I recently noticed some discussion in the comments section here on Camden Chat regarding possible realignment of the MLB structure. One thing that caught my eye was some talk of a promotion/relegation system. Being most intrigued I set about discovering whether a tiered league system could help the Orioles.
Tiered leagues have been a feature of international soccer for as long as the sport has been around. In theory the system provides a hierarchy of leagues where the teams that play in them are of a similar calibre. To keep the leagues competitive, teams are swapped between them at the end of each season. Taking the English football league system as an example, the top tier, the Premier League, comprises 20 teams. At the end of each season the three teams with the worst record are relegated to the tier below. To help fill out the newly vacated spots the three teams with the best record from the second tier are promoted to the Premier League. To implement a system like this in Major League Baseball would be revolutionary and may not be particularly well received. Looking through this season’s results, however, it may be a system that could be quite beneficial to the Orioles.
For the purpose of this analysis I have used 2011 Major League results up to the end of the most recent home series against Toronto. I first began by organising the American and National leagues as such:
By splitting both leagues in two we can get a sense of how the two tiers would look at this point in time. Already the most noticeable point is that the Orioles are currently in the same league (AL East) as 4 of 7 teams that would appear in the top tier; this imbalance is hardly a ground-breaking revelation though. Next, based on these leagues, I took a look at the games the Orioles have already played this season to see how their win percentage is affected depending on whether they are playing teams in the top or bottom tier.
From these stats we can see that the Orioles have a much better win percentage when playing teams in the bottom half of each league; interestingly, against weaker opposition the Orioles have a record better than .500. Despite playing 20 less games against AL2 teams they have already won more than when playing AL1 opposition. Therefore the obvious benefit to playing in a two-tier system is already apparent: the prospect of an easier schedule.
There could, however, be more significant advantages for the Orioles to be playing in a ‘lower league’. When a team is relegated it can give them a chance to regroup, to re-evaluate the progression of the club and what it needs to do to succeed again. Playing against weaker opposition would mean less pressure on younger players like Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Zach Britton who could really find their groove in an almost intermediate level between AAA and the majors. They could gain confidence against proper opposition before a possible chance against the big guns should the O’s get promoted.
People connected to the club could also become re-energised despite relegation. A great example of this comes from England (again). Norwich City was relegated after the 2008/09 season to the third tier of the English leagues. Since then they have brought in a new manager and have made back-to-back promotions and now find themselves in the top tier after just two seasons. Whilst this is a favourable example for this argument it still shows that despite the heartbreak of relegation a team can turn things around pretty quickly. Even though Norwich were in the third tier, the club won the league by 9 points and it was the satisfaction of winning something (albeit an inferior competition) that spurred the club and fans on the following season. The glory of being promoted has now given the club a feel-good factor and the fans are enjoying supporting their team once more.
Along with the positives there are of course some downsides to implementing such a league. For a team like the Orioles who would be placed in the lower tier there would be significantly fewer glamorous games. Whilst teams like the Yankees and Red Sox may seem abhorrent to a lot of fans, they undoubtedly draw bigger crowds to the ballpark. So there is a possible risk that attendances may reduce; given that the Orioles' average attendance in 2010 was 21,662 and so far in 2011 21,995 though, this may not be such a big problem. Similarly, by playing fewer games against quality opposition, TV viewing figures may also reduce. I’m not too clued up on how the Orioles sell their TV rights but whoever buys them may not be willing to spend as much if they’re not reaching a wide enough audience.
There is also the risk that the Orioles will continue to be perennial losers. Even though their record this year suggests there may be an improvement against weaker opposition there’s no telling whether that would carry through over a full season. Should the Orioles get in a rut in the bottom tier an even greater sense of frustration could build in the fans and the players. Whilst many people connected with the team now will accept there’s little chance the O’s will win the World Series, that goal will seem even further off at the bottom of the second tier.
To introduce a system like this would raise many questions:
- - How would leagues and schedules be reorganised?
- - Could two tiers of 15 teams in each work thus scrapping the difference in AL and NL rules?
- - Would there be a fair way to decide which teams play in which tier going into the first season?
- - How many teams would be promoted and relegated each season?
- - How would the playoffs be organised, if at all?
- - Would the draft work in the same manner? Could lower league teams get extra picks?
Nevertheless there are several intriguing benefits for a failing organisation like the Orioles, most notably the chance to re-energise the fan base and start winning more games.
Data source: http://www.baseball-reference.com/