Let’s Construct the MLB Season We Actually Want to See

The only thing we know for sure about the 2020 MLB schedule (brought to you by COVID-19) is that it won’t be 162 games. Whatever truncated mutant of a year baseball ends up with will likely be the shortest on record since at least 1994, when most teams got about 70% of the way through the calendar before the strike happened and canceled the rest. Given the current state of things in the United States — with coronavirus still rampant and several states and cities already issuing stay-at-home orders that will run through most of May — it’s unlikely we’ll get even that much of the season played. But no one knows for sure: MLB, like the rest of us, is at the mercy of a virus and its containment measures. Rumors of a 100-game season chock full of doubleheaders played in empty stadiums and a southern California World Series are nothing more than thin gristle to chew on while we wait for more substantive news.

Without a doubt, there are meetings happening in MLB’s now-virtual offices to try to plan for the future. Aside from Rob Manfred timing these Zoom get-togethers and demanding precious minutes be shaved off them, we can’t know for sure what’s being discussed, but how to cram as much of a baseball season as possible into an ever-shrinking window is likely top of the action list. Every day lost further complicates that endeavor, though, as does the fact that MLB’s normal schedule is already a wobbly Jenga tower of unequal matchups and cross-country travel. Like Tetris, every block has to fit into just the right place, or else it all piles up into disaster. Being an outdoor sport in a Northern Hemisphere continent already imposes hard limitations on how far into the year baseball can extend; losing warm-weather months makes it all the tougher.

But amid the carnage and chaos of how to fit too much baseball into too little time, there’s an opportunity for MLB to do something different, if not revolutionary. The sport has long been locked into the construct that is 162 games; now it’s being forced out of that comfort zone. Let’s use this space, then, to get weird, or maybe even find a better way to be. And how would that be, you may be saying to yourself. I’m glad you asked.

Trimming The Fat

Your average major league schedule also contains a lot of dead weight. Out of 162 games, there are only so many that demand attention or promise excitement. The rest are a relative dead zone of 7:05 pm weekday games between fourth- and fifth-place teams, or mid-afternoon Saturday tilts featuring Triple-A starters, or just more Pirates baseball than is medically recommended.

Duds are inevitable. What’s made that frustration even deeper in recent years is how many teams have embraced the idea of the season not mattering—that is, utilizing those 162 games not to see how many can be won, but as a kind of endless spring training, in which scores don’t matter and player evaluation is the priority. Through tanking and rebuilding, a number of squads effectively spit on the season, giving you an ersatz baseball that exchanges present enjoyment for theoretical future success. That said success is anything but guaranteed is a topic for another column; suffice to say that in today’s MLB, not everyone is trying, and the result is a schedule full of potholes that you can’t drive around.

That’s increased exponentially by the inherent unevenness of MLB’s schedule. Because of divisional alignments, Yankees fans were treated to 19 games against Baltimore amid its indefinite to-the-studs teardown, and though that amounted to 17 wins and approximately 28,000 home runs (23,500 of which came from Gleyber Torres), it also resulted in lots of ugly, ugly baseball that no one should have to see.

So why make people see it? Tell the Orioles to stay home. Tell the Tigers that they only get to be a part of the season if they commit to putting Casey Mize and Matt Manning on the roster on Opening Day. Tell the Marlins that their services won’t be needed unless they bring back the Dinger Machine and have it run constantly throughout the game. Tell the Mariners … well, I’m not sure what Seattle could offer to ensure a spot in the 2020 fixtures. But if you can find a carrot, tie it to the end of the stick that is the schedule. At the end of the day, haven’t we suffered enough through all of this? The cure to what ails us won’t be found in watching the Pirates’ $50 million machine grind its way to last place in the NL Central.

Create Some Cheap Heat

One of the inherent problems with MLB’s schedule is simply how long it takes to play the whole thing. The best matchups happen sporadically and occasionally far apart, and too often, it takes a while before the games you want to see show up on your TV. On the original 2020 slate, the Yankees and Astros — as close as the league has nowadays to a college football-style rivalry where real hatred floats in the air — weren’t going to meet up until May 15, and in Houston, at that. The Astros wouldn’t have faced the vitriol of angry, rabid Yankees fans until all the way into late September. Similarly, a Dodgers-Astros rematch wasn’t on the season’s original docket—an unforeseen misstep, given the enmity between both clubs.

