MLB: A Time for Change

Hello, everyone! Long time, no write. Sorry about that; I’d like to make a complaint about being busy, but, A.) aren’t we all? and B.) so’s everyone else, so I’m sure there’s little sympathy for that. So let’s get to it.

This is a post about baseball. But it’s not a post about games or players. It is a post about teams, but probably not in the way you’re thinking. I want to talk about how many teams there are, and how many teams there should be in Major League baseball.

With this bizarre season wrapped up, I figure it’s probably a pretty good time to talk about all of this, while there’s nothing else going on. So here we go!

Excluding cosmetic changes (logo changes) and location names or stadiums renovations/rebuilds, have you realized that we’re in literally the most stable period in MLB since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier? 2020 may have been a chaotic season, but I think we take too much for granted the stability of MLB.

1953 – Boston Braves become Milwaukee Braves
1954 – St. Louis Browns become Baltimore Orioles
1955 – Philadelphia A’s become Kansas City A’s
1958 – Brooklyn Dodgers become Los Angeles Dodgers; New York Giants become San Francisco Giants
1961 – Washington Senators (the first ones) become Minnesota Twins
1961 – Expansion: Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators (part deux) are founded
1962 – Expansion: Houston Colt .45s (Astros) and New York Mets are founded
1966 – Milwaukee Braves become Atlanta Braves
1968 – Kansas City A’s become Oakland A’s
1969 – Expansion: Kansas City Royals, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres and Seattle Pilots, are founded
1970 – Seattle Pilots become Milwaukee Brewers
1972 – Washington Senators become Texas Rangers
1977 – Expansion: Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays are founded
1993 – Expansion: Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins are founded.
1998 – Expansion: Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays are founded
2005 – Montreal Expos become Washington Nationals

The longest stretch of time without any new teams being introduced or moving was 1978-1992 (15 seasons). We have now matched that streak (2006-2020). But that’s only because we’re counting franchise moves in the above tracking, not just expansion.

The last round of expansion was in 1998, with the introduction of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. If, however, you limit the discussion purely to expansion, here’s what you see.

1901 – 8-team expansion (American League)
1961 – 2-team expansion
1962 – 2-team expansion
1969 – 4-team expansion
1977 – 2-team expansion
1993 – 2-team expansion
1998 – 2-team expansion

Through 1997, that’s 20 teams in just under a hundred years, which is to say (essentially) a 2-team expansion each decade. Yet, we’re two decades into the new millennium, and even if you wanted to be inordinately generous and count the ’98 teams as being this century, we’re drastically behind that pace – at least 2 teams behind, depending on how you’d like to do the math. If you think about just the “expansion” era, you’re talking about adding two new teams somewhere in the neighborhood of once every 6-8 years. That means we’re missing three rounds of expansion, or six teams.

Another way to look at this would be to look at the number of Major League teams as a share of the population. How many fans are there for each team? That seems a relevant question to ask. After all, the savvy observer might say that the US population was booming in the 1950-1977 era as Baby Boomers were born and then came of age to play in MLB. After that, population growth slowed; so, naturally, did expansion. Let’s examine that.

I took official census results from each decade, then averaged the growth to be linear over each year of a decade. (For 2020, I took the number 331 million, which is what Google told me as an estimate for current population, and did the same for the last decade.) The years this method is most likely to miscalculate are in the 1940s, due to deaths in World War Two which were concentrated in the beginning of the decade vs. the beginning of the baby boom in the latter portion of the decade. Thankfully, that’s not particularly relevant, as there was no expansion in the 1940s. Anyway, Here’s the number of Americans per MLB team, beginning in 1900, including each expansion year, as well as each time a season reaches a new “million” number of Americans per MLB team:

1900: 9,526,521 Americans per MLB team
1901: 4,863,363 (start of American League)
1903: 5,063,567 (reaching 5 million)
1913: 6,022,901 (reaching 6 million)
1924: 7,055,873 (reaching 7 million)
1936: 8,036,237 (reaching 8 million)
1947: 9,098,589 (reaching 9 million)
1954: 10,157,797 (reaching 10 million)
1959: 11,032,715 (reaching 11 million)
1960: 11,207,698 (highest ever)
1961: 10,095,614 (AL expansion)
1962: 9,205,947 (NL expansion)
1969: 8,371,006 (4-team MLB expansion)
1976: 9,051,922 (re-reaching 9 million)
1977: 8,445,006 (AL expansion)
1984: 9,054,203 (re-reaching 9 million)
1993: 9,232,982 (NL expansion)
1998: 9,162,650 (MLB expansion)
2007: 10,018,282 (first time above 10 million since initial NL expansion)
2020: 11,033,333 (2nd highest of all-time)
2023: (projected) 11,255,878 (would-be highest of all-time)

Some interesting notes: the 1993 and 1998 expansions were perfectly timed; if MLB had waited until 1994, the ratio would’ve exceeded 10 million Americans/team; they would’ve gotten away with 1999 for the next round, but not 2000.

