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January 8, 2001

Scheduling Sanity

Fixing What's Broken About Baseball's Schedule

by Jeff Hildebrand

Over the past few years, Major League Baseball's schedule-makers have been subjected to considerable criticism for oddities in the schedule, most having to do with an increase in nonsensical travel. To a certain degree, though, they've been put in an impossible situation. The increasing number of opponents that each team has to fit into their schedule and the presence of four divisions with an odd number of teams make scheduling in the interleague play/six-division era a whole new ballgame. With the unbalanced schedule that's being implemented for 2001, things may get even crazier.

Instead of adding to the chorus of complaints about the situation, let's consider a scenario that could restore some semblance of sanity to the schedule. For all of these proposals, the overriding concern is to construct a workable schedule, so some complications will be overlooked. Furthermore, we'll stick to changes that are at least moderately plausible. Rolling things back to 1976 in terms of the number of teams and the structure of the playoffs would be convenient for our purposes, but it's not going to happen. To make this work the following changes must be made:

  • Expansion to 32 teams. In addition to providing lots of even numbers with which to work, this allows each league to use the same framework.

  • Divide each league into four divisions of four teams each. This gets rid of the wild card, a concept that just does not work with an unbalanced schedule. Yes, there are problems with four-team divisions, but we're focusing on the schedule as the highest priority, so we'll ignore those.

  • Eliminate interleague play. It's time to admit the truth: other than a couple of high-profile exceptions, these games are a gimmick that has outlived its novelty value. With fewer teams to worry about fitting into the schedule, the schedule will be easier to construct.

Given those changes, we can construct a 162-game schedule by having a team play the other teams in its division 18 times and the 12 teams in the other three divisions nine times. The 18 games against teams in the division are obviously split nine home and nine road, the games against the teams in the other divisions will be split six and three. In a given team's schedule, when facing another division they should have the six home games against two teams and then six road games against the other two.

Now we need to make sure these games will fit within the confines of the 26-week season. To do so, we need to have 17 weeks with six games scheduled, eight weeks with seven games scheduled, and the All-Star Game week with four games. This means we can't schedule everything as three-game series, but have to replace pairs of three-game series with a two-game series and a four-game series. For each team there will be six such series pairs during the season.

The season would start with a pair of home-and-home three-game series against the other teams in the division. Then, for the next two months, play would be entirely outside the division. Since April and early May tend to have the worst weather, there should not be any "only visit" series played in the first part of that stretch. Instead, some of the two- and four-game series could be fit into that period.

Around the All-Star Game, another round of home-and-home series against the other teams in the division should be played. The short week after the All-Star Game should have a pair of two-game series against teams within the division. Then the remainder of games outside the division would be played, and finally the season would end with a last round of home-and-home series against teams in the division, including a couple of four game series.

A schedule based on this framework answers most of the objections that have been raised over the years. Any pennant race will include the teams playing each other in September. There will be reasonable opportunities to make up games that might get washed out during the time of the year with the worst weather. The dreaded two-game series aren't completely eliminated but there will be as few of them as you can possibly have, and a little common sense should reduce the travel time between those series. Overall, it's not quite as nice as the schedules were when there were only eight, ten, or 12 teams in the league, but given the size of MLB, it's about as good as you're going to find.

Jeff Hildebrand can be reached at jhildebrand@baseballprospectus.com.

Related Content:  Division Series

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