Major League Baseball is not in a great situation right now. Some of it is not the fault of anybody involved (the global pandemic certainly qualifies as an undeserved obstacle), but a lot of baseball’s problems have been self-inflicted, and have existed for years predating the pandemic. Declining relevance, stagnant attendance, a tanking epidemic, dreadful labor relations, and a league office that oscillates between clueless and malicious have combined to put the game of baseball on shaky ground in the sports world. Fortunately, baseball is still flush with money at the moment, but it remains that America’s Pastime needs to get its act together going forward if it wants to remain an important part of the American sports calendar. Here are 15 reforms that baseball should implement in order to better grow the game, increase attendance, restore its reputation, and improve the product:
Bring Back the Montreal Expos
Regardless of what happens to the 2020 MLB season, the league is about to take a financial and reputational beating. The last time a massive interruption happened, which was the 1994-95 strike, the league kicked the tires on expansion, ultimately adding the Diamondbacks and the Rays in 1998. Consequently, it stands to reason that expansion is on the horizon once again, and it wouldn’t feel right if the league didn’t come full circle and expand through the return of the highest-profile casualty of the 1994-95 lockout: The Montreal Expos. Quebec’s MLB team died a slow death after a very good Expos team was derailed by the strike, and the time has come to right this wrong. Montreal should be more than capable of supporting a team, and revenue sharing (and hopefully a more responsible owner) should be able to insure against history repeating itself with the Expos’ decline. The Expos would return to the National League.
Add an Expansion Team in Portland
31 is a weird number. That’s why the NHL didn’t sit around for too long after adding Vegas before working on another expansion franchise, and that’s why baseball can’t stop at just bringing back the Expos. Portland has proven itself to be a decent city for sports teams. The Blazers have always had great fans, and the Timbers and Thorns (Portland’s MLS and NWSL teams) have consistently been well-supported as well. Portland’s location is also optimal, with potential for a Pacific Northwest Rivalry with Seattle, as well as ensuring the Mariners are a bit less lonely up in the northern corner of the country. Seeing as the Expos would head back to the National League, a Portland team would join the American League.
Realign the Divisions
With two expansion teams up and running, the league now stands at 32 teams. This makes the current division alignment impossible, or at least really strange. There are a few different ways one can realign the divisions, but for the purposes of making scheduling easy (more on that below), I’m going to submit that each league should have four divisions with four teams, sorted by geography, with this alignment:
AL East: Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles
AL North: Tigers, Indians, White Sox, Twins
AL South: Royals, Rangers, Astros, Rays
AL West: Angles, Athletics, Mariners, Portland
NL East: Phillies, Mets, Expos, Pirates
NL North: Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, Rockies
NL South: Nationals, Braves, Reds, Marlins
NL West: Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Diamondbacks
With this alignment, the biggest rivalries (e.g. Yankees-Red Sox, Cardinals-Cubs, Dodgers-Giants) are preserved, and geographic ties are largely maintained.
A Shorter and More Uniform Schedule
A long season is pretty much mandatory for baseball, but 162 games is a bit too much. Interleague play, another post-strike invention intended to revive interest in the game, is fun in certain circumstances, but seems a bit unnecessary otherwise and desperately needs to be reduced. Just as well, intra-league play needs to be standardized, with each team playing the same number of games against each divisional opponent every year. In practice, such a schedule looks something like this:
20 Games * 3 Divisional Opponents = 60
6 Games * 12 Non-Division League Opponents = 72
6 Games * 2 Interleague Opponents = 12
This adds up to 144 games, where each team plays both a home series and a road series against each team in their league, playing either three or four (either 3 + 3 + 4 or 3 + 3 + 2 + 2) home series and three or four road series against divisional opponents. In the interleague portion of the schedule, each team plays a home series and a road series against two teams from the other league. Some interleague series would be played every year (Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox, Dodgers-Angels, Blue Jays-Expos, Indians-Reds, Cardinals-Royals, Giants-Athletics, Rays-Marlins and Orioles-Nationals come to mind), while the rest will alternate each year.
Expand the Playoffs
Show me a league with a boring postseason and I will show you a league that doesn’t exist. Baseball’s playoff system, while doubtlessly fun and intriguing, is the smallest of the four big American sports. After having four teams per league for a while, the playoffs expanded to five per league with the introduction of the wild card game in 2012. The wild card game has never failed to disappoint, but the early rounds of the playoffs need to be improved upon, and expanding the playoffs is a big part of that. Given that the league realignment I mention above involves creating four divisions in each league, I propose that each league have seven teams in the playoffs (fourteen total), which consists of the four division winners, as well as three wild card teams. The winningest division winner receives a bye (similar to the NFL), while each remaining division winner plays a wild card team in a modified best of three series: The division winner starts the series with a 1-0 lead, so they only have to win once to advance to the Division Series, while the wild card teams would need to win two in a row in order to advance. This preserves both the randomness and unpredictability of the early rounds of the playoffs and the value of division titles. Beyond adding this early round, the Division Series should grow to a best of seven series, just like the Championship Series and the World Series, which should increase the likelihood of the better teams winning. Having more playoff spots up for grabs should also encourage more teams to try to contend in any given year.
