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Fixing divisions and schedules

The current MLB season runs 162 games long, and covers a full six months of the calendar. Some fans like that there are so many games. Some say it’s too long and gradually lose interest. This past offseason, the MLBPA managed to secure and extra eight days of rest for the players, making the season even longer because of it.

At the end of the day, I agree that 162 games is too much. But mostly because of how the schedule is arranged. Currently, a team’s season consists of the following games:

MLB schedule composition

Against Teams played Number of Games Total
Against Teams played Number of Games Total
Division 4 18 72
League 10 6 60
Interleague 5 6 30
Total 19 -- 162

Now this is not really how the schedule is built, since there are some two-game series and four-game series here and there, but it’s a close approximation. Each team plays 18 games against each of their divisional rivals, six (seven in some cases) against the other 10 teams in their league, and six against five teams in the other league (to form interleague play).

No why 162? Why not 166 to keep it so there are even number of games against other teams and eliminate those pesky seven-game series? Why not get rid of those 30 interleague games and add them to the intraleague games?

There are two simple answers which I will not explore in detail: the first is that owners — as my editor Henry Druschel pointed out last week — are acting in their own best interest, seeking to maximize revenue (which only sometimes matches up with maximizing entertainment). The second is players (reasonably) don’t want to play more games in a single season.

So what’s the ideal solution? Well, there is none. This impasse will probably not be solved in the near future. But I have ideas, both of which involve expanding the league by two teams (one in each league), bringing the total number of teams to 32.

So, who will be the lucky cities that will gain a team. Well, first choice is obvious: Montreal has to get a nod. The second, according to Commissioner Rob Manfred, would be either Charlotte or Mexico City. For this exercise — and not to spurn Mexican fans, but it makes it easier this way — we’ll take Charlotte.

Now, with these two teams set, let’s go to the map (and my amazing Paint skills).

Google Maps

Courtesy of Google Maps, we have an image of the continental United States with the 27 cities that are home to the 30 MLB stadiums. Well, because we’re adding two teams, it would make sense to add one to each league, giving us 16-team leagues.

First order of business: goodbye interleague games!

Teams will now play games only against their own leagues and save interleague play for the All-Star Game and the World Series. I don’t know of anybody who really loves interleague play, and it currently exists as a weird halfway step between full integration and two separate leagues. Nobody will miss it, I think.

Now comes the tricky part: ordering the divisions.

Here’s where my two different solutions come together. We can either have two leagues with four divisions housing four teams each (similar to the NFL) or we can have two divisions with eight teams each (similar to the NHL).

Well, when building the divisions, what has to make sense is geographic location and proximity. As Rob Mains pointed in a piece he wrote in early September, divisions (and rivalries) have to make some geographic sense. So, let’s turn back to the map and try to build eight competent divisions.

American League - 4 Divisions

AL East AL North AL South AL West
AL East AL North AL South AL West
Baltimore Chicago Charlotte Colorado
Boston Cleveland Kansas City Los Angeles
New York Detroit Tampa Oakland
Toronto Minnesota Texas Seattle

National League - 4 Divisions

NL East NL North NL South NL West
NL East NL North NL South NL West
Montreal Chicago Atlanta Arizona
New York Cincinnati Houston Los Angeles
Philadelphia Milwaukee Miami San Diego
Washington Pittsburgh St. Louis San Francisco
4-team Divisions
Google Maps and Paint

Well, this is how that would look like. Obviously it’s not ideal given the huge distances that the AL South, AL West, and NL South have to cover, but it’s a starting point. Notable changes: the Colorado Rockies now play in the AL (DHs in Coors Field!), while the Houston Astros return to the NL. Colorado and the Seattle Mariners are so far away from other teams that wherever we put them causes a traveling nightmare, but that’s a problem we’ll have to deal with for now.

In this scenario, each team would have to play the original 20 games against their division rivals (60 games total) and 8 games against each team in the rest of the league (96 games). This gives us a 156-game schedule (6 games less than the current schedule). Not bad!

But what happens if we move on to two eight-team divisions per league. Well, for starters, we would rename the leagues. Goodbye cardinal points, hello American and National Leagues Atlantic and Pacific (Midwestern-y?).

Teams would be grouped the following way:

MLB - 2 Divisions per League

AL Atlantic AL Pacific NL Atlantic NL Pacific
AL Atlantic AL Pacific NL Atlantic NL Pacific
Boston Minnesota Montreal Houston
New York Chicago New York St. Louis
Toronto Kansas City Philadelphia Milwaukee
Baltimore Texas Washington Chicago
Tampa Oakland Miami San Francisco
Cleveland Los Angeles Atlanta Los Angeles
Detroit Seattle Cincinnati San Diego
Charlotte Colorado Pittsburgh Arizona
MLB 2 Divisions per League
Google Maps and Paint

OK, that looks...horrible. No way this is ever going to happen. I mean, everybody on the East coast looks fine. But those teams scattered in the Midwest and Pacific. Nope. Chicago and Houston aren’t going to be rivals anytime soon.

But just for completeness’s sake, how would the schedule look? Well, we now have to schedule seven series against division rivals and eight series against the rest of the league (yes, interleague still doesn’t exist during the regular season). So I feel that we could schedule 16-games per division rival (for 112 games) and six-games against the rest of the league (for 48 games). That gives us a grand total of 160 games!

This time we lost two games, but think of the playoff implications! Yes, changing to this format (and the former) could give us a new playoff format, with lots of possible: more Wild Cards? Multiple “winners” from each division? I won’t go in depth on that subject here.

All of this is an exercise in wishful thinking (and trying to reduce the number of games while maintaining interest). If and when the league expands, they will have to think how to redistribute the divisions in the best interest of rivalries and fan interest. But until that time comes, we might as well imagine what that would look like.