If you’d prefer to see every year graphed on a chart, it looks like this:

I’ve never used the chart function in Excel before, and didn’t want to spend time learning it to make this chart look better. The first year on there is 1900, the last is 2020.

You’ll note, if you like looking at numbers, that from 1962-2006 (which is 45 years and probably covers the majority of baseball-watching for the audience of this website), the number was never lower than 8 million Americans per MLB team, and never greater than 10 million Americans per MLB team. So let’s call 9 million Americans per MLB team historically “normal.” With a current population of 331 million, that is a six or seven team expansion.

In other words, looking solely at population, and given that it takes a few years to get to a new franchise, the best way to return to that favored number of 9 million Americans per MLB team would be to have an expansion as big as the introduction of the American League, adding eight teams in the next few years!

A more modest proposal would be a gradual six-team expansion, creating three six-team divisions in each league. The scheduling choices become really fun after that: play your five division opponents 18 times each (three home series, three road series), and then each other team in your league one series at home, and one on the road, eliminating interleague play and keeping the 162-game schedule. Or you could keep one division from one league matched up with a division from the other league (similar to now), playing three interleague games; seven against non-division league opponents, and 12 against division opponents. Or you could go with a regional interleague game (as now) you’d play 4 games against every year (and four extra games the years your divisions matched up against one another), 6 games against each team from an interleague division, 6 games against non-division league opponents, and 10 games against each division opponent. Or you could play 8 division games, and four games against every other team, regardless of league (plus two extras with your interleague rival). The point is, the combinations are pretty fun to think through. At the very least, a 2-team expansion, getting us to 16 teams per league would be cool.

No matter what you think of the particularities of these expansion plans, I hope you can agree with me: we’re overdue for MLB expansion, whether measured by historic norms of timing or population size. Feel free to discuss below, including what possible sites could be good for expansion!

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Brett Alan
Brett Alan
10 months ago

It’s interesting to use the number of teams vs. the population of the US as the metric. On the one hand, there are so many other sports, and baseball doesn’t attract top athletes as easily as it once did. On the other, for many years Black players weren’t allowed to play, and there are now more players from outside the US than ever before. Do those factors cancel out? I don’t know. I’d certainly like to see an even number of teams in each league. Even if they don’t entirely eliminate interleague play, I’d like to not have it ALL… Read more »

Paul Berger
Paul Berger
10 months ago

It was the KC Athletics, not the Philadelphia Athletics, which became the Oakland Athletics in 1968. In 1955 the Philadelphia Athletics became the KC Athletics.

Paul E
Paul E
10 months ago

While we’re at it, why don’t we expand the playing field to make up for the average ML’er going from 5’11” and 180# to 6’1″ and 210# ? These are just guesstimates but, I’m pretty sure they’re not too far off. Maybe another 5% of distance from the plate to the fences? 330″ down the line becomes ~345; 375 becomes ~390; 400″ goes to 420″….maybe this generates less of the three true outcomes and more of the stolen base and hit and run?

Paul E
Paul E
10 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

If they go to 32 teams, how about four 8-team divisions, no inter-league play? Teams would play their own division 14 times (one 3-game series; one 4 game series/home and away) and the other division’s eight teams 8 times. Then the four division winners play each other in some sort of interleague championship. Best record plays 9 games against worst of the division champions, first three at home to give them an advantage….championship is best of 11. Who cares if the ‘finalists’ are from the same league?

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

I mostly agree with you but I do think that the playoffs should be arranged such that there is 1 winner from each league, that is the division champs from each league play each other first.

Paul E
Paul E
10 months ago

Richard, The “interleague playoffs” was my attempt to help eradicate current regular season interleague play. You know, throw the non-traditionalists a bone….. I find it kind of bizarre that, when it comes down to the wire, game 162 and all that, the NL Central can be decided (for example) by the Cardinals losing 2 of 3 to the 5th place team in the AL West back in July. I’ve written it here before but, from 1969-1993 in the NL (and 1969-1976 in the AL) teams played 90 games (5 x 18) versus their own and 72 games (6 x 12)… Read more »

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Yeah, I like the 4, 8-team league approach, too. I think it would be really nice, and you have the 2nd-place team from one league play a 1st-place team from another (see bottom of this post if you’re really curious what I’d do). But it wouldn’t have to be that way. I like the basic idea of the approach. Mostly, I was just writing for fun, since MLB will never be interested in adopting any changes this “radical.” I do think it’s worth remembering, though, that we’re living in an unusually stable time. I actually did an earlier chart where… Read more »

Last edited 10 months ago by Dr. Doom
Hub Kid
Hub Kid
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Not to take away from the whole piece (which is great!), Dr. Doom, you have thought through the scheduling aspects with elegance- and Paul, your schedule suggestions are snazzy, too. I think the possibilities for different schedule combinations are fascinating, whatever the length of season (although I’m a fan of 154+/- game schedules, even if they were before my time).

