Offseason Daydreaming #2: Everything's Better in Bracket Form

On this website I usually go by the moniker: "The Scruffy Rube". However, my family knows me, by another name: "Bracket Boy". See, I run the family's March Madness pool, and whenever my brothers and I imagined a competition (be it video-game or backyard) I came up with the competition's structure.

During the off-season there's no shortage of brackets to explore and study and gawp at, and I admit that I enjoy just about all of them. And I must admit, that as much as I love baseball--in terms of brackets--it can't hold a candle to how other sports structure and use these little devils. So this offseason, as I watched other sports I wondered how baseball could improve their use of brackets...and came up with the following little idea.

The best bracket belongs to college basketball, as pretty much every sports fan watching the last month of games can attest. But the NCAA uses their bracket to pick a champion, and baseball probably shouldn't be adding games to the end of the season--diluting the playoffs, and risking the health of players. But what if I told you we could add a tournament mid-season, turning mid-May, early-August snooze fests into riveting, playoff baseball? It can be done, and it can be done by cribbing a plan from the most popular sport on the planet: futbol aka soccer.

For those of you who don't follow international soccer leagues, allow me to explain. In professional soccer you win the league title by playing a long, grueling season against all the other teams in your league. That's the gold medal, the unquestioned goal for all. BUT! to add a little drama and a few more shiny things to the mix, teams also compete in a "Cup" competition, following a bracket structure to fight for a title that's decided before the league title. This way a team that perennially finishes in the middle of the league can win a trophy and give their fans some exciting baseball to cheer for.

Let me explain how this would work (in my head). Both American and National Leagues have their own Cups (we'll call them the Ban Johnson Cup and the William Hulbert Cup for the founders of the two leagues). Next, draw teams into the bracket: we could do this a couple ways--rank the teams according to their record from the previous year, according to their spring training record this year, number of all stars, or basically via random ping-pong balls. Since the European leagues like ping-pong balls, I'll go with that method here. Since the National League has 16 teams that works out into 8 neat and easy first round match ups. As shown below:
The American League has 14 teams, so that's a little more complicated. I'll put in 6 first round match-ups and give 2 random teams a first round bye; even though that gives an advantage to teams who might not deserve it...such are the effects of the fickle fingers of fate (lucky Mariners):
Each round can be a simple three-game series that counts to a team's overall record in the league. Hold them whenever you like: Monday-Wednesday? Tuesday-Thursday? Friday-Sunday? Whatever you want! Have one series near the start of May, round 2 in June, round 3 in July and the finals in the dog days of August. For the sake of showing what this would look like I did a rudimentary "simulation" using team-v.s.-team records from last season and advancing the team who won more games. Here's how the NL (William Cuthbert Cup) Turned out:
And here's the AL (Ban Johnson Cup):
A few quick thoughts here: Notice that while several premier teams reached the semi-finals in each round, it was not a perfect match for the teams that made the play-offs last year. Of last year's NL play-off teams only the Braves made the "final four" and in the AL the two League Championship Teams (Yankees & Rangers) were bounced in the first round. It's also worth noting that my "simulation" doesn't take into account some of the unlikely series that occur in your typical baseball season. For instance, while the Braves won the Cuthbert Cup, they did drop an ugly series in Pittsburgh last September...Who's to say they couldn't do the same this May? Setting up a Pirates v. Astros series that actually MEANS something.

I know there are some flaws with my plan: for instance--how do you slip these games into the season? {My thought was to dump inter-league games and use these instead, with the teams who lose a stage of the competition playing inter-league games during future rounds.} Couldn't this lead to imbalanced schedules for teams competing for playoff spots? {Yes, but inter-league already does that when the Twins had to play the Braves, and Phillies while the White Sox beat up on the Cubs and Nationals.} How do you make sure that everyone gets an equal number of home & away games? {No clear answer to that, we might need to have TBA series scheduled throughout the summer so that the Commissioner can make sure things come out even.}

I'm sure there are many more (feel free to jot them in the comments below, I like the mental exercise), but for now I just wanted to run this idea up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it. I think it adds drama to a long season, sells tickets in forgotten markets, gives owners something to brag about, gives players something to add to their resumes come free agency and gives fans across the country a bracket to dissect and cheer about all summer long.

(And now, at last I'm going to bed...hopefully this late-night brainwave was as fun for you as it was for me. And remember...three more days until the Twins season starts!)

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