Major League Baseball is off schedule

Major League Baseball undoubtedly is working already on its 2014 schedule—and it will be wrong. Just as the schedule has been wrong ever since interleague games began in 1997.

From the outset—triggered by Milwaukee’s shift from the American League to the National League so interleague games could be isolated into certain periods of the season—the schedules for teams in the same league were no longer comparable. Teams didn’t even play the same number of games against other teams in their divisions.

Look at this quick refresher from the Reds’ 2012 schedule: 15 against the Cardinals, 17 against the Cubs and 18 against the Pirates. That’s nuts.

So, this season major league baseball did away with its aversion for having interleague games any day and every day and shoved Houston into the American League, putting 15 teams in each league. The result could have meant the end of the raw-deal schedules.

But instead of instituting home-road sanity, MLB sabotaged the very foundation of the season—games within a division—by building in a schedule inequity with 19 intradivision games. The Reds, for example, play the Cardinals and Pirates 10 times at home, nine times on the road. So what, you ask? Have you checked the difference between the Reds’ home and road records?

We also didn’t get anything better with interleague games. Using the NL Central as an example again, who got the best deal in this little scheduling quirk, designed to satisfy the appetite for “natural” rivalries?

{exp:list_maker}The Cardinals have four games against the Royals and four against the Astros (whose first name is “hapless,” when it’s not “rebuilding”). The Cardinals are 3-1 against each.
The Reds have four against the Indians and four against the A’s. The Reds are 2-2 against the Indians, 0-2 against the A’s with two games left to be played in Cincinnati.
The Pirates got four against the Tigers and four against the Mariners, and they are (surprisingly, perhaps) 3-1 against each.
Of course, it’s not just the NL Central with goofy schedules. Why do the Red Sox have to go on the road to play the Dodgers in August, but the Orioles got the Dodgers at home in April? Or even something so simple as this: Why do the Mariners play four games in Cleveland, but the Indians play only three in Seattle.

Maybe you can’t legislate fairness as to when teams play common opponents, but why can’t the schedules be fair as to where the games are played? Why can’t the teams in each division play the same common opponents with the same number of home and road games against each opponent?

Well, they can. Start with the number of games played.

{exp:list_maker}18 games against each team in your division, nine home and 9 on the road. That’s 72 games.
Six games, three home and three road against every other team in your league. That’s 60 games.
That leaves 30 interleague games to make it 162. They should be scheduled like this: Every team in the American League East, for example, plays three home games against each team in one National League division and three road games against each team in one other National League division. That adds up to 30 interleague games. Perfect. Then each year you rotate the divisions and the home-away breakdowns such that the Yankees go to Houston with predictable regularity and on the same schedule as the Red Sox and Orioles.
That sounds like 54 three-game series, and the schedule won’t work that way. You simply can’t have two three-game series with an off day every week. But instead of making up the difference with those awkward two-game interleague series and oddball home-road mix-ups in interdivision games, build in the necessary two- and four-game series where you have the most flexibility: intradivision games.

Wouldn’t it be neat right now to see the Red Sox play quick hits back-to-back at Baltimore and Tampa Bay? Intradivision games provide the easiest travel for back-to-back two-game series—a lot of them could be done by bus (unless you’re the Mariners, who have no such thing as an easy trip). Plus, consider the swing in the standings if the Nationals were to get hot and sweep a four-game set against the Braves.

Baseball—at least commissioner Bud Selig—makes a big thing of “natural” rivalries. Certainly, fans in the Bay Area would rather see the Giants play the A’s more than they would like to see them play the Royals. Not a problem. All the “natural” rivalries teams compete in corresponding geographic divisions: East vs. East, for example (Yankees-Mets, Orioles-Nationals, Marlins-Rays, Phillies-Blue Jays—oh, sorry, I got carried away).

So if baseball wants to preserve the natural rivalries, simply lock in geographic matches every year. The East always plays the East, the Central always plays the Central and the West always plays the West. Rotate in the other divisions on an every-other-year basis.

You’ve probably already noticed that means that if the NL East plays the AL East at home and the AL West on the road in 2014, then the AL East on the road and the AL Central at home in 2015, when we get to 2016, we’re back to the AL East at home and the AL West on the road. So the Phillies would never play in Detroit and the Angels would never play in Atlanta.

There are two possible solutions. Every third year, the East would repeat its previous year’s schedule against the East, allowing a home-road switch against the other two divisions. Or, if the natural rivalries really are important, then every third year the East plays home-and-home against the East, Central vs. Central and West vs. West. That still means that every six years the Mets would play in Kansas City and Miami fans would get to see the Twins.

There you have it. That’s more interleague games than we have now, but so what? The percentage increase is not nearly as great as it was in 1997.
Schedules never can be perfectly fair—who can predict when Jose Reyes and Chase Utley will turn their teams into creamier puffs by going on the disabled list?—but major league baseball can do a lot better job trying to make them fair. It wouldn’t even be that hard.