Does anyone have a good source for all of the different schedule combinations throughout 1901-present MLB history?

While admiring their construction, I’m glad that I’m not one of the people responsible for constructing MLB schedules…

Paul E
Paul E
10 months ago
Reply to  Hub Kid

Baseball Reference should have data indicating 3, 4, or 5 games in a series eventually totaling 11 at home and 11 on the road (7×22=154) from about 1920 through 1961. Lots of Sunday doubleheaders in there

Doug
Editor
10 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Reducing the size of the strike zone would help reduce K’s, but could also increase HR and BB. To reduce HR and K, I think I would move the mound back 2 or 3, or even 5 feet, but also make the strike zone an inch or two wider and, perhaps, elevate the mound a few inches to keep a similar visual perspective of the plate for the pitcher. Hitters would have more time to recognize the pitch, but also more plate to cover; together, that should hopefully allow hitters to tailor their swing to the pitch and its location,… Read more »

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
10 months ago

A very interesting post. What is the goal of expansion? Is it to keep baseball teams proportional to the population; provide equitable geographic access to MLB; to MLB stadiums; provide an equitable number of MLB opportunities to athletes; optimize total revenue . . .? Until 1958, baseball was largely unavailable to Americans west of St. Louis. Are total US population figures relevant? Those left out were truly left out–even radio and TV, once they arrived, did not generally provide access. Rosters were much smaller too, in the early decades, so there were fewer opportunities for athletes to reach MLB levels… Read more »

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 months ago
Reply to  Bob Eno (epm)

Welcome back Bob, we missed your commentary.

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
10 months ago

Hi Richard, and thanks. You and I can remember what it was like to grow up in a city with almost 20% of all Major League teams. When two-thirds of your fellow citizens are your intimate enemies, you have to learn tolerance. (Well, I don’t know about you Yankee fans, since you always won . . .)

Voomo
Voomo
10 months ago
Reply to  Bob Eno (epm)

18.75 percent

We should make the effort to use precise stats here, yes?

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
10 months ago
Reply to  Voomo

I am unworthy, Voomo.

Paul E
Paul E
10 months ago
Reply to  Voomo

Even more remarkable is the fact that the 16 teams were in only 10 cities (62.50000%). The aireoplane brought the west coast to major league baseball. In light of this technology, maybe we’re overdue to expand into Mexico and Central America, Venezuela, Columbia? Si’ o no?

Hub Kid
Hub Kid
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

That would be an awesome expansion- for a “World Series” that includes more than two countries! Also, including the Caribbean especially would include countries where baseball is at least something like the 1st or 2nd most popular sport (instead of something like the 3rd).

Paul E
Paul E
10 months ago
Reply to  Hub Kid

..and how cool would it be if the Caracas Cockroaches had guys like Johan Santana and Miguel Cabrera, Bobby Abreu….the Cartagena Cokers had Edgar Renteria? and so on and so forth. I think the Dominican Republicans might become the next dynasty. Don’t know how good that would be for the MLB and the USA, the source of the majority of the revenue.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

… are you guys just proposing the World Baseball Classic? Because you know that already exists, right? And it is awesome, by the way. I’ve always enjoyed every inning of it that I’ve ever watched (which, admittedly, has been less than 100 innings – but still). Point is: watch the WBC – supposedly coming this March! (I remain skeptical that it’ll actually happen.)

Paul E
Paul E
10 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

No, I’m talking the real thing – 162 games all over North and South America. Just don’t know if you can get Americans to go 3rd world and fill out those rosters in Central and South American nations

Hub Kid
Hub Kid
10 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Me neither, I meant the same thing as Paul E. I think Mexico (and Puerto Rico?) were considered when the Expos franchise was moved to DC, and that’s the kind of thing I mean- an expansion pool that doesn’t necessarily include U.S. cities. That would solve the problem of diluting MLB within the highly competitive U.S. sports market; also, it wouldn’t compete with (affiliated) MiLB franchises, as MLB is already giving them a hard enough time. Not sure how it would interact with the the Mexican League/Liga Mexicana de Beisbol, if Mexico were included, though… There would be some logistical… Read more »

Mike L
Mike L
10 months ago
Reply to  Bob Eno (epm)

If Bob Eno is clocking in…
Isn’t a key problem for baseball expansion a relative lack of interest in some places? So many other distractions, including other major sports that were really secondary in the past. One to one ratio of increases in population to increase in number of teams may noy reflect fan preferences. OK, that’s my comment for 2020!

