Thursday, May 18, 2006

Revolution, Revisited (Part 4)

[Note: This is the fourth and final part of the series. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here.]

I can anticipate some common questions and criticisms about an "open" major league baseball system. In this post I'll try to set them out and respond.

1. More teams would dilute the quality of play among the "major" leagues.

There's no reason to believe that the clubs in the top league won't be able to attract and buy the best players. It hasn't hurt the Premiership in England. In fact it may be the case that an open system would allow talent to flow more efficiently to the top league, through both promotion and more free transfers of players from the minors, rather than be funneled through farm systems that may be managed poorly. Note also that in England it is possible for good players to negotiate a "relegation-release" clause in their contracts, so that if their club drops, they become free agents available to other top tier teams. These help ensure that the best talent remains in the top.

2. The rich teams would dominate even more than they do now in a "more free" market.

This is the competitive balance issue I touched on in earlier posts. With promotion and relegation, those rich successful teams don't get to beat up on the Royals and Pirates every year, but must face new competition that would dearly love to unseat them and prove their worth in the top league.

3. It would diminish the value and excitement of the playoffs.

If this turns out to be a problem, you could grant the World Series winner one year of being protected from relegation. Winning in the playoffs would, as it does now, make your club more attractive to everyone, players, fans, advertisers, so there are natural incentives to succeed there. Plus you are adding excitement of the relegation competition at the end of every year, which would keep interest in many more teams down the stretch.

4. The players would suffer, and they are the ones who make the game great.

I am not one to begrudge players a large, even obscene, income -- they undertake a demanding job which lasts only a short time, under intense scrutiny and pressure -- and among those involved in baseball they should receive a healthy portion of the revenues generated from the game. However, to the extent those profits are borne of monopoly power and anti-competitive behavior, they don't deserve them any more than the owners. Jim Bouton said a lot when he noted that the 1994 strike was the "first labor dispute in history to pit billionaires against millionaires." There is no doubt that the owners for decades kept the players from getting a fair share of the spoils, which in large part they created. But the MLBPA has only succeed in broadening the privileged class to include the players -- like many labor unions, it is not primarily concerned with free and open competition. The experience of European soccer demonstrates that player salaries do not suffer from open league structures, so in the end I doubt the players will suffer, and might even make out better, and more players will have a chance at success. Most importantly, we would end the pointless death struggles we've seen every few years between two monopolists trying to divy up billions of dollars.

5. It would destroy the beloved minor league system! What would happen to player development?

There would still be a fair amount of player development in the minor leagues, it just wouldn't be directly tied to a major league franchise. Again, we have examples from English soccer, where clubs in the lower division often develop players with an eye towards selling them to higher division clubs for profit. As Bill James points out, this happened as a matter of course in the early days of baseball, until the majors got control over it to lower their player acquisition costs. But each club would face the business choice of deciding whether it wanted to retain players and make a push for the championship and promotion, or sell them off to reinvest in new young players, much like the major league clubs decide today.

Also, there would not be any prohibition on clubs developing their own youth and reserve programs to develop new talent as well. A high school player would face a choice of signing with the Yankees youth program, presumably for less money but better experience and teaching, or striking out with a lower division club, presumably for more money and a chance at playing competitive ball earlier. Also, players from major league clubs could be loaned to minor league clubs to give them playing time and experience in competition -- David Beckham on Manchester United was loaned to Preston North End early in his career, where his talent quickly revealed itself. There would not be any prohibition on big league and minor league clubs creating such arrangements, so long as they were not exclusive.

Be sure to check out the comments to part 2 from Will on this point, they are excellent.

6. It's an idea from Europe!

Yes, my jingoistic American pride is wounded a bit by citing a European model that is more faithful to the free market than ours. (Especially when countries like Germany prevent Lands' End from doing business there because they offer unconditional money back guarantees to their customers.) But the experience from Europe, particularly England, shows that such a system does accomplish important goals of increasing economic welfare for the fans by making on-field success and failure more relevant to the overall success/failure of the clubs. It's not perfect, but it's better than what we have. As Bill James noted, this is a problem of comparing reality to a possible world, and it's hard to fully grasp that what we have now and are used to is not the only possible world, and not the best one.

