Earlier this week, new major league baseball commissioner Rob Manfred suggested that he would be open to considering a change to the length of the season. When speaking to ESPN.com's Darren Rovell he said:
"I don't think length of season is a topic that can't ever be discussed. I don't think it would be impossible to go back to 154 [games]."
With this article I am not intending to overreact to one comment that came within a larger conversation; the baseball Twitterati have already been fully up in arms with Manfred's comment about infield shifts (taken mostly out of context). In fact, within the season length conversation, Manfred said that the schedule is not his top priority. The reason I am writing about it is that I think this idea of shortening the season is a fun one and worth an exploration.
To be clear, I really like the idea of going back to 154 games (teams played 154 games up to 1961 in the AL, 1962 in the NL). Eight games may not sound like a lot, but coupling this reduction with more double headers, and ridding the wild card play-in game could prevent any games being played when the weather is terribly cold (in early April and late October). Make a few adjustments and the season could start a little bit later, and end a bit sooner.
Playing eight fewer games could also have a positive impact on reducing player injuries. Although this is difficult to quantify, and adding more double-headers could mitigate any benefit of the slightly shortened season, playing fewer games could reduce wear and tear on the players. Health is always an important topic, and teams are constantly examining ways to better predict injury, and/or rehabilitate injuries. The organization that gets ahead of the others in maintaining its players' physical and mental health will have a huge advantage. Now obviously changing the schedule would affect all teams equally in terms of games played, but the way playing time is managed across those games is an area in which a team could get ahead of others. For those who are also basketball fans, think about how effective the San Antonio Spurs have been with how they manage players' minutes. Accurately translating this to baseball could be fruitful.
While I am here playing commissioner for the day, I will also advocate for realignment to one division in each league, a balanced schedule with no interleague play, and removing the ‘wild card' entrant to the playoffs. My suggestion, and I am certain I am not the first to make it, is to have each league be a single ‘division' of 15 teams. With this alignment, making the playoffs would mean being one of the top four teams in the league. With a 154 game schedule, everybody would play each of the other 14 teams in their league 11 times. Teams would have six home games and five away games against 7 opponents, and 5 home games and 6 away games against the other 7 opponents. The extra home game could be rotated back and forth across seasons. The 11 games against each opponent could be scheduled as three, 3-game series, and one 2-game series. Although each team having fourteen 2-game series is less than ideal. Admittedly, this aspect of my suggested schedule change needs more thought. Mixing in more double-headers could be a partial solution.
Realigning the leagues could reduce the current division rivalries, but the counter point is that it could naturally create new ones through season-to-season competition and playoff races, a feature that is distinctly unlike the current forced interleague ‘rivalries'. My intention with organizing the league in this way is so that, by the end of the season, we will have established which teams performed the best on a common task, thereby making them playoff-worthy. Undoubtedly, there would be within-season noise in this idea, as a team could collapse mid-season due to a spate of injuries that makes them a less formidable foe in the second half. But that is likely less noisy than the current unbalanced divisional schedule, with the unbalanced interleague play mixed in (currently all teams do not play the same number of games against the same teams in interleague play as other teams in their division).
These suggested changes all sound well and good, at least to my unbiased ears, but what is the likelihood of this actually happening? I suspect very low. The reason: money. Eight fewer games means eight games worth of lost revenue. Local TV contracts have transformed team revenue. These local sports networks are unlikely to be open to taking the kind of hit that would come with fewer games each season. To some extent we see can see that this is the case by looking at the ongoing debate about pace of play. After much discussion, the game seems to have arrived at a point where the blame and responsibility is being placed (almost entirely) on the players. Rather than cutting back on the between inning advertising time (3+ minutes during the postseason), the MLB powers that be have decided that the players will be required to adapt their play to make the games shorter. As Joe Sheehan suggested in one of his recent newsletters, it is likely only a matter of time before the on-field pitch-clocks are brought to us by Coors Light. More advertising! I do not mean to suggest that the players are without blame for the observed increase in game length, but the share they are assuming with the rule changes is telling of what runs the game. The point here is that I am well aware that a shortened season, and my (wonderful) proposal, is not likely to happen. But that does not necessarily remove it from being an interesting topic for discussion.
Losing eight games of baseball may sound like some sort of blasphemy to die-hard fans (and I consider myself to be one), but if doing so potentially resulted in a better on-field product, would you take the trade? It is at least worth considering. It is good that the new Commissioner seems willing to do so.
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Chris Teeter is a featured writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.