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  1. Ian R. said...

    @Vinnie – First of all, interleague games aren’t exhibitions, unless you’re talking about the All-Star Game (and even that “counts”). They count in the standings as much as any other game.

    Second of all, now that we have an odd number of teams in each league, what’s your solution? Scheduling would be a nightmare without interleague play.

    Personally, I’m a huge fan of this proposed schedule. It keeps the distinction between the leagues while balancing the quality of competition and ensuring that every team’s fans will have the chance to see every other team in the league sooner or later.

  2. Steve said...

    Very good piece. The MLB schedule has been terrible (at least in the AL) since the 1977 expansion. That’s when the AL adopted the so-called balanced schedule. The stupidity of that system had teams playing 78 games within the division and 84 outside, rendering intradivisional play meaningless. The divisional schedule after 1969 was even, simple, and symmetrical (18 within the division, 12 outside). It assured that teams played games within their division at the start of the season and after Labor Day and down the stretch. Expansions ruined that elegant system.

    The shift to three divisions restored the significance of intradivisional play, but subsequent expansions, the introduction of interleague play, and those stupid natural rivalries (like Padres-Mariners) created multiple problems that you identify.

    Your proposal restores symmetry, simplicity, and sanity. But those are values in short supply among the Lords of Baseball these days.

  3. Professor Longnose said...

    Why is the Monday-Thursday and Friday-Sunday thing so entrenched? Is there a good reason, or is it just for neatness?

  4. Jim said...

    I thought we were supposed to only have one interleague game a day.  Tonight (and I suppose the whole weekend) we will have 4.  Hasn’t Fox told their favorite prostitute (King Bud) that that’s what is hurting World Series ratings?  We’ve already seen the two World Series teams play each other before during the year.  What suspense is there in that?

    Interleague sucks.  Always has, always will.  Stupid idea.  If you live in a National League city and want to see an American League team, get in your car or on a plane and go see it.  Not too tough to figure out.

  5. Dan Evensen said...

    Excellent analysis.  This is an aspect of contemporary baseball that is often overlooked by analysts, for some reason.

    I’d rather see baseball get rid of the “natural rivalry weeks” and try to have only one interleague series going on at a time.  Maybe then my local FOX affiliate will show Cubs – White Sox for a change, instead of showing Yankees – Mets just like they have every year since 1997.

  6. DBye said...

    The point is that even with interleague games (which aren’t going away), teams within a division can play exactly the same schedule—same opponents, same home-road schedule, etc. MLB simply chooses not to do it.

  7. Vinnie said...

    Hi Ian,
      To my mind they are, although they count in the standings, they do nothing to promote the balance that naturally occurs when teams play basically the same schedules against the same teams. What it does do is skew the final standings when strong teams get to play weak teams while their divisional rivals may have a more difficult schedule against the other league.
      What baseball has done is become like pro football, pro basketball and hockey by all this interleague play and has destroyed the distinctiveness that made the world series special. By diluting the game with wild cards, playoffs, you insure that having the best record is all but meaningless as far as being an advantage in post season.
      Interleague play is the ultimate gimmick, that along with mascots, flashing scoreboards, giveaways and the blaring of music between innings, that makes it almost impossible to talk to the people seated next to you, has taken much of the enjoyment out of going to a ballgame. At least it has for me.
      Just an opinion and it’s perfectly okay with me if you or anyone else happens to disagree.

  8. Philip said...

    I absolutely agree with you, Dale.

    There’s no reason why division rivals can’t play the same amount of games against each opponent.

    Unfortunately, ever since 1994 (when the leagues went to three divisions each) the integrity of division titles and wild card spots has been compromised by quirky schedules. I would not at all be surprised that an analysis of projected standings based on winning percentage vs each opponent would show several different divisional winners over the years had their rivals’ schedules been the same.

    Any sense of fairness is out the window when one NL club gets to play the Astros and Mariners and other has to take on the Rangers and Athletics.

    I’ll grant that Bug Selig is a baseball fan. And it’s a shame he wasn’t able to keep the Braves in Milwaukee. But I don’t like three divisions. I don’t like the wild card (though at least with two it makes the divisional races meaningful again). I don’t like inter-league play. And don’t even get me started on his wanting a radical realignment of both leagues (i.e. Boston in a division with the Mets, Yankees and Phillies).

    Ira wrote:
    ‘‘now that we have an odd number of teams in each league, what’s your solution? Scheduling would be a nightmare without interleague play.’‘

    I agree with you that it’s impossible to have a schedule without interleague play with 15/15 leagues. And that with 15/15 leagues, Dale’s proposal, something I’ve also sketched out, is the best solution (along with rotation of the divisions that the other league would face each year).

    But to broaden the point I think Vinnie was trying to make (I also do not like interleague play), it would have been possible to have a reasonably fair schedule (granted, not perfect, unless you change the total number of GP) – that is, prior to moving Houston to the AL and making the leagues 15/15.