7. You might end up with a World Series between Ft. Wayne, Indiana and Chyenne, Wyoming. Who wants that?

What are you, a network TV executive? Yes, there is that possibility, after years of promotion and relegation to allow clubs in such cities to have that success. But keep in mind, Mr. TV guy, that you likely would also have more than 2 clubs in NYC, LA and Chicago, which increases the chance of a high demographic market being involved in the post-season. So I think you might have more, not fewer, TV-friendly matchups under this system. You also have more potential geographic rivalries that baseball seems to love so much.

8. It would ruin baseball's tradition!

I would give this argument credence -- if it were 1959. But the tradition many people love to trot out has been beaten to an unrecognizable pulp by expansion, television, the designated hitter, divisional playoffs, free agency, player strikes, lockouts, wild card teams, astro-turf, inter-league play, revenue sharing, luxury taxes, baby-blue double-knits, steroids, air travel, and on and on. And I see this system as return to a more longstanding American tradition -- open and fair competition that provides opportunity and incentive for everyone, not just a privileged few.

As Bill James said in 1988, "Hey, buddy, I love tradition too."

9. The current owners would never allow it, and the Congress/Administration would never impose it on them.

The best objection yet. All true, and, apart from the steroids issue, the current state of baseball does not cry out for reform -- it has solved the "Montreal problem" (to our benefit, yay!) , no labor crisis is imminent, attention to the sport from the public seems relatively healthy. So it is not the most opportune political time to expect any reform like the one proposed here. Hell, Bill James's ideas have been around for nearly 20 years through 3 labor disputes, a missed World Series, the threat of contraction and other controversy, and never received much serious attention. But I wanted to lay it out here because it has helped me understand some of my frustration with the sport, and to help you think more about possible worlds, rather than just the one we know. And it's a lot more fun than watching Joey Eischen pitch.


At 11:44 PM, Anonymous Will said...

AL and NL-Maybe this is a spin-off of the tradition argument-It would be difficult to maintain the current two league structure under the proposed system, and I happen to like having two leagues, if only so we have the option not to see the DH. It's also difficult to maintain multiple leagues at the other levels and would probably be especially tricky where you have 3 AA leagues feeding 2 AAA leagues. Some reorganization could take place, but that would be tricky too. It seems to me that an American League team should always be an American League team (no matter what the Milwaukee Brewers do), even if that team does happen to spend a few years in the PCL. If Kansas City gets relegated in the first year and then gets promoted back to the top several years later, it should be promoted to the AL. But what if the other teams in AAA due for promotion are also AL teams (this would include teams currently in AAA who had already been promoted to the AL and been relegated back)? We could get into variable size leagues, but that creates problems with odd number of teams and also problems that one league is easier to win and the other is easier to escape relegation. Or maybe it just isn't a big deal to anyone else if the Royals were to end up in the NL sometime in the future. The problem would get even worse if we wanted to preserve division alignment, but that would be pretty much impossible, and is not really worth fighting for at all. In fact, it seems like we would probably have to go through an entire division realignment every year to keep the divisions ideal. I don't know how happy people would be with this.

Also do you demote two teams from each league, or the worst four overall? I guess the latter wouldn't make much sense because records from the two leagues aren't directly comparable, but at the same time, records from different divisions aren't comparable and with interleague rivalries, records from the same division aren't even completely fair to compare (but if that doesn't concern us presently, I suppose it wont in the future). Also you talked about the problem of locations, but you didn't really present a solution. From the AAA->Majors direction this doesn't really present a problem since the two AAA leagues correspond roughly with the two sides of the country and picking the top two from each league would naturally result in two eastern and two western teams. But in the opposite direction, this could present all sorts of problems. If three or all four of the worst teams are on the east coast, do we really want to demote a less bad western team, screwing them (and saving the other) based on geography? Otherwise we get into problems with one of the AAA leagues getting too big.

