that are realigned every year. In Baseball League Championship, there are two divisions aligned geographically.
- The bottom four teams in MLB are relegated into the BLC.
- The top three teams from the BLC enter MLB. The next four teams in the standings play a four-team, single elimination playoff for the fourth promotion spot.
- Every team in both leagues plays a 135-game schedule. In MLB, they’ll play their four division rivals 15 times each, and the remaining 15 teams five teams each (these series are a logistical nightmare, but chill). In BLC, squads play each club in their division 20 times, and inter-division teams 11 times each.
- The postseason format stays the same, though with a tweak due to no cemented divisions or separated leagues. The top-10 clubs, five a side, with a one-off Wild Card Game to trim the field to eight.
Hopefully we all understand now. Let’s get into the actual simulation.
Based on the 2016 season, here are the 16 secured teams competing in Major League Baseball in 2017: Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, Washington Nationals, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, San Francisco Giants, Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, and Kansas City Royals.
The four teams relegated from MLB to BLC after 2016 are the Miami Marlins, Chicago White Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Colorado Rockies. The Los Angeles Angels, Milwaukee Brewers, and Philadelphia Phillies received the top-three promotion spots from BLC, and the Arizona Diamondbacks, Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Braves, and Cincinnati Reds will compete for the final promotion spot.
The Marlins, Rockies, White Sox, and Pirates join the San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays, and Minnesota Twins – the bottom three teams in baseball – in the BLC.
Here is the interesting thing about the BLC playoff, and about this simulation over all: we at Baseball Essential can’t just make up games, right? To effectively create a playoff scenario, we are gonna take the two teams in the playoff matches’ head-to-head records and generate the likelihood of that team winning or losing. First, we have D-Backs vs Reds, followed by A’s against Braves.
In 2016, Arizona and Cincinnati split their games three a piece. To see who wins their single-elimation game, we must generate a random number from one to 100. Arizona has a slightly better chance due to home-field advantage, so if the number is 55 or lower, the Diamondbacks win. If not, the Reds win.
I drew 36; the D-Backs have won. As for the second matchup, A’s vs Braves, they didn’t play against one another in 2016, so we’ll take their interleague marks and generate a number off of those odds to see who wins. The hypothetical game is in Oakland as the A’s have a slightly better record, but their 7-13 interleague record compared to 8-12 on the opposite side lessens the odds of winning. We’ll set the bar at 52: anything below and the A’s face Arizona in the final, anything above and Atlanta wins.
Boom. 88, and the Braves will take on Arizona in the final. A final Arizona won, as their 5-2 record against Atlanta in 2016 gave them a 71% chance if advancing, and a I drew this.
To recap, MLB consists of CHC, TEX, WSH, CLE, BOS, LAD, BAL, TOR, NYM, SFG, DET, SEA, STL, HOU, NYY, KCR, LAA, MIL, PHI, and ARI. BLC holds MIA, COL, CHW, PIT, CIN, ATL, OAK, SDP, TBR, and MIN.
Let’s fast forward to the 2017 season. Firstly, the postseason picture is a little different as Minnesota and Colorado, both playoff teams in the real 2017, have been relegated. The divisions, like stated, have been aligned with geographic ease in mind, creating some intriguing rivalries.
- The MLB North Division: Toronto, Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cleveland.
- The MLB Central Division: Houston, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis, Texas, Kansas City.
- The MLB West Division: San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona.
- The MLB East Division: New York Yankees, New York Mets, Baltimore, Washington, and Boston.
- The BCL West Division: San Diego, Colorado, Oakland, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota.
- The BCL East Division: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Miami, Tampa Bay.
Not everything works on a map, but heck, we can’t force teams to move cities for a hypothetical league that will never happen in a million years. Here is how the season would play out from our simulations, featuring head-to-head win-loss record and random number generators that compile the following standings.
We say simulations because, well, this is all truly in hypothetical spirit and nothing matters. To compile results, we take team head-to-head results and use a specific team’s winning percentage against another team to decide number assignments, like we did in that BCL playoff final just a second ago. When we generate a random number, we draw the line at those winning percentages.
For example, if the Yankees beat the Red Sox two out of three times, they have a 66% winning percentage. To come up with a winner, we draw a digit from zero to 100, and if the number is 66 or lower, the Yankees win. If it’s anything 67 or higher, the Red Sox capture the victory.
We want to embrace baseball’s randomness and lack of winning pattern, but also generate decent accurate win totals from actual 2017 results. If the Brewers or Phillies had more simulated wins than the Dodgers or Astros, our system would be broken.
In these simulations, we cannot take the randomness of injury or weather into account, so bear with us.
Let’s take a look at the MLB’s divisional standings from made-up 2017.
First off, the West Division is the best from a geographic standpoint. Secondly, it’s stacked. Three teams over .500 doesn’t seem like a lot, but as we go on, it will appear massive, as those three teams have postseason written on them.
The Dodgers reign supreme, just like in real MLB, but not without a hard charge from the Angels, who had the best divisional record amongst the five. San Francisco and Seattle struggled, while Arizona put up a decent enough record to fall under a bubble team category.
On paper, this is probably the most competitive division of the four in our simulations. A real-life division champ, the Red Sox, placed fourth out of five teams – and that’s if you even want to count the Mets, who hilariously went 0-15 in the Subway Series against the Yankees.