Institute a Salary Floor
With all the talk of the problems of tanking in Basketball, not enough attention is paid to Baseball’s widespread tanking problem. Much of the concerns about Baseball’s decline are rooted in falling attendance numbers throughout the league, but when you look closer, the attendance numbers are not indicative of a dying sport. Instead, they are indicative of a large portion of the major leagues not even pretending to try to field a winning team at any one point, and the decline in payrolls league wide reflects that. Baseball fans have demonstrated time and time again that they will go to stadiums to watch teams that aren’t contenders (the 2008 Tigers averaged 39,000 fans per game; they went 74-88). What they won’t pay to see are teams that are drifting with no real intent (the 2019 Tigers average 18,000 fans per game; they went 47-114). The most straightforward solution is a salary floor. Teams should be required to spend enough money to ensure a living, breathing baseball team. This will improve the product league wide, and it will help the veteran players who are currently getting screwed by the penny pinching of the 19 teams that aren’t competing for the World Series. The argument against a floor is that some teams have been able to do well with low payrolls over a long period of time, but even that argument is flimsy. The poster child for small market success is the Oakland A’s. In 2002 (the Moneyball season), the Oakland A’s payroll was 30% of its market value. In 2019, that number stood at 10%. If payrolls grew with market value, every franchise in baseball would have a payroll of at least $300 Million today. I’m not asking for that, I’m merely asking that every franchise invest in putting actual major league players on the field every year. It will improve the product, increase gate receipts, and avoid embarrassments like Dallas Keuchel not getting a contract until after the 2019 season started.
Get Rid of the All-Star Game
You and I both know that All-Star games are not enjoyable. The All-Star break provides a nice gap in the season and allows a much-needed break for the players, but the game itself is dreadful. What is not dreadful is the Home Run Derby. Consequently, Baseball’s best move would be to drop the All-Star Game entirely and have more skills competitions. All-Star games are a good idea in theory, a game in which all of the best players are on one field playing against each other. But in reality, it’s pretty boring and not worth the risk for pitchers. On the other hand, skills competitions involving baserunning, fielding, directional hitting and throwing from the outfield, in addition to the Home Run Derby, would make for a much more riveting All-Star break.
Pay Minor League Baseball Players More
This is an issue that has gained a lot of traction in recent years, and it’s something that is long overdue. Most minor league players would be better off economically working at Walmart, and in a league that is structured such that the farm system is the lifeblood of any team that can’t print money every year in free agency (read: the Yankees), it’s just bad practice. When minor league players are paid more, they can stay in the game longer and take more time to develop, which leads to better players and stronger farm systems.
Implement the Designated Hitter Rule in the National League
The exception proves the rule. Zack Greinke is a passable hitter. Most pitchers aren’t. Since the introduction of the Designated Hitter, the American League has been the better hitting league every single year, and it looks like the National League has finally relented. It looks like the National League will use designated hitters if the 2020 season actually happens, and this could be the catalyst for the permanent addition of the position league-wide. Regardless of whether it is or not, it is encouraging to see that it looks like the Universal DH will be a reality within the next few years.
Allow Teams to Hold Larger Rosters and Scratch Players
As of 2020, major league teams carry 26 players on the roster, before expanding to 40 in September, dressing 28 on any given day. This is a step in the right direction, but I think something is being overlooked. The 26-man roster includes the starting pitching staff, four of whom have no chance of playing on any given day because they aren’t starting, so in reality, a team only has 22 players available on any given day. A good solution is to expand active rosters to 30 players, but only dress 25. This allows teams to scratch starting pitchers on their off days, instead of making them stand around awkwardly in the dugout when they know they won’t pitch, while filling their spots with extra relievers or hitters. Teams also wouldn’t need to use the injured list as much; in the case of short term injuries, a player can be scratched for a few games instead of going on the injured list. This also means more spots on major league rosters for young players, as well as the veteran middle class that has been getting squeezed the last few years.
