You've probably heard about this, rumblings more than actual proposals, but there's quite a bit of talk going on about reducing Major League Baseball's current 162-game schedule.
During the All-Star break, Commissioner Rob Manfred discussed the issue:
"Can something be done? Yeah, things can be done," commissioner Rob Manfred said in speaking with the BBWAA before Tuesday’s All-Star Game. "There are ways to produce more off days in the schedule. Some of those have very significant economic ramifications that — if in fact we’re going down those roads — those economic ramifications are going to have to be shared by all of the relevant parties. You want to work less, usually you get paid less. But we are prepared to discuss the schedule issues and make proposals that are responsive to the ones that we’ve received from the MLBPA."
Let's first stipulate that there's nothing magical about the numbers "162" or "154" when it comes to baseball schedules. From 1904 through 1960 (1961 in the N.L), teams played 154 games. Why? Because with eight-team leagues, it was easy to schedule 22 games against each of the other seven clubs. When the leagues expanded in 1961 and 1962, in order to keep this symmetry, the number of games against each club was reduced to 18. With nine other teams in each league, that made for 162 games.
The symmetry still worked when the leagues expanded to 12 teams each in 1969, split into two divisions. Everyone played 18 games against teams in their own division, 12 against each of the other division's clubs.
But when the A.L. expanded to 14 teams, this no longer worked, and when the leagues further expanded and split into three divisions, then began interleague play, schedules became... well, more random. Currently every team plays 19 games against each team in its own division, either six or seven against the other 10 teams in its own league, and 20 interleague games. The latter include 16 games against a designated division in the other league, and four against an interleague "rival" -- except in years that rival is in the "designated division," in which case it's six games, with a corresponding reduction in games against another club in that division.
A mess, right? So they could pick 160, or 158, or 156 -- if the schedule is reduced, better to choose a number of games that actually works given the number of teams and divisions involved instead of just saying, "154!"
Here's why this is likely a non-starter: reducing the number of games is going to reduce revenue. Sure, you'll say teams can just raise ticket prices to make up for that lost revenue, and in some cases that might work. But small-market teams aren't likely going to be able to do this. Beyond that, if the schedule is reduced, TV partners -- both local and national -- are likely to ask for rebates of portions of their rights fees. I'm sure you realize this is a non-starter.
One way TV networks, at least, could make up lost money from a reduced schedule is through expansion. There would be more games that way. It would also be easier to schedule 16-team leagues than the current 15-team setup where you have to have interleague play year-round. But expansion, Manfred has said, is not in the immediate future.
The stated reason for a reduced schedule (which would, as noted by Manfred, give teams more off days) is player fatigue. This is a legitimate concern, with travel schedules being the way they are (the current one-series Cubs road trip to the West Coast is one example, though at least they have an off day on either side of it), and with players expected to perform at a high level throughout the season. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has tried to address this by asking more players to be able to play multiple positions, which allows him to give almost all his regulars one day off every week, in addition to the scheduled off days.
If rosters were expanded, this would help provide additional rest for regular players. This is the way I think MLB should go, not schedule reduction.
I know what you're going to say. If rosters were expanded, teams would just add more relief pitchers. You know how I feel about huge bullpens, and making them even larger really doesn't help the fatigue issue. Beyond that, if you have larger bullpens, it just means less work for the guys at the back end.
There are a couple of ways to address this. One would be to have teams set a 25-man roster, then be permitted to add one or two more "extra" players who would be required to be position players. That way every team could carry a third catcher, or defensive replacement, or a guy who's a pinch-hitting specialist (think Daryle Ward from the circa-2007 Cubs).
Or, set a 29-man roster where you would have four players inactive for every game. In practice, this would probably mean most teams would simply deactivate the four starting pitchers who aren't going that day. (At least, that's how I would do it.) In such a scenario, sure, you could have extra relievers, but most likely would have at least a couple of extra position players.
Finally, it would help if MLB would figure out better ways to schedule games. I realize with 15-team leagues, difficulties arise due to year-round interleague play. But at least they could attempt to schedule early-season games in cold-weather cities with divisional rivals, so if you get rained out, you don't have to squeeze in a makeup game on a team's only off day in a four-week period. That's what happened to the Cubs and Braves when they were postponed April 30, and the only possible makeup date was July 7, which made the Cubs play 24 days in a row. That wasn't good for the team in any way.
So if it were up to me, I wouldn't reduce the schedule in order to help fix the real issue, which is player fatigue. Expanded rosters are the way to go, in my view, and there are several ways to do it. In any case, this issue will certainly be addressed in the labor negotiations coming up later this year.