Monday, July 13, 2015

Examining a Baseball Alternate Universe: What if MLB Teams Couldn't Relocate?

The other day, I saw an interesting thought experiment: what would MLB look like today if no teams had ever moved? I put a lot of thought into the question, and wound up with this interesting Alternate Universe take on baseball, and I wanted to share it.

To start with, if no teams had ever moved going all the way back to the turn of the century when the AL became the second major league back in 1901, we'd have the following cities covered:

AL: Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Milwaukee (last two are interesting because they moved to New York* and St. Louis almost immediately; I'll touch on this in a bit)
NL: St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh

*Note: technically, it’s disputed whether the New York team that arose in 1903 is linked to the Baltimore team. For my purposes, I’m going to count them the same, since the New York team essentially opened right when the Baltimore team folded, taking its place.

This would almost certainly change where expansion teams are placed (my first reaction is that there’s no sense putting a third team in New York when you don't have anything west of St. Louis, but I’ll cover that scenario in a minute). These teams cover twelve cities (using the modern definitions and counting Brooklyn as New York). We have fourteen teams left to cover a bunch of cities, if we’re going just off of what cities have team now. If my thinking is right, we'll have two modern cities with teams without (we have 27 cities covered today, plus we'd probably need to include Montreal, since they were an expansion team and can’t get their team moved in this case). So, based on that, the last two expansion cities (Tampa and Phoenix) probably get nothing, although maybe Montreal gets put on hold since we’ve covered much fewer cities by the time it should arise, and it winds up missing its chance. If it’s still looking for a team by, say, the ‘80s, I think Tampa or Phoenix might win out.

However, doubling up cities/metro areas also changes things. Would the AL add a New York team of its own right away? I wouldn’t be shocked, considering how long the market supported three teams in real life. The new expansion Yankees probably follow a course similar to the Mets. Also, how would Los Angeles and the Bay Area work? We no longer get the Giants and Dodgers in 1958, so do they expand with a second team out west so soon after the first?* I have to imagine Los Angeles still winds up with two teams. The Bay area probably also gets a second team, although the delay it the timeline means it might not be Oakland. If they get their second expansion around the same time the A’s moved, it would probably still be Oakland. But wait too long and somewhere else in Northern California looks like a good alternative, possibly San Jose or Sacramento. Nevertheless, I think a second Northern California team happens eventually, I just can’t be sure when. The extra team in New York probably takes away a team from Denver or Miami, although maybe they get it back on the off-chance a second LA/San Francisco team doesn’t materialize.

Note: Also worth wondering: does the AL start with a New York team, since the ‘50s were so good to New York teams and that would be a good time to capitalize? Or does it rush out west first to try and beat out the National League?

But, there are more issues. Some of baseball's expansions only came about in part because teams could threaten to move. If everyone knows this is an empty threat (assuming they know nobody can move), do they still give in and expand? Conversely, does MLB, now with less map coverage, expand more times than in real life to cover all the spots they're missing from not moving (say, trying to hit Dallas or Minnesota in the '60s)? I wouldn’t be shocked, since those were already extremely viable markets they were missing out on. Hitting them sooner rather than later was probably a smart move on their part. Alternatively, they might start expansion even sooner than they did in real life so that they can cover the California markets that would now have been empty in the late 1950s.

And then there’s a domino effect to consider; does a league that has 34 teams go the extra mile to add two more to get up to a more-easily divisible 36? Are they more expansion-happy? Does a league that wasn’t dominated by New York in the 1950s see more national growth, making it even bigger (and more prone to expansion) in the modern day? Do the TV rights evolve differently, making it even easier to start a new team in the “market” of an existing team? In the most aggressive cases, we might even be talking today about expansions to markets that don’t even have real life teams (say, Charlotte/Austin/Vancouver/Portland).

Also, the expansion team names, start dates, and histories are pretty much all different, and expansion teams in markets that are already covered don't happen (which I think is just the Mets, Brewers, and Nationals), as they need to cover the cities that don't have anything yet. (Actually, every team's history would be radically different, especially starting around the '60s, but the expansion teams' histories would be especially different).

Then you have the other things. The Yankees probably don't dominate in the same way if they're still in Baltimore, so the Dodgers and Giants probably pick up a lot of their missing World Series wins (given how many of the World Series back in the day were Yankees-Giants or Yankees-Dodgers). It also has a trickle-down effect; if the Yankees played out more like the Mets, would we get the Bronx Zoo of the ‘70s, the Torre Dynasty of the ‘90s, or the financial juggernaut of the 2000s? I doubt it. There are fewer of those titles to go around (they’ve only won nine of their titles since expansion in 1961), but it might mean a few more titles for other teams.