Now we can get that drama upfront: Have the Yankees and Astros open the season in New York, and have them play an entire seven-game series. Well, now it can be, and hell, make it a two-week-long affair. Same with Houston and Los Angeles: make them clash early and often, until we’re positively sick and tired of it. And while the tension will dissipate over time, the saving grace is that those teams are all really, really good. Which brings me to a third schedule option.

The Tournament Of Super-Champions: All Killer, No Filler

The league has looked the other way with regards to tanking (if not tacitly approved of it), and the result has been a regular season that, for a lot of teams and fans, simply doesn’t matter. The year takes on the air of the NBA, where all the games serve more as a warmup for the postseason and a way to jockey for draft position than as any kind of real drama. MLB has made it clear that what matters is October; its advertising takes a dual-pronged approach of “The players are young and cool and we’re letting them have emotions” and “The entire season comes down to one month and, by extension, the 10 teams that are allowed to take part in it.” And for the most part, we know in March who’s going to be alive in October. The American League has, at best, eight teams that are true playoff contenders—maybe 10 if things go unexpectedly well for the White Sox and Blue Jays. The glass-half-full view is that half the league is postseason-viable; the glass-half-empty take is that half the league is essentially mathematically eliminated before the year has even started.

So let’s take that reality out to its logical endpoint. Make the regular season one endless October. From whenever Opening Day is through the originally scheduled end of the World Series, the whole league is thrown into a March Madness-style tournament. Start with the worst teams as the lowest seeds and make them play a five-game series, or do single-game eliminations a la the Wild Card game. Does that mean a team like the Royals or Rockies might have a 2020 season that lasts all of one day? Sure, but it’ll be a more meaningful day by itself than whatever they would’ve done in a regular-length campaign.

From there, we move up to the better teams, all playing in best-of-seven series. Every week is high stakes and high-wire. Build it up until the two best teams are left standing in the de facto World Series. In essence, what I’ve created is “The World Baseball Classic, but longer and with full major league rosters,” and if you don’t want to see that, reconsider!

The unfortunate truth is that making an omelette requires some eggs being broken, and MLB’s 2020 schedule is going to see a lot of shells get cracked. One way or another, this year is going to be a mess of half measures and Frankenstein series. We might as well make sure that this corpse is as exquisite as it can be.

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Curacao LL
3 years ago

Strong argument for contraction. (Or promotion/relegation, or whatever.)

3 years ago
Reply to  Curacao LL

Relegation is too much of a free market and therefore too risky for MLB teams to consider.

3 years ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

The threat of relegation would destroy the value of small and mid market teams. The owners (and fans) would have to be crazy to do that.

3 years ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

Also, relegation would require massive organizational changes.

Why not start with simpler efforts. Such as extending service time and the major-league minimum salary to any player on the 40-man roster? That way, any player added to the 40-man roster to avoid the rule 5 draft will start accruing time toward free agency. The only players in AAA would be players that still need to develop, are blocked by a player on the MLB, or haven’t been added to the 40-man.

Give the owners something back by reducing arbitration to two years. The money saved from one less year of arbitration will go toward paying the MLB minimums to an extra 14 players.

James O’Hagan
3 years ago
Reply to  Curacao LL

I am all for relegation, but then the minors would have to operate and support stadiums that could support a “major league” experience, yes?

3 years ago

There certainly would have to be standards, yes.

3 years ago

you could start with just dividing the majors in two, I guess (which would be BRUTAL). And then just have relegation and promotion between the two leagues. We could call one the National League and the other the American League, even. You could even require certain stadium stuff to be a condition of promotion to the second league (as it pretty typical in soccer leagues with promotion and relegation). You could also allow relegated teams to buy their place back from a promoted team (how it mostly works in Mexico- I say mostly, it’s really weird)