Implement a Pitch Clock
Baseball’s pace of play debate will probably never end. The baseball neckbeards maintain that game length is not a problem and attempts to speed the game up devalue the chess game that the game can be at the highest level, while many others argue that today’s game drags unnecessarily, and the tension of the game has long since devolved into boredom. I am not here to tell people what’s boring and what isn’t, but baseball games have gotten progressively longer over the past 30 years, and the biggest culprit is an increase in the time between pitches. While cracking down on game length may not necessarily make the game better in the minds of baseball’s most dedicated fans, it will make the game more accessible to more people, as it’s easier to convince people to go to the ballpark for two and a half hours than for three and a half hours. A pitch clock is the simplest way to shave 20-30 minutes from every game, and it shouldn’t even be that big of an adjustment. Pitchers have demonstrated that they are generally capable of picking up the pace, and a pitch clock forces that adjustment. The enforcement would be simple for both pitchers and hitter: once fifteen seconds have passed after the pitcher has received a ball from the catcher, if the pitcher is not set, a ball is assessed, or if the hitter is not in their stance, a strike is assessed. This should cut down on the excesses of the slowest pitchers and hitters, while making games shorter and easier to stay with for the duration of the game, and hopefully, ensure that only a minority of nine-inning games extend beyond three hours.
More Original Offseason Content
Moneyball is a great movie, but I can only watch it so many times before I cry out for more during the offseason. Baseball’s in-season programming is actually pretty good, but the offseason leaves much to be desired, particularly once football season ends and airtime is there for the taking. Baseball’s recent history is a gold mine for potential documentaries, but too often there doesn’t seem to be tons of interest in making them, which is a massive oversight that is seemingly magnified by the success of The Last Dance. Baseball should make a habit of producing offseason content about recently retired players and noteworthy teams of the preceding fifteen years, which at any given point would represent the memories that the 18-30 bracket would love to relive. For example, the last generation of baseball has given us the careers of memorable players like Joe Mauer, David Ortiz, Mark Buehrle and Ichiro, as well as teams that are memorable for the right reasons (2004 Red Sox, 2006 Cardinals, 2008 Phillies) and the wrong reasons (2007 Mets, 2011 Red Sox). There is no reason not to produce more documentaries on these stories, as they have the power to remind viewers why they appreciated these players and teams when they happened, and provide more insight into what was really going on in the game in these past years.
Ease Up on Regional Blackouts
It is absolutely absurd how hard baseball works to limit the number of people who can watch baseball games. Baseball’s regional blackout policy, designed to protect MLB’s TV deals with regional networks, is the most restrictive of the leagues, a flaw which is even more pronounced in the age of cord-cutting. Blackouts, in and of themselves, are not a particularly problematic concept. They’re good for protecting regional networks, and it isn’t unreasonable to expect viewers to pay for their local sports network, but in the linked article above, you’ll notice that Baseball’s blackout regions are massive, with tons of overlap (six teams are blacked out to viewers in Las Vegas), which both cheapens streaming options and makes it unnecessarily difficult for viewers to watch their teams. By making blackouts less restrictive (there is no reason for any MLB team, let alone four, to be blacked out in Buffalo), the league enhances its own streaming platform (MLB.tv) and allows more people to watch games.
Better Game Scheduling
Baseball’s problems with marketing its best players are well documented, but sometimes I think the discussion loses sight of something very important, and that is that the easiest way to market star players is to simply get more people to watch them play. Baseball has generally done a terrible job with this, particularly with players on the West Coast. Mike Trout is the best player in the league, but when his home games are played at 10:00 PM EST every night because he plays in Anaheim, nowhere near enough people are going to watch him. The same problem exists with Clayton Kershaw, Ketel Marte, Nolan Arenado, Cody Bellinger and Manny Machado, and it was a big part of why neither King Felix nor Ichiro ever got the exposure they deserved (playing on bad teams every year didn’t help either). I understand that during the week, there isn’t much that can be done, but on weekends, there is absolutely no reason for any West Coast game, or any game, for that matter, to start later than 8:00 PM EST.
Better Coverage Options for College Baseball
Adley Rutschman, the top pick in the 2019 MLB draft, hit .400 in back to back seasons at Oregon State. Spencer Torkelson, the top pick in the 2020 MLB draft, broke the Pac-12 single season home run record for a Freshman at Arizona State back in 2018, a record previously held by some guy named Barry Bonds. The average baseball fan has never heard of either of them, because watching College Baseball is damn near impossible for most baseball fans. Baseball is a bit unique in that unlike the NBA and NFL, Major League Baseball emerged as a major force in the American sports landscape before, instead of after, its college counterpart, and accordingly, college baseball is never going to carry the weight of college football or college basketball. With that being said, even though there are a few years separating players being drafted and players reaching the major leagues in baseball, it remains that college baseball players represent the future of Major League Baseball, which was even more pronounced this year, with more college players being taken in the first 100 picks in the 2020 draft than any MLB draft in history. College Baseball is fun and, like its football counterpart, includes elements that are not often seen at the highest level (baseball traditionalists should love the college game’s relatively conservative use of shifts and more liberal use of bunting and stealing). Just as well, being able to follow the College Baseball regular season makes the College World Series (one of the most underrated postseasons in the sports world) all the more fun, and gives fans a greater insight into Major League Baseball’s biggest feeder.