Washington held onto a division crown under this format, while the Yankees and Orioles made a great postseason push. The Mets will almost surely finish in the bottom four, forcing relegation into Baseball League Championship.
Those 90 Indians wins are an MLB high in this simulation, which seems astounding. Cleveland didn’t go on a historic winning-streak like in real baseball, but they’re leaps and bounds above the rest. Other that that, the North seems like a cesspool of mediocrity, wuth Detroit, Philly, and Toronto under .500 on the season.
Milwaukee was a big surprise to us, however. They didn’t have great winning percentages to use for the game simulations, but eclipsed the .500 mark anyways.
Houston fans… we did it! Again! That’s another division title, against tougher competition here than in real life, y’all. Also, hey, the Cubs are still really good, and they wiped the floor with the jerseys of their rivals in St. Louis, 12-3 divisionally.
Texas jumped up to playoff contention with an impressive divisional record, and Kansas City had, to a degree, a better season here than in real MLB. As for the Cards, well…
As for the results in the BCL’s two divisions – which, of course, effects what happens going forth in MLB – let’s take a look.
Minnesota had an advantage no other team here: they made the playoffs in a pretty weak real life American League, which made their winning percentages over other teams skyrocket. They won as many divisional games as they lost all season in these simulations, and proved why they belong with the big boys in MLB.
Colorado and Oakland paved their ways to a potential promotion, while Chicago and San Diego remained laughing stocks.
Holy, Tampa Bay. They decided there is only room for one joke of a Florida franchise, and that honor belongs to Miami (who didn’t have all that bad of a sim season, but I digress). Atlanta also laid down the foundation to Major League Baseball.
This division was far more competitive than the West side of BCL. The main factor is that zero of these teams made the postseason in real life play, allowing for a parity-filled five-team class.
These divisions matter none until the full scope of baseball is shown, right? Well, here’s how all 30 teams stacked up.
As you probably guessed, Cleveland paced all of baseball, by a strong 10 wins. There’s a reason as to why: it helps when no other team from your division qualifies for the postseason. Houston, Washington, the Yankees, and Dodgers followed somewhat closely behind, with the Angels edging the Cubs and Orioles for the sixth playoff seed on head-to-head simulated winning percentage.
Texas snuck into the postseason, and as did Arizona, but not without a neccesary tiebreaker. We had to simulate a “Game 136” between the Diamondbacks and Brewers, with Arizona winning on a randomly drawn number of 21.
I would say the weirdest thing is real-life division champ Boston not even coming close to postseason qualification, nearly equaled in unusual nature by Detroit, who had the worst record in baseball in 2017, still remained within MLB.
St. Louis, Philadelphia, Toronto, and the Mets dropped out of MLB into the BCL, their places taken by Tampa, Minnesota, Atlanta, and the winner of the BCL playoff promotion bracket. Hmm, I guess it’s time to get to that.
After first-round wins by Miami and Pittsburgh, the Pirates earned the final promotional spot with an ironic win over Miami. I say ironic, because, well, the number I drew was 45, worn by former ace Gerrit Cole. Ha, haha, haha, ha.
The Pirates will now join the Rays, Twins, and Braves in MLB in 2018. As for that competition they will be joining, the postseason results for MLB play are as follows.
It only makes sense that Cleveland would win the World Series. 90 regular season wins, the AL’s best record in the actual 2017, and easy opponents on the way to the crown. They take their first World Series in over 70 years in a four games to one series against the Nationals (who, for perspective, finally won a playoff series).
What sucks? I erased the only World Series title in the 55-year history of the Houston Astros. What a bummer.
You might be asking how this changes the outlook of the divisions for the next season. Even if you aren’t asking that, here’s what we have for 2018:
- The MLB South Division: Houston, Texas, Kansas City, Atlanta, Chicago Cubs
- The MLB North Division: Minnesota, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh
- The MLB West Division: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona
- The MLB East Division: New York Yankees, Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, Baltimore
- The BCL East Division: Toronto, New York Mets, Cincinnati, Miami, Philadelphia
- The BCL West Division: Colorado, Oakland, San Diego, St. Louis, Chicago White Sox
These divisions are a little more friendly geographically, but none of it matters. In the end, we did this for our own personal fun. However, it raises a decent question, would this put an end to tanking? It’s about as surefire a concept to introduce the importance of winning back into baseball. You can’t deliberately lose or you’ll simply fall out of Major League Baseball. If you have a bad squad, you have to use free agency and trades to bulk it up and reinsert yourself into MLB competition through promotion.
Owners, general managers, and players alike will all feel a certain pressure, while fans are entertained with various different races for postseason, relegation, promotion, and World Series success. MLB can capture the young audience with the variety of aspects that encourage winning, and the players will play as though every team can win, or win something.
This idea is ambitious and audacious, but perhaps it’s a welcomed change. The National Hockey League changes divisional alignments pretty often, NASCAR revolutionized major motorsports with stage-based racing – it’s not unheard of to adapt to new formats for old sports.
As an analyst, this is neat to me. As a consumer, this is perhaps the coolest thing possible. So is this the smart move for MLB to make? Maybe, which means… they will never put this into play as long as we live.
Also, if you would like to know a team’s head to head record against others, their record gassing other divisions, etc, hit me up on Twitter. I have way too much data to throw it into an article and make it look pretty. Thanks for reading, share if you enjoyed.
A special thanks to Baseball-Reference.com, without which this article would be impossible.