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154 Games? 162 Games? Should MLB Change Its Schedule?

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This topic has been cropping up quite a bit lately. So let's take a look.

G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images

During the All-Star break, Commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about a number of topics in a wide-ranging news conference.

One of those topics was the length of the schedule. Bob Nightengale of USA Today noted that this will likely come up in the next labor negotiation:

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and Tony Clark, director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, each said Tuesday that the topic would be heavily discussed in negotiations for their next collective bargaining agreement, which expires in December 2016.

Reasons given for this center around fatigue, with players traveling more now than ever and the number of night games increasing. Example:

It has become so ridiculous that two weekends ago the San Francisco Giants played an ESPN Sunday night game in Washington, D.C., and were scheduled to play the next day in San Francisco. The Giants, on the advice of a sleep expert, returned to the hotel after game, flew the next day to San Francisco and proceeded straight to the ballpark without even dropping their suitcases back home.

The result?

You guessed it: The Giants were shut out by the New York Mets 3-0, producing three hits.

Perhaps it's not the number of games but the way the schedule is drawn that's the problem. I've written this before, but MLB's schedule was made out much better when it was done by two college professors who did it by hand on their kitchen table, than now, when it's all done by computer. There were further problems introduced when the Astros moved to the American League to make two equal leagues of 15 teams each. That created year-round interleague play, which can be a headache especially when there are postponements, which the Cubs discovered this year. They're squeezing two interleague rainout makeup games onto off days (August 24 against the Indians, September 28 against the Royals).

Reducing the number of regular-season games and thus moving up the postseason schedule could accomplish two things: first, the World Series wouldn't go into November and second, it might be possible to change the wild-card play-in from winner-take-all to a best-of-three. However, as Craig Calcaterra writes:

I’ll believe that this is a viable proposal and not just an All-Star break talking point when an owner says he’s on board with it. Why? Because if you hack eight games off the season players will likely be expected to take salary cuts they may not much like. But the owners will lose far, far more money by losing four home games than the players will lose. And that’s just at the gate. Figure in the haircuts they’d be asked to take from their broadcast partners and vendors and then figure what kind of municipal blowback they’d get from parking lot operators, vendors and the like due to the loss of four days worth of revenue and it quickly becomes a conversation about way more than tired players.

Possible? Sure. But I’m still highly skeptical of the viability of a schedule cutback. No professional sports league has ever done such a thing, and for good reason. They’re in the money-making business, not the player sleep schedule accommodation business, and the next time they place player well-being over the bottom line will be the first time.

Owners could, and almost certainly would, raise ticket prices to make up for the loss of four home dates. But the other things mentioned by Calcaterra would be problematical.

The numbers "154" and "162" aren't magical or set in stone from the heavens, either. They were established for practical reasons. With eight-team leagues in the early 1900s, 154 games was an easy division: 22 games against each of the other seven teams. Schedulers needed an even number of games so as to balance home and road schedules, and 20 games (140 total, which had been in effect for a few years at the beginning of the 1900s) was considered too few, 24 (168) too many. The 154-game schedule remained in place for 57 seasons in the American League (1904-60) and 58 in the National (1904-61).

Why 162? Same reason, basically. With 10-team leagues, 18 games against the nine other teams seemed easy. 16 games (144) would have been a reduction owners wouldn't have wanted, and 20 (180) would have been far too many. When the leagues split into two divisions in 1969, it still worked well: 18 games vs. teams in your own division (90 games), 12 against everyone in the other division (72). Only when there was expansion to 14, then 16 teams, and the current split of teams, did 162 become unwieldy -- but there was no real interest in reducing (or, for that matter, expanding) the number of games. The 162-game schedule has now been in effect nearly as long as 154: 55 seasons (1961-2015) in the A.L., 54 (1962-2015) in the N.L.

Before I get to a possible solution, a word about records. Of course, there was a kerfuffle the very year the 162-game schedule was instituted in the A.L., when Roger Maris was chasing Babe Ruth's home-run record. The supposed "asterisk" that Commissioner Ford Frick wanted to put after Maris' name in the record books was more because Frick was Ruth's buddy (and biographer) and not for any "sanctity of the record book" reasons.

But now, with more than half a century of 162-game seasons in the books, a reduction of games would mean that most counting-stat records would stand forever. That might be a minor point compared to the financial reasons, but it's still something to consider.

If, though, MLB does consider a reduction, why 154? I have written before about a division of games with the current setup that could be quite elegant for 162 games:

18 games vs teams in your own division: 72 games
6 games vs teams in the other divisions in your league: 60 games
3 games vs teams in two divisions in the other league: 30 games

While this might be more interleague games than some of you might want, it would make the schedule more "fair," as every team would play 25 of the other 29 teams every year.

What if you try to reduce that? Here's a way 154 games might work:

16 games vs teams in your own division: 64 games
6 games vs teams in the other divisions in your league: 60 games
3 games vs teams in two divisions in the other league: 30 games

Well, ugh. Less divisional play and half as much interleague play as interdivisional play in your own league? I don't think anyone would want that. But what if, instead of 154, you had a 156-game schedule?

18 games vs teams in your own division = 72 games
6 games vs teams in the other divisions in your league: 60 games
3 games vs eight teams in the other league = 24 games

Better, but then how do you choose and rotate the eight teams?

What might be best, if MLB is determined to reduce the number of games -- something Calcaterra points out has never been done by a sports league -- is to wait for expansion, which Manfred said could come at some indeterminate point in the future. With 32 teams, split into eight divisions of four, a 156-game schedule could work this way:

18 games vs teams in your own division = 54 games
6 games vs teams in the other divisions in your league = 72 games
3 games vs teams in two divisions in the other league = 24 games
One 3-game series vs two other teams in the other league = 6 games

Probably too much interleague for most people's tastes, I'd think. And rotation of those "two other teams" could be problematical as well. You can try this with numbers like 158 or 160 and come up with the same good-and-bad breakdown. These are just a few examples of the difficulty of creating any baseball schedule.

The bottom line is that I don't think MLB can or will reduce the 162-game schedule. It was created for logical and logistical reasons that lasted from 1961 through 1976 in the American League and 1962 through 1992 in the National. Now we are, for better or worse, likely stuck with it for financial reasons. If it means the occasional November World Series game, I'm really fine with that.