MLB Needs to Bring Back the “First Division”

Prior to 1961 in the American League, and prior to 1962 in the National League, all teams finishing in the "first division" — first through fourth in an eight-team league, and first through fifth in a 10-team league — received shares in the postseason Players' Pool.

When divisional play began in both leagues in 1969, concomitant with the expansion of both leagues from 10 teams to 12 — "It wouldn't be practical to have a first-place team and a 12th-place team," said Bowie Kuhn, the sport's commissioner at the time (by "it wouldn't be practical" he actually meant that it wouldn't make baseball and its owners enough money) — this was changed to the teams finishing first, second, and third in each (six-team) division receiving shares.

This did not change when the American League's divisions increased in size from six teams to seven in 1977 (with the addition of the Toronto Blue Jays to the American League East and the Seattle Mariners to the American League West) and when the National League's divisions increased in size from six teams to seven in 1993 (with the addition of the Florida, now Miami, Marlins to the National League East and the Colorado Rockies to the National League West).

Before the 1994 season started, each league was realigned into three divisions — but a strike aborted that season, and the strike extended into the early part of the 1995 season.

When play resumed, under the new format, in which the three division winners plus one wild-card team in each league made the playoffs, the four second-place teams that did not make the playoffs each received 1% of the Players' Pool.

And so it went until 2012, when the Lords of Baseball decided to add a second wild card to each league's playoff draw.

It was then that the owners reconfigured the Players' Pool, shutting out the non-playoff second-place teams from participating therein.

That decision was totally unnecessary.

Since then, the winner of the World Series has received 36% of the Players' Pool, with 24% going to the World Series loser, 12% each to the losers of the League Championship Series losers (the Final Four), 3.25% each to the losers of the Division Series (the Elite Eight), and 1.5% each to the losers of the "play-in games" (which should actually be a best-of-three series — but that's a topic for a different discussion).

This can, and should, be changed to 31.5% to the World Series winner, 21% to the World Series loser, 10.5% each to the losers of the League Championship Series (the Final Four), 5% each to the losers of the Division Series (the Elite Eight), 2.25% each to the "wild card series" — such as it is — losers, and 2% to be divided evenly between/among the two, or three, or four second-place teams which did not make the playoffs (1% to each such team if there are two of them, 2/3% if there are three of them, or 1/2% if there are four of them — thus in any case less than half the share awarded to the play-in game losers, which is in turn less than half the share awarded to the Division Series losers, which is in turn less than half the share awarded to the League Championship Series losers).

And in the event that a 16th team is added to each league — and the owners have broadly hinted that such expansion is more likely to happen sooner than later, (Charlotte appears to head the list of expansion candidates, followed by either Nashville or Memphis) — the owners will probably realign the leagues into four four-team divisions, and expand the playoffs from the present 10 teams to 12. In that case, the "first division" will once again mean exactly that — the top two teams from each division (with the second-place shares varying from year to year based on if both of a league's wild cards come from the same division — in either league or both, as above).

As for the possibility of a team having to switch leagues: we've already seen that movie before — twice in fact, when the Brewers joined the National League in 1998, and again in 2013, when the Astros moved to the American League. If the Diamondbacks can be persuaded to switch leagues, the following — and eminently logical — new alignment becomes possible:

AL East — Baltimore, Boston, N.Y. Yankees, Toronto

AL North — Chicago White Sox, Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota

AL South — Houston, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Texas

AL West — Arizona, L.A. Angels, Oakland, Seattle

NL East — N.Y. Mets, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington

NL North — Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis

NL South — Atlanta, Charlotte (?), Memphis/Nashville (?), Miami

NL West — Colorado, L.A. Dodgers, San Diego, San Francisco

(It would work just the same if it is the Rockies rather than the Diamondbacks switching leagues.)

The schedule format can be straightforward enough: each team plays its three division rivals 21 times each (in the eight-team-league era there were 22 meetings between teams), the 12 teams in the other three divisions within the same league seven times each, with 15 interleague games for every team, entire divisions matched up against each other on a rotating basis as is the case now, accounting for 12 of the games (the other three would be Yankees/Mets, White Sox/Cubs, etc. — and in years when these divisions play each other, these teams would have six meetings, as is the case under the current format).

The major virtue in having an odd number of games in pretty much all season series is that the season series can then be used to break any tie between teams finishing with the same record (if two teams finish the season tied for first place in a division, the season series decides who wins the division if the loser would get a wild card), in determining home-field advantage in any one-game playoff, seeding between division champions in the same league that had the same record, and even (potentially) home-field advantage in the World Series if both pennant winners had finished with the same record (with, preferably, the stipulation that in no case can a wild-card team be given home-field advantage over a division champion, even if the wild card had a better record — a stipulation that is not in force now).

If the two pennant winners finished with identical records (and either both of them won their division or neither of them did) and did not play each other in interleague play, record against common opponents would determine home field advantage (in most cases, every pair of teams in different leagues who did not meet in interleague play will have played 40 games against common opponents).

And so far as the "unfairness" of both expansion teams going into the NL South is concerned: the same thing happened in 1969, when the AL's two expansion teams — the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Pilots (the present Milwaukee Brewers) — were both slotted into the AL West; and yes, the AL East won the inter-divisional season series that year, 245 to 187. Based on that, the NL South will very likely be the weakest division in the majors in the first year of the expansion and coincident realignment — but there is hardly any guarantee that this will remain the case indefinitely.

As for cutting the percentages of the Players' Pool to be awarded to the top four teams goes: Under a totally outdated procedure, 60% of the gate receipts for the first four games of the World Series and the League Championship Series, 60% of the gate receipts from the first three games of the Division Series, and 50% of the gate receipts of the two play-in games, form the Players' Pool. This completely ignores current realities — player salaries now dwarf postseason shares — which dictate that no team in their right mind will ever tank any postseason games today to prolong a series.

Therefore, the top teams will receive more money — not less — if 60% of the gate receipts of all postseason games become part of the Players' Pool, despite the lower percentage shares of the total that they will receive.

Tradition requires that this must be done, in the most traditional of our sports.

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