I'm still a little concerned about player development. Sure it worked in the olden days and it works in a different sport across the sea, but the circumstances aren't exactly the same.

I assume we won't be able to fit the short-season A ball and Rookie leagues into our pyramid scheme. What will happen to the teams in these leagues and what will provide the developmental functions that leagues formerly provided?

About the effect of the college baseball. As I understand it, a decent player coming out of high school will often get drafted in the later rounds but choose college in order to get drafted higher three year later and get a much higher signing bonus. Most likely, in our hypothetical world, that high schooler will have the same choice: the draft won't exist anymore, but if he shows his talent throughout college, he will most likely get offered a higher signing bonus three years later. However, since most of the signing of amateur players would take place by lower teams, the signing bonus would probably be smaller in either case, which might create a slightly greater incentive to sign out of HS. I don't really know. Also newly created pro teams could perhaps steal fans from college baseball programs, but the seasons only overlap by two months and competition isn't a bad thing.

Am I taking this way too seriously, considering that we seem to agree that a plan like this has no chance of being implemented?

By the way, I think you left off criticism #10: "I am a Royals fan" :)

Hopefully the Nats can avoid relegation for a while in your new world order.

At 11:59 PM, Blogger DM said...


Thanks for taking it seriously, and for the great comments! I think it's worth taking seriously, if only because the exercise of thinking about these things helps us understand more about the current structure and its flaws. Also, I think the new version of OOTP baseball will let you simulate a lot of this, which is where I plan to try some of this out.

I think you can maintain AL and NL separation, but you'd have to reorganize the minors to be "affiliated" with the leagues, and probably with divisions similar to each league if you want to maintain those. If you keep divisions, then you should probably promote and relegate per division, rather than overall, but I'd be in favor of reducing or scrapping divisions, as I don't think they are really necessary with relegation.

In English soccer, each club, including lower divisions, usually has a "reserve" tram that plays the day before. It's kind of like a Junior Varsity team. You could have these in baseball (maybe playing during the day, while the main teams play at night), and these could replace the Rookie leagues. It would also be another player development avenue.

As for objection #10, I bet there are even Royals fans who would welcome relegation, to put them out of their misery at least.

At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Will said...

I realize now that I phrased the last comment in my last post poorly. It makes it seems like I would be satisfied with mediocrity. I should have written "Hopefully, the Nats start kicking ass, whether or not your new world order is implemented."

I think I need to check out this OOTP baseball game. I've heard a lot of good things about it recently.

Re The Royals Watch: You fail to take into account the fact, reported here, that the Royals play in a superior league. We may be even closer to the Royals than we want to admit.

At 3:30 AM, Blogger Randy Barning said...

I know this was written over a year ago, but I just found this and think it is very well written.
I completely agree they should and have been advocating the same thing.

A monetary reason has to be created for MLB.
What I come up with is you charge to buy a team in the lower divisions.
Suppose there are 24 second division (AAA) teams. You could probably get $40-100 million per team.

And another $20-40 million per 3rd division team. Lots of guys worth hundreds of million that can't get a major league team but would find it worth that amount, plus fun trying to get the team to the big leagues, at that price.

You could raise $60+ million per current major league team.

One major issue is current deals with stadiums. I am not sure that can be worked out.

As for the current structure of the would be 100% exploded and reworked. The current owners of these teams would have to be bought out, or sold a franchise, and a new system in place.

You would want 4 leagues of 8 teams at the MLB level and the worst place team in each gets dropped.

Then in the 2nd level also have four leagues, with the top team in each moving up. You need to have geographical continuity.

This would definitely save teams millions in the draft as there would only be a few players per year that millions would be spent on (if they are not hooked into the league before being 17, which would be even cheaper).

Would probably also want to adopt the transfer system of soccer.
The trade system in baseball is terrible as it is..ridiculous you can pickup a good player from a terrible team cheap late in the season as they have no reason to keep him.
Also relegation battles would help this.



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