    Here’s how:
    NL West: Ari, Col, LAD, SDP, SFG
    NL Cent: Chi, Cin, Hou, Mil, Pit, StL
    NL East: Atl, Fla, NYM, Phi, Was

    West plays 13 games vs each div opp (52)
    West plays 10 games vs each Cent club (60)
    West plays 10 games vs each East club (50)

    Cent plays 12 games vs each div opp (60)
    Cent plays 10 games vs each West club (50)
    Cent plays 10 games vs each East club (50)

    East plays 13 games vs each div opp (52)
    East plays 10 games vs each Cent club (60)
    East plays 10 games vs each West club (50)

    The extra home intra-division game the West and East clubs play would be alternated each year.

    The extra two games the Cent plays could have been within their division.

    Granted, not perfect.

    The NL could have stayed with:
    NL West: Atl, Cin, Col, Hou, LAD, SDP, SFG
    NL East: Chi, Fla, Mtl, NYM, Phi, Pit, StL\

    format similar to that the AL of 7/7 used

    Then, in 1998, realigned:
    NL West: Ari, Cin, Col, Hou, Mil, LAD, SDP, SFG
    NL East: Atl, Chi, Fla, Mtl, NYM, Phi, Pit, StL

    14 games vs each div opponent (14×7=98)
    08 games vs each club from other div (8×8=64)

    The AL of 1998 would have then changed slightly:
    AL West: Cal, CHW, KCR, Min, Oak, Sea, Tex
    AL East: Bal, Bos, Cle, Det, NYY, TBR, Tor

    Schedule Either:
    15 games vs each div opponent (15×6=90)
    10 games vs each club from other div (10×7=70)
    with the two extra games being against their opposite number (by previously year’s standings) in the other division; i.e. 1st place vs 1st place)
    13 games vs each div opponent (13×6=78)
    12 games vs each club from other div (12×7=84)

    But, as DBye said, MLB simply chooses not to have same schedules for divisional rivals.

    To answer Professor Longnose, who wrote:
    “Why is the Monday-Thursday and Friday-Sunday thing so entrenched? Is there a good reason, or is it just for neatness?”

    Supposedly it dates back to train travel days and the early days of flying (for MLB clubs), as Sundays would typically be afternoon games and allow clubs to get a head start on traveling to the next city on their schedule. That could also be why double-headers in the 60s and 70s tended to be more often on Saturdays than on Sundays.

  9. Detroit Michael said...

    I don’t understand the dislike of interleague games.  Variety is good.  If we were starting from scratch, there is no way we would want to divide MLB teams over non-geographic lines and never have half of the teams play the other half until the World Series.  The problem is how interleague games are implemented, not with the broad concept.

  10. Vinnie said...

    Hello Michael,
    The beauty and enjoyment of baseball, and of sport in general is that there’s so much each of us finds to like that is personal and that creates a wide range of viewpoints and discussions that are endless and entertaining. So much so perhaps that it’s just as big a part of the game as what goes on down on the field or for which team and players we root for.
    Variety is good, but at the same time we need to figure out if variety is to be the goal that’s aimed at, or if other things, like being able to establish which team/s are the best and then to find the most effective way for that team to emerge on top at seasons end.
    Now if you want variety, we could let the visiting team, for example, get to choose whether to use a DH or not. We could let them pick if they want to bat first or last. That would certainly add extra variety to the game. We could also have rotating divisions so that the AL east for example wouldn’t have a log jam of good teams that wind up not going to the playoffs while inferior teams instead go to the postseason. Why not expand the playoffs to where the 16 teams with the best record, regardless of league play each other? Or, we could lump the best teams into two divisions, thereby allowing lesser teams to have a better chance to win the other four divisions. Why not? That would make for a lot more variety, wouldn’t it?
    How about this? Each year, let every player not under contract become a free agent? Remove all revenue sharing, and let the teams bid for the players and pay them their full worth? No more cheap control over them the first six years of their careers, and teams would be able to rebuild and put the best competitive teams possible on the field. After all, the whole salary structure as it is protects the billionaire owners from having to pay market prices for players services. It would increase fan interest as any team that wished, could sign the best players available and immediately upgrade their team. No more excuses, no more having to wait for prospects to become major league ready for long suffering teams with poor ownership and performance.
    The great thing about variety is that once you start, there are so many different ways it can go to express itself. Maybe we should really begin to think about ways to use it to really spice things up and make the game truly more interesting and competitive?

  11. Jeff said...

    I know a lot of you are against interleague play, and I understand, but we all know its here for good. But at least even though every team plays 19 games inside your division, it does give you a more fair balance, especially in the NL Central when you might play someone 18 times someone else 15 times, is that fair? This is a little better, plus every team has basically the same schedule now, with 19 in your division, either 6 or 7 outside the division plus you play every team in the opposite league by playing the whole division.

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