Mike L
Mike L
10 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

All your points are good ones…but I’m still fascinated by the collapse of Minor League baseball. I’m definitely not suggesting contraction, although some teams could stand to move. Baseball teams aren’t rich men’s hobbies anymore, they are billion dollar+ businesses, and investors expect to make ROI. You can buy into a publicly traded interest in the Braves. If I were MLB I’d be investing in the minor leagues, not look to liquidate them.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike L

TOTALLY agree about MiLB. Baseball’s conduct in regard to the minors is virtually the definition of penny-wise-pound-foolish.

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
10 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Hi Mike L, Hi Doom. I agree that the financial aspect is the key to expansion promise. I’m not sure whether interest in baseball on all platforms is up or down, but I’m pretty sure that average figures don’t mean too much, unless baseball is prepared to make some radical changes in revenue sharing. The key figures would have to do with attendance and media revenues for marginal franchises, since additional franchises can expect, after an initial year or two, to be fighting to hold their own. Their local markets will be on the small end, their brands won’t be… Read more »

Doug
Doug
10 months ago

I think the current economics of MLB will make it difficult for potential expansion franchises which, of necessity, would have to be based in small(er) markets. What are the largest metropolitan areas without a ML franchise? These are the ones, in order, with 1.5M population (the smallest ML market is Milwaukee, with 1.6M metro population). Montreal QC Riverside/San Bernardino CA Vancouver BC Charlotte NC Orlando FL San Antonio TX Portland OR Sacramento CA Las Vegas NV Austin TX Columbus OH Indianapolis IN San Jose CA Nashville TN Virginia Beach VA Providence RI Jacksonville FL Calgary AB Somehow, I’m not seeing… Read more »

Last edited 10 months ago by Doug
Richard Chester
Richard Chester
9 months ago

To fill the lull in the action here how about this simple (?) quiz. What feat, since 1901, has been accomplished by only these players?

Johnny Evers
Charlie Gehringer
Johnny Pesky
Elmer Valo

Doug
Doug
9 months ago

I have no idea on the quiz. Three infielders, and one outfielder. Three American Leaguers and one NL guy. Three played in the World Series, one didn’t. Three played 1700+ games, one was more than 500 games short of the others. Three were regulars for most of their careers, one had just a single qualified season. One of the few things that each accomplished was leading his league in RF/G and RF/9Inn in the same season – Pesky did it twice, and the others each had one such season. Trivia tidbit: Valo and Tommy Holmes (both in 1942) are the… Read more »

Last edited 9 months ago by Doug
Richard Chester
Richard Chester
9 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Doug: You’re warm.

Doug
Doug
9 months ago

There’s probably an easier formulation, but these career filters identify only the four designated players (since 1901).

5000+ PA
2.6+ BB:SO ratio
10% (of PA) or more BB rate
5% (of PA) or less SO rate
SB at least 3.5% of Hits
125 or less OPS+

There are four more players meeting all but the last criterion, all of them HoFers (Cochrane, Vaughan, Collins, Speaker).

Last edited 9 months ago by Doug
Richard Chester
Richard Chester
9 months ago
Reply to  Doug

It’s a seasonal feat.

howard
howard
9 months ago

One hundred BBs & fewer than twenty Ks.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
9 months ago
Reply to  howard

That’s it, good work. Someone I follow on Twitter posted it.

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
9 months ago

Midway through this discussion (that is, the discussion before Richard took us on an entertaining detour), Mike L and Doom made some good points about the way MLB was handling the Minor Leagues. I don’t think about baseball much these days (I think the combination Astros-scandal/Covid-apocalypse pretty well knocked me out–I didn’t watch an inning of the season, even though Brooklyn finally won it all), but I spotted on Fangraphs a really interesting first analysis of the cuts to MiLB that are coming. You may all be aware of it already, but I just read it this evening and thought… Read more »

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
9 months ago
Reply to  Bob Eno (epm)

Happy New Year to you Bob.

Doug
Editor
9 months ago
Reply to  Bob Eno (epm)

Seems like a whole region of the country (from Utah and Colorado north to Canada) is losing its affiliated teams. If minor leagues are contracting, expanding major leagues is probably not a great idea, if the level of major league play is to be preserved.

Doug
Doug
9 months ago

Speaking of change, I read an interesting article on MLB that paints an alternate view of how baseball’s initial moves west could have happened quite differently, specifically:

  • Browns move to LA instead of Baltimore
  • A’s move to SF instead of KC
  • Braves still move to Milwaukee
  • Giants move to Minnesota instead of SF
  • Dodgers move to Dallas instead of LA
  • Senators move to Atlanta instead of Minnesota

What was the event that prevented the above scenario? Answer is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A fun and interesting read.

Last edited 9 months ago by Doug
Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
9 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Fascinating! That was an enjoyable article. Thanks for providing the link to it, Doug.