When details of the new MLB/MLBPA collective bargaining agreement began to leak out Thursday afternoon, one of the things that was quickly noted was that teams’ 162-game schedules would change beginning in 2023 and would involve less divisional play and games against all 29 other teams.
My first instinct was to say, “Ugh, no,” because who really wants fewer Cubs/Cardinals games and more random series against (say) the Royals, Rangers or Padres? (No offense intended to players or fans of those teams.)
Friday, Jayson Stark posted a long article at The Athletic with further details about the upcoming schedule changes and I have to say that some of my concerns have been assuaged and I’m not as against this as I was when I first heard the news.
The new 162-game schedule was first described as “balanced.” In a way, it is, but one of the reasons I was initially against a “balanced” schedule is that’s what MLB used from the beginning of the three-division setup in 1994 through 1998. Or, at least that was the plan before the strike blew up the 1994 and 1995 schedules.
Here’s how it worked for several seasons after that.
In 1996, the last year before interleague play, teams played 12 or 13 games against everyone in their league. When interleague was added in 1997, 12 games were stripped out of the league schedule for interleague and 11 or 12 games were played against everyone in a team’s league. This continued in 1998. In 1999, divisional games were set at 12 per team, with the rest of the team’s league at nine each, with some interleague games added. In 2001, divisional games were increased to 16 or 17, with some intraleague matchups staying at nine with others reduced to six. And in 2004, the intraleague out-of-division matchups were reduced to six, with divisional games increased to 17, 18 or 19 depending on the division — remember, the Cubs were in the six-team NL Central at the time, with the two other NL divisions at five.
That’s more or less how it stayed until 2013, when the Astros were moved to the American League and all six divisions thus had five teams. The setup used from then through this year (except, obviously, 2020): 19 games vs. all teams in your division, six or seven against other teams in a club’s league, and 20 interleague games.
While there will be fewer divisional games in total, teams will still play their divisional rivals more than any other single team, as follows, per Stark:
DIVISION GAMES (56): Clubs play all four teams in their division 14 times. (Current total: 19) So that means one three-game series and one four-game series each, both home and road.
OTHER 10 LEAGUE OPPONENTS (60): Those non-division teams within your league? You’ll play them six times apiece — three at home, three on the road. (Current total: six or seven apiece)
INTERLEAGUE SCHEDULE (46): Here’s how this works: Every team plays its interleague “rival” (Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, you know the deal) four times — two at home, two on the road. (Current total: four or six games, depending on the season)
In my view, it’s still too many “rivalry” games — I have long thought one Cubs/White Sox series per year, alternating parks, would be enough — but four is better than six.
Teams will be losing five games per year against each of their divisional rivals, and those will be scattered into interleague play. I know many of you don’t like interleague, but as I have previously noted, since 1999 when the league presidents were eliminated and the umpiring crews were unified in 2000, we have not had two “leagues.” We have one league called Major League Baseball, with the traditional NL and AL becoming more like NFL-style conferences; the fact that they are still called “leagues” is an historical accident, especially now with the DH becoming universal. Interleague play enters its 26th season in 2022. It’s not a novelty anymore.
I can live with this schedule. The Cubs will lose one home series against the Cardinals and Brewers, but still see them frequently.
Of course, all of this will change when MLB expands to 16-team leagues. I would expect this to happen by the end of this decade. At that time, either we’ll have leagues with four four-team divisions, or with two divisions of eight. That will make scheduling much easier.
The only thing I’d be concerned about with this schedule is attempting to make up rained-out games when a team only plays in a city once. With the current setup, that’s 12 or 13 teams making one visit a year (10 from a team’s own league, two or three from the other). With the new setup, it’ll be 17 or 18 teams doing that (the aforementioned 10 and seven or eight from the other league). Schedule makers will have to be careful of the number of visits they set for (say) West Coast teams to cold-weather cities in the Midwest or Northeast in April.
About this year’s games that were “cancelled,” then “un-cancelled,” here’s how MLB will make them up:
The games that originally were supposed to serve as the opening series of the year will now become the final series of the year. Got that? In other words, instead of being played March 31-April 3, they’ll be played Oct. 3-5. So the season now ends Oct. 5 instead of Oct. 2.
The Cubs were originally scheduled to end the 2022 regular season Sunday, October 2 against the Reds at Wrigley Field. The “cancelled” series was ...on the road against the Reds. So the two teams will head to Cincinnati after that final Wrigley game and play three more at GABP. That will mean nine of this year’s final 28 Cubs games will be against the Reds, who the Cubs won’t play this year until May 23.
The other two “un-cancelled” games are two home games against the Cardinals. While nothing has been announced yet, those will either be made up on off days or as doubleheaders. The Cubs are scheduled to host the Cardinals for a four-game set June 2-5, and the teams have a common off day June 6. One of the games could be made up then. The other could be made up as part of a doubleheader during another four-game series at Wrigley August 22-25.
I doubt this will happen, but one way teams could try to make amends to fans for the lockout would be to eat the money from one game this year and schedule a single-admission doubleheader. I suppose we’ll see soon.
Here is the effect of the new schedule on balance, per Mark Feinsand of MLB.com:
As a result of the adjusted schedule, teams within the same division will have 91% of their games in common, an increase from 84% under the old schedule. Schedules among teams in the same league will feature 76% of common opponents, up from 52% in an unbalanced schedule.
This ... actually makes sense. It is more of an NBA- or NHL-style schedule. I will grant that this now means that (for example) instead of seeing a star like Shohei Ohtani or Mike Trout only once every six years at Wrigley Field, their team (the Angels) will now play at Wrigley every other year. And for Cubs fans living in, say, Seattle or the Dallas area or Boston, same thing: The Cubs would make a trip to those places every other year, while their teams (Mariners, Rangers, Red Sox) would come to Wrigley on the alternate years.
Thus, this is something that isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I can live with this sort of schedule, as the Cubs will still have frequent games against the Brewers, Cardinals, Reds and Pirates, while giving fans of every team a chance to see all the other clubs play them at least a few times a year.
Looks like MLB actually got this one right.