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.
{/exp:list_maker}
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.
{/exp:list_maker}
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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Vinnie
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Vinnie

Best of all. Get rid of the rotten interleague exhibition games completely.

Ian R.
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Ian R.

@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.

Steve
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Steve
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… Read more »
Professor Longnose
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Professor Longnose

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

Tom B
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Tom B

It’s mostly just Friday-Sunday that they work everything else around, and it’s because of TV.

Jim
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Jim
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… Read more »
Dan Evensen
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Dan Evensen

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.

DBye
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DBye

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.

Vinnie
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Vinnie
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… Read more »
Philip
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Philip
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… Read more »
Jim
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Jim

I agree with Vinnie and is also the reason I don’t go to too many games anymore.

Detroit Michael
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Detroit Michael

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.

Vinnie
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Vinnie
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,… Read more »
Jeff
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Jeff
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… Read more »
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