In other markets, the lesser teams on Boston and Philadelphia probably get squeezed as the markets shrink comparatively, even if they can still exist in the market. They’ll probably just take a hit in number of fans and, as a consequence, revenue, which will feed back into on-the-field product at least a little. The Phillies were bad for so long that I can see the A's smothering some of their success, even worse than their struggles were in real life. Boston probably could support both the Braves and the Red Sox, but I have a feeling neither would be able to support long runs like the real-life Red Sox and Braves have had (especially in the last few decades) while they are sharing a market. Milwaukee might be a little more successful since they're no longer an expansion team, given that original teams tend to have a competitive advantage (although not too much more, since the original Milwaukee Brewers go on to become the hapless Browns, so they probably have about as much success as Baltimore's had long-term; although maybe not being in St. Louis saves them a little). Baltimore probably also sees much more success solely by virtue of no longer having evolved from the Browns (also because they exist about fifty years early then they did in real life, meaning they might pick up at least a little more success on the front half of the century). Relatedly, with no Yankees (at least until probably the late ‘50s or early ‘60s), the AL teams each probably get a cut of their success (at the least dividing up their pennants, if not World Series titles), as well as smaller cuts going to each NL team (assuming the Dodgers and Giants just don't get all of that; they might grab a majority of it though). Seeing as that’s eighteen of their titles, that’s quite a lot of success to go around. I would probably expect half of the original sixteen teams to pick up at least a title, although maybe the Dodgers and Giants go on to dominate in their wake instead. Of course, players probably wind up different as well, maybe even more evenly distributed. Who knows, maybe Cleveland picks up a title or two in the fifties thanks to an outfield of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris? Or maybe it just goes to the A’s, since they were especially treated like the Yankees’ farm system in the 1950s. So those are the major changes I can think of.

But what about the "Moving Milwaukee and Baltimore at the start" conditionals? In that case, we'd have two fewer markets covered at the base level; you can probably say goodbye to Miami and Denver, as something needs to cover the now-empty Milwaukee and Baltimore. Or maybe Milwaukee just never gets a team, since it’s such a small market comparatively, and has still never received an expansion team in real life (the Braves moved there, and then the Pilots became the Brewers, but neither can move there in this scenario). Or, as I said earlier, we also might be at 32-36 teams, to help cover the even more shrunken map coverage.

Having the Yankees back means the AL teams would certainly lose the success they divided up earlier, and leaves it looking much closer to our timeline. Meanwhile, the Browns are much worse for wear; they already struggled before moving, and leaving them in one of the game's smallest markets to compete against a much more successful juggernaut in the other league probably kills their fanbase. They already had issues drawing against the much more successful Cardinals, keeping them there while the market comparative shrinks just makes it worse. They probably become the hypothetical-world-Phillies of the hypothetical-AL, struggling to gain fans against a much more successful cross-town rival. It might cut into the Cardinal fandom, but given the Browns’ struggles, I doubt it does much. Overall, the Phillies and Browns probably see much-reduced payrolls, although on the flip side, the Athletics are probably are doing much better in that regard now that they’re the top dog in Philadelphia. Also, with no 1960s-1980s Orioles (since they’re now an expansion team, they probably struggle, in much the way most 1960s expansions did), their success probably gets spread out across the new AL (although they don’t have the number of pennants and titles to divide that the Yankees do, and they’re spreading it across fewer teams). Maybe the Browns even pick up one of those titles. Or, in the worst-case scenario, the Yankees just pick up a few more pennants and titles. In any case, there are a lot fewer differences pre-1958, since the league still very closely resembles what it was in real life. The 1960s on will see similar flux as I described above, though.

Of course, I’ve only focused on the macro-level view of the league. On a closer glance, the league would be almost unrecognizable, for a variety of reasons. The closer to today it goes, the more unrecognizable it is, thanks to earlier decisions compounding. For example, do the Philadelphia A’s still need Billy Beane if they aren’t on a tight budget out in Oakland? Does Billy Beane become a GM at all, if the A’s don’t exist? (or if he winds up somewhere other than the Mets, Twins, and A’s as a player?) Maybe the Big Red Machine doesn’t form a dynasty in the ‘70s because different management brings in different players. Does Cal Ripken, Jr. wind up a hometown hero of the Baltimore Orioles if there’s a different Baltimore Orioles that Cal Ripken, Sr. might not even become a coach for (let alone the question of who gets to draft him)?

And that’s only a handful of some of the most basic questions; most of the smaller points will be impossible to determine at this level. For all we know, in this alternate universe, Madison Bumgarner just led Montreal to their third straight title and expansion team Austin is starting to take off thanks to drafting Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in consecutive years. But for the bigger picture, I think this has been an interesting and useful exercise.

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