Most teams throughout Major League Baseball will play 79 intradivisional games this season. A handful will play 80. Now that the leagues are of equal size and each division contains five teams, there’s less variation in the numbers than there used to be. It’s stabilizing right around half of each club’s schedule.
Think about that. Half. Half your team’s games are against one set of four other teams, one little seventh of the league. In the old days, before divisions, before the West Coast had baseball, before interleague play or even expansion, half your schedule would be against four teams, but that was because there were only seven other teams to play.
Today, there’s at least one interleague series going on at all times. There are 15 teams in each league, and there are not only divisions, but two (sorta) playoff spots available in each league that do not depend on divisions.
Those are the facts. My conclusion, based on those facts, is this: MLB has a serious schedule imbalance problem, and it needs to be addressed immediately.
I don’t want to try to identify the victims and the beneficiaries of the problem. I don’t want to use anecdotes. My specific thesis on this issue is that such things don’t work, because the problem is so profound that we’ve lost the ability to compare teams who play in different divisions altogether.
It’s simply true. If each team plays teams within its division three times as often as teams throughout the other divisions in the same league, no abstract math really accounts for the differences. No significant sample allows us to really tease out the thin differences between good and mediocre teams, nor between mediocre ones and bad ones.
Yet, the Angels and Orioles, for instance, are competing for the same Wild Card entries. Ditto the Reds and Giants. The enormous difference in the schedules those teams play means that their seasonal records are apples and oranges, but they’re treated the same when it comes time to put someone in the playoffs.
And there’s more than fairness at stake. People grumble a lot, these days, about the lack of a true Face of Baseball. Superstardom, alive and well in the NBA and NFL, eludes even players who are reaching significant milestones, or who are shaping up not merely as Hall of Famers, but all-time top-10 players. Why?
Well, Andrew McCutchen won the NL MVP last year. Because McCutchen played against a very different set of opponents than did Paul Goldschmidt or Freddie Freeman, I can’t tell you whether McCutchen deserved his award. I can tell you, though, that McCutchen is one of the most exciting players I’ve ever seen. His swing is as compact and vicious as Gary Sheffield’s. He runs fast, and he runs hard. He has good defensive instincts, great body control and a strong throwing arm. He’s not Ken Griffey, Jr., but he’s 95 percent of him. He led his team to the playoffs in 2013. He’s a gifted, genuine, funny, secure guy, better suited to the limelight than Griffey was.
Go ask 100 casual baseball fans who those two are. Griffey’s name echoes on their faces. McCutchen’s draws a furrowed brow, then a wrinkled nose, than a shrug.
That’s because McCutchen played 81 games in Pittsburgh; nine each in Chicago (Wrigley Field), Milwaukee and Cincinnati; and eight in St. Louis. The five home parks of the NL Central hosted 115 of the 157 games McCutchen played. In 1997, when Griffey won his MVP, he also played 157 games. Included, though, were at least five contests in all but one of the American League’s other parks (he played just four games at Fenway).
Nationally televised games, especially for non-premium cable subscribers, are only getting more rare. MLB.TV is a wildly successful product, but a niche one: generalist sports fans don’t buy it. If baseball wants to market its stars–and marketing the stars may sound like Darren Rovell’s profit-crazed crap, but a sport makes its impact and retains its cultural/historical relevance through its biggest names–it needs to get them into the home parks and living rooms of more of its fans, more often.
There are companions to this piece without which the thought is incomplete. I’ll be writing, this week, about the need to bring the designated hitter to the National League, the failure to do so having created a systemic imbalance every bit as threatening to competitive integrity as the schedule problem. I’ll also be writing about baseball’s recent TV choices, and how they bespeak a near-criminal negligence of any would-be fans with household incomes shy of six figures, one the league has shown in more ways than just that.
For now, I’ll just offer my solution to this one problem. It’s still an unbalanced schedule, as any modern schedule must be (for logistical and business reasons), but it’s a lot less radical than the current model. Here goes:
Each team plays 52 intradivisional games, or 13 apiece against each opponent. They also play 60 games against their 10 leaguemates from outside the division, six apiece. That leaves 50 games against the 15 members of the opposite league, with as many as eight against a designated natural rival (consistent with the current interleague model).
That would be a fairly small change, but I promise, you would feel it. Giancarlo Stanton would come to Wrigley Field for two series, not one, at least every other year. The Rangers and Rays could contend for a Wild Card berth on more even ground. Balancing the schedule is the first important step toward an MLB with greater credibility and more buzz around it.Next post: Ending the DH Debate: Why it Needs to Come to the National League
Previous post: Minnesota Twins Notes: Joe Mauer, Ricky Nolasco, Team Approach