2013 Schedule: Constant Interleague, Still Unbalanced

Welcome to the future. In the all-new, sleek and streamlined 2013 schedule that MLB just released, every division will have the same number of teams, every team will play the same number of intradivision and interleague games, and there will be “at least one Interleague game every day.”

The Astros’ move to the AL West makes all of this standardization possible. Every team will play exactly 19 games against each of the other four teams in its division (76 total), 6-7 intraleague games against each of the 10 teams in the other two divisions (66 total), and 20 interleague games. The season will begin right after the World Baseball Classic, on March 31, and will end on September 29. (No word on whether the playoffs will end before November.)

But this schedule is going to take some getting used to. Just as an example, here’s what it looks like for the lone non-US team, the Toronto Blue Jays:

The Jays will begin the year with two exhibition games in Philadelphia. They don’t have any interleague games in April; they begin the year in Canada, and then have road trips to Detroit, Kansas City, Baltimore, and the Bronx. Then, in May, they’ll travel to Boston and Tampa Bay, then play two games at home against the Giants, and a week later they play the Braves for two games in Toronto and then fly to Atlanta for two more games. (And yes, I know, the last time they played two in Toronto and flew to Atlanta, they only needed one game to end the series.) Immediately after that, in June, they’ll fly to San Diego and San Francisco, back home to play the Rangers, then to Southside Chicago, then to Arlington Texas, then home to play the Rockies.

Like I say, it’s going to be weird: the baseball map just enlarged, permanently. Your favorite team will still play seven times more intraleague games than interleague games, but they could go to a city in the other league at any time. That might be good for fans who live in a different city than their favorite team, like me, a Braves fan living in Boston, even though the Braves aren’t coming to town this year.

But perhaps the most significant significant thing about perpetual interleague play is something Steven Goldman noted at SB Nation: this makes it harder for a team to carry a professional DH like David Ortiz, a player who really shouldn’t be allowed onto the field for any reason. As a result, the market will likely begin to favor DH fielding ability a bit more strongly than normal, as teams begin to prefer a DH-type who can play 20 games a year with a below-average glove, compared to a a bad body who simply can’t.

Goldman believes that this disadvantages teams that have already invested in players like Ortiz: “AL teams are in the position of having to win with rosters designed for a schedule that is slowly being taken away from them.” I tend to disagree. There aren’t THAT many David Ortiz/Travis Hafner/Billy Butler/Jack Cust types who really should be barred from the field at all costs. Usually, designated hitters are players who’ve aged out of an everyday field position, rather than players who never had a glove to begin with, and so you can usually hide them in left field or at first base for one game if need be.

But it could mean that minor leaguers who truly can’t field might have an even tougher time making it to the majors, and it means that the line between “awful fielder” and “cannot field” — the line between Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz — just got a little bit brighter.

Unfortunately, the schedule is still unbalanced; even though the number is now evenly fixed at 19 per team, teams now play even more games in their divisions than before. And that is why people like Rays owner Stu Sternberg are decrying the new schedule. “Look at the schedule the Tigers are playing,” Sternberg told CBS Sports. “I’d like to take my chances playing that schedule.” As I wrote a year ago:

It’s unfair for the Blue Jays to have to play nearly 55-60 games against the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees, while the Rangers get to play 55-60 games against the Angels, Athletics, and Mariners.

It’s going to get even more unfair, now that those teams have 76 intradivision games to play. It’s hard to blame Sternberg for wanting to play 76 games against the Astros Twins, Royals, Indians, and White Sox, rather than the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Orioles (!). There’s a fundamental tension between the unbalanced schedule and the notion of competitive fairness. It’s unfair for the Orioles to face a vastly tougher schedule than the Tigers. This is to some degree mitigated by the second Wild Card, and over the next few weeks, we’ll find out what effect the new Wild Card play-in game will have on the contours of the playoffs and the stretch run.

In one way, the new Wild Card diminishes the relevance of a team’s regular-season record, since it provides a back door into the playoffs for the 10th-best team in a 30-team league, and to that degree, it mitigates the problem of unfairness caused by the unbalanced schedule. However, in another way, the second wild card increases the relevance of the regular season for the two wild card teams, because the four wild cards have a tougher road than the six division winners. The new schedule, therefore, places even more of a burden on the second wild card and wild card play-in game, as a sort of backstop of last resort for fairness.

That said, the schedule changes either a little or a lot every year. For a sport that’s famed for its adherence to hazy ritual, Bud Selig’s MLB has constantly tinkered with its format in a relentless search for profit, and has been mostly successful, at least when it comes to that aim. The only two things we know for certain are that there will be a few more changes in 2014, and none of those changes will take money off the table: expanded replay is almost certain, but there’s no way that the schedule will decrease from 162 to 154 games.

Now, if we could just figure out a way for them to end that stupid Saturday blackout for MLB.tv…

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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

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