Revolution, Revisited (Part 2)
[Note: This is part 2 of a 4-part blog post. Part 1 can be found here.]
In his 1988 essay Revolution, Bill James describes the transformation of the minor leagues over the course of the 20th Century. He explains how the "minor" leagues went from being independent competitors to the American and National Leagues in the early part of the century to their status as wholly dependent organs for player development for the "major" leagues. For example, in the early 20th Century, the Baltimore minor league club started recruiting quality players and retaining them, thinking they might be able to compete with the likes of the St. Louis Browns. To respond to this competition, the major leagues entered into deals with minor league clubs restricting their sales of players, and standardizing the terms of such contracts. James notes that this change did not take place overnight, but gradually, the result of series of transactions with the major leagues that provided short-term benefit for the minor league clubs (usually cash and more certainty about their finances), in exchange for less and less control over their players and affairs in the long term.
He laments this change, because it fundamentally alters the incentives of the minor league clubs away from trying to win baseball games. He retells an amusing story from Earl Weaver, who, while managing in the minor leagues, was asked by the big league club to move a player from 1B to 3B. Weaver, knowing that the guy could never play 3B and trying to win the pennant, kept the guy at 1B but submitted false reports and boxscores back to the big league club showing him playing at 3B. Similarly, a few weeks ago XM radio interviewed the general manager of the Nats AAA club, the New Orleans Zephyrs. He explained that a AAA GM's duties have very little to do with player personnel decisions (those are made by the big club); he spends his time thinking up things like the Dizzy Bat Race and getting Al's Pizza and Pasta to pay for a sign in the left-field gap. I think I knew this, but it stands out as a clear example of James' point about the "point" of minor league teams.
So what does James think should be done? He recommends that the ties between major and minor league clubs be severed (essentially via antitrust law), so that the minor league clubs become free to develop and acquire players on their own, and regain the incentive to try to win their league. In other words, no longer would their be 30 MLB clubs, but potentially many more -- James thinks about 60 will be the right number, with another 150 in other independent leagues.
More recent work fleshes out this "open league" concept -- this article by Stephen Ross and Stefan Szymanski is a good introduction to the issues. It is also discussed in Andrew Zimbalist's "May the Best Team Win" and Zimbalist's and Szymanski's "National Pastime". These authors add to James's concept the idea of promotion and relegation, which would help put some order to the new open league system, and also provide incentives for teams to succeed on the field. Promotion and relegation, which is common in professional club soccer in Europe and elsewhere in the world, requires that the best teams in the lower divisions of clubs replace the worst teams in the next highest division, so that even the composition of the "major" or "Premier" leagues is not set but open to those clubs demonstrating success on the field. Szymanski and Zimbalist, in particular, make direct comparison of the economics of European soccer using promotion/relegation and the current MLB closed system.
So what would an "open" major league baseball system look like? Probably a lot like the system we have today, but with some fundamental underlying differences. You could keep the existing MLB, AAA, AA, A leagues in place, but just permit movement of clubs between the leagues. For example, the bottom team in each division could be replaced with the top six teams from AAA, probably with a geographic and regional classification (e.g. Pacific Coast League teams move into the West divisions) to minimize travel burdens. (Promotion and relegation work well in English soccer in part because all of the teams live in a region that is not much bigger than Virginia and North Carolina combined). Goodbye Kansas City, Hello Charlotte. Similar trade-offs would be made between AAA and AA and A.
Another change that I think would work nicely is to have the AL and NL realign into 2 divisions each, with 8 teams in each division (you could add two more teams to the AL, or have two 7-team divisons). The top 2 teams in each division make the playoffs, and the bottom team in each division (4 total) are relegated. For example, based on 2005 standings, Colorado and Pittsburgh would have been relegated in the NL, and Tampa Bay and Kansas City in the AL. You would fill these slots from the four best teams in the AAA minors (2 "western" teams and 2 "eastern" teams).
While the existing exclusive dealing arrangements that prohibit franchise sale and relocation without approval and minor league affiliates would be gone, baseball would be allowed to agree on how the league competition operates, namely how promotion and relegation would work in practice. The key point would be that new clubs could be formed (after meeting some initial criteria) and start participating in the system, probably at the lowest ranks.
What are the benefits of such a system? That will be discussed in Part 3.