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April 17, 2007

Prospectus Today

Scheduling Mayhem

by Joe Sheehan

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In the early part of the season, criticism of the scheduling has centered on warm-weather or dome teams playing outdoors in cold-weather cities in early April. As I said last week, this isn't an accident, but a necessary element to keep various factors in balance. Many readers, however, pointed out one obvious solution to the immediate problem: don't schedule a team's only trip to a cold-weather city in the first week in April. The Mariners/Indians debacle would be hard enough to solve if the Mariners were scheduled to revisit Cleveland; with a second trip not on the schedule, it becomes a minor nightmare, likely requiring extra home games for the Mariners, or doubleheaders on travel days, or something equally ulcer-inducing.

The more time I spend with the schedule, however, the more I see that it's filled with odd quirks that particularly affect certain teams, if not quite so dramatically as being snowed out of a four-game series. It makes me wonder whether MLB has handled its schedulers the way an overbearing manager handles his bullpen: making constant changes until he finds the one who doesn't have it that day.

I'm certain that this opinion is informed by my age. When I first came to follow baseball in 1978 and 1979, the schedule was a pretty simple thing, and remained that way through 1992. As a boy growing up in New York, I knew that the Yankees would fly all the way out to the West Coast twice a year, playing California, Oakland and Seattle-weirdly, to my young mind, playing Sunday night games at the Kingdome-usually sharing that trip with the Red Sox and Orioles. There'd be two road trips to Kansas City and Texas, ones that usually went very badly; there was also another to Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minnesota. The schedule had a rhythm to it, one informed by geography and logistical convenience.

The Mets, over in the National League, had a similar calendar, but with extra series against the five other teams in the NL East. I can still remember when I, at maybe eight or nine years old, figured out the NL's scheduling plan with a pencil and pen at my desk at home. ("Five times 18, plus 12 times six…wow!" Prepubescent statheads represent, yo.)

Now, there's no rhyme or reason to the schedule, no travel pattern that makes any sense. The Yankees played a weekend series in Oakland, but instead of trips to Los Angeles and Seattle on either side of that set, they played at Minnesota before it, and now return home cross-country to play the Indians. The Yankees play four series in the Pacific time zone this year, and they'll make four separate trips into that time zone to get them played. How does that serve anyone?

The Yankees' odd flight pattern wasn't even the impetus for this column. Consider the Padres, who got waxed 12-4 by the Cubs in Chicago last night. The game was just one of two that the Padres play outside the division or east of Denver in the season's first four weeks. Why are they making such a random trip? The Padres played in Los Angeles late Sunday afternoon, the ESPN game that got off to a late start and ran more than three hours, ending after 8:30 PT. With a heavy crush of media, the trip to the airport and the flight, and the time change, they couldn't have gotten into Chicago before 5 a.m. CT, and it was probably more like 6 a.m. local, perhaps 7 a.m. before they were in their hotel rooms. That was in advance of a 7 p.m. local start time for last night's game, a 1:20 start today…and a 7 p.m. local time start back in San Diego on Wednesday.

Does this make any sense at all? A two-games-in-21-hours trip to a city 1800 miles away from games on either side of it? Whose idea was this? The Padres play in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Denver, but have these two completely random games in Chicago mixed in there as well. It looks, on the schedule, like a trip to play makeup games.

The root cause of this is trying to play too many opponents in 26 weeks. Thirteen opponents four times each-the AL's schedule in my youth-was symmetrical, and even the NL's version made plenty of sense. Now, teams are playing 18, 19, 20 opponents, and added to that, playing some of those teams up to 19 games each. It's virtually impossible to create a schedule that doesn't have odd travel sequences, risky elements and a lot more flying than was the case 20 years ago.

MLB has simply tried to do too much with its schedule. I'm not sure you can reasonably play everyone in your league, play a clutch of interleague games, play a disproportionate number of games within your division, and do all that without making scheduling a Rube Goldberg contraption. There are already very good competitive reasons to oppose interleague play-take a peek at the interleague slates of the Mets and, well, any other NL team, as an example-and unbalanced schedules have been distorting wild-card races for nearly a decade. When you consider the travel and scheduling burdens these elements create, that should be the final nail in the coffin for this structure. Sensible scheduling should be a part of any good sports league. MLB doesn't have that, and likely can't have that, unless it gives up one of its two pet projects--the unbalanced schedule and interleague play.

I'm not sure what intricate scheduling formula decided that the Padres had to fly to Chicago to spend 36 hours in April, but I do know that if that's the answer, it's time to re-examine the question.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Under The Knife: Excel... (04/17)
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