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If MLB expands and realigns, how will the schedule be affected?

162 games is no longer a given.

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Tuesday, I wrote about possible MLB expansion and divisional realignment that could happen over the next decade, per this Jayson Stark article in The Athletic.

Realignment, Stark says, could result in an adjustment to the 162-game schedule:

Pretty much everyone in baseball — outside of a few owners and bean counters — would agree that this sport’s regular season is too frigging long. So by 2029, we predict that those seasons won’t be 162 games anymore. But then what?

The ideal number, mathematically speaking, is 154 games. (Do the math on 32 teams/16-team leagues and 154 sometime. You’ll see.) But all sorts of other numbers remain in play — 158 games, even 160.

I’m not sure Stark is right about 154 (see below), but “154” has been a magic number that’s been batted around for some time regarding a schedule reduction. This is largely because the 154-game schedule was baseball’s standard for decades.

But did you know that the 162-game schedule has been in effect for essentially as long as the 154-game slate? True story! The 154-game schedule was adopted in 1904 as a result of peace talks between the then-warring National League and American League, replacing a 140-game schedule that had been in effect, more or less, since 1888.

N.L. and A.L. teams then played 154 games every year until expansion came, 1961 for the A.L. and 1962 for the N.L. Thus A.L. teams played 154 games for 57 seasons (1904-60) and N.L. teams for 58 (1904-62).

But that now means that 162 games have been scheduled for all teams since then, and that makes 59 seasons for American League teams (1961-2019) and 58 for National League squads (1962-2019). Add one more year to those for sure, for the 2020 schedule, which begins in a couple months. (Obviously, in some seasons — 1972, 1981, 1994 — fewer than 162 were played due to labor disputes.)

So 162 games are just as much a baseball tradition than 154. And a while back, I came up with a workable 162-game schedule for two 16-team leagues. All of the proposed schedules in this article presume that the 16-team leagues are both divided into four divisions of four:

24 games vs. all teams in your own division = 72
6 games vs. two other divisions in your league = 48
3 games vs. the remaining division in your league = 12
3 games vs. two divisions in the other league = 24

That one has the advantage of having every team play 23 of the other 31 teams every season, so that no one could really complain about a schedule not being “fair” because a team didn’t play a weak or strong division in the other league in a certain season.

Here’s one way you could put together a 154-game schedule for two 16-team leagues:

22 games vs. all teams in your division = 66
6 games vs. all other teams in your league = 72
4 games vs. one division in the other league = 16

That might appeal to those who like as little interleague play as possible, with only 16 interleague games. But it also would create scheduling difficulties — because with just four games vs. four teams in the other league, you’d either have to have them all be four-game series, or split into pairs of two-game series. The latter would be difficult to schedule when East plays West, for example. Also, teams would play just 19 of the other 29 teams every year with a schedule like this.

The other reason 154 likely isn’t going to fly is that few if any owners are going to want to give up four home dates (about five percent of the schedule). TV partners might want refunds on rights fees. Private club membership purchasers might ask for a rebate on multi-year deals bought on the assumption there would be 81 games, not 77.

So let’s look at the other two numbers Stark posited in his article, both of which are closer to the existing total of 162.

Here’s how a 158-game schedule could break down:

18 games vs. all teams in your own division = 54
8 games vs. one division in your league = 32
6 games vs. the other divisions in your league = 48
4 games vs. six teams in the other league = 24

I don’t like this one quite as much; it gets you to only 21 of the other 31 teams every year, and has the same issue as the 154-game schedule I noted above with interleague play.

Let me interject here: Forget any idea you might have that interleague play is going away. It’s not, especially with realignment.

The other number mentioned by Jayson Stark is 160. That has the advantage of being evenly divisible by two, four, eight and 16, and also would retain the integrity of the record book, since it’s only two fewer games than we have now. The disadvantage, of course, is the same thing: a two-game reduction doesn’t get you very far.

That said, here’s how a 160-game schedule might work for 32 teams:

20 games vs. all teams in your own division = 60
7 games vs. teams in one division of your league = 28
6 games vs. the other two divisions of your league = 48
3 games vs. one division in the other league = 24

Three-game series are easier to manage in “interleague” play (or whatever they’d call it after realignment) than four-game series. Seven games vs. teams would require three at home and four on the road, those would be alternated year-by-year, similar to the way divisional teams manage 19 games between each other now (alternating years with nine or 10 home games).

Let’s be clear. If you were creating something called “Major League Baseball” from scratch today, there’s no way you’d have 162 games — or even 154. More likely, the sweet spot would be somewhere around 140 games. That way it could start around the end of April, when the weather is starting to improve everywhere, and end in mid-to-late September. But there’s too much money involved to make a cut that radical in the 2020s.

If MLB really wants to cut the schedule to 154 games, there’s a workable way above. 158 might make more sense for a number of reasons, but the real reason they might look to 154 is that would allow an extra round of playoffs and perhaps more teams in the postseason. That’s where real money is to be made, especially for broadcast partners. I’ll have a look at that in a future installment of this series.


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