Baseball isn’t going to start on time. It probably isn’t going to start until decently after “on time”. At this point, I think we’re probably more likely to have Major League Baseball not play in 2020 than we are to have it play in May.
This isn’t pure fatalism, and to be clear, I do think there will be a 2020 Major League Baseball season. But I think, realistically, we are looking at a bastardized version of the 162-game, 8-10 team postseason tournament version of it that we’ve experienced my entire time as a baseball fan. And while I’ve heard some (and by some, I mean fans, not actual Major League Baseball employees) suggest MLB could make up its games with a ton of double-headers, I hope to all that is holy that this doesn’t happen.
Double-headers, like mid-week day games, are a necessarily evil that I would prefer teams avoid whenever possible. I understand why they exist—I understand, for instance, why the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds played four games in two days last September. But the fact is that it makes for some pretty uninspiring baseball. As a fan, I don’t want to spend seven hours of my day watching baseball—it turns into a chore. Players certainly don’t want that every single day, and even if they did, the quality of play would make any given game an absolute disaster.
Of course, when Anthony Rizzo suggests that the MLB season should be incrementally shorter on a regular basis, Cardinals fans just yell at him and say he hates baseball, and if Rob Manfred ever suggested it, he’d hear the same thing. Which is especially absurd on the part of Manfred, a man whose sole job in life is to make sure owners make money who in this scenario would be going out of his way to decrease team gate revenues. But let me say this as somebody who devotes truly disgusting amounts of time to following sports—less is more.
My less is more philosophy is basically the entire reason I follow college football, a morally bankrupt and often inept version of a sport that inexplicably takes four hours to play a game. There are only twelve games in a standard regular season and there are four spots in the playoff to be filled by a group of 130 teams. It is very difficult to make the playoff with a loss and virtually impossible to make it with two—every game comes with a level of meaning and intensity that is inherently impossible in a 162-game schedule. Baseball fans will tell you that baseball isn’t meant to be viewed in that way—that you shouldn’t be sweating bullets over every regular season game. And that’s true. But I do think we could stand to sweat it out a little bit more.
I am offering for you my proposal for how the 2020 season should be played. This is a one-time thing: I do not believe this is the ideal structure for a full Major League Baseball season. But Major League Baseball is going to modify its schedule in some way—cutting games, cutting playoffs, loading up on double-headers, some combination of the three. I’m going to outline my ideas and I invite others to share their own. I am going to work under one assumption—that Major League Baseball won’t be ready to start again until at least Memorial Day. Under mine, it could afford to start a little bit later, but if your suggestion is simply to have a 162-game schedule starting in late March, I have some extremely bad news for you that you already know deep down.
Let’s get rid of the divisions
I have a long-standing dislike of divisions. I understand why they exist as a scheduling practicality, but I don’t see a sport that gives me more Cardinals/Cubs or Yankees/Red Sox as inherently better. If there were only one Cardinals/Cubs game per year, how intense would that be? We’d be having parties for it like it’s the Super Bowl. It would be amazing. Would it be worth abandoning the other Cardinals/Cubs games? Probably not, but I also wouldn’t want the entire schedule to be Cardinals/Cubs, because then it wouldn’t be special. There’s a line somewhere; the question is where to draw it.
I think there’s a case to be made that radical league jumbling would, in the long-term, be amazing. Imagine the Cardinals played in a division with the Royals, Cubs, White Sox, and Reds, for instance. The only thing keeping Cardinals/Royals from a Cardinals/Cubs-like relevance is history—if the teams played every year, it would develop history! Cubs/White Sox would be instantly amazing every year! But, again, this is one year, so there is no White Sox/Reds rivalry, even if one could develop over decades.
Every team plays every league team for six games—three at home and three on the road
This creates a perfectly balanced schedule without any of those clunky mid-week two-game sets. This means abandoning the London series, but that’s probably going to get shelved anyway. I propose a permanent, league-wide off-day—my preference is for Thursdays, to accommodate travel. Under this plan, every team is either at home or on the road for both a Friday-Sunday series and the subsequent Monday-Wednesday series—road teams will be spared the most arduous travel by being sent to a relatively nearby city and having a Sunday day game to at least give them half a day off.
Every team plays two interleague series, one at home and one on the road, for a total of 90 games
This is not a perfectly balanced schedule, but by having the series randomly assigned rather than, say, forcing the New York Mets or Los Angeles Angels to play a juggernaut because their most natural geographic rival is absurdly good, it preserves a level of fairness (as a fan of the team across the state from the Kansas City Royals, I would prefer this didn’t have to be a consideration). I’d scratch interleague play altogether, but since there are an odd number of teams in each league, it is necessary. Note: I have done the math several times to confirm that this number of games and series over a 15-week schedule is indeed solid math and am not actually convinced I am correct. If I am doing the math wrong, please make fun of me for doing so in the comments.
More teams make the playoffs—kind of
One feature I love about the English Premier League is that there are wild fluctuations among every spot on the table. First place, of course matters, but so is being in the top four, which grants a team a spot in the prestigious Champions League. Being #5 means you get to crack the Europa League, #6 gets into play-in rounds for the Europa League, and teams 18-20 risk being relegated to the second-tier English league. And in the now-paused season, with just 9-10 matches left per team, every team that is not in the top seven nor the bottom three is within eight points (less than three wins) of being so. The whole system invites caring all the time. That’s what this playoff format should do.
You know what? Let me retitle that previous header. I’m leaning into it.
EVERY TEAM MAKES THE PLAYOFFS
One might think this devalues the regular season, and it does, a little bit, but this is already a regular season that is going to be viewed as lesser than full versions. And there is still absolutely going to be value in being a good regular season team, given the format.
- The two lowest win total teams in the league play each other in a one game playoff hosted by the winner of more games (to use the 2020 National League as an example, going by Pecota projected standings, the Pittsburgh Pirates would host the San Francisco Giants).
- Said winner goes on the road to face the #13 team. In this hypothetical case, the Miami Marlins. Once again, it is a one-game playoff. And it is the next day. This may seem brutal, particularly if it involves a cross-country flight followed by a game the next night, but that’s why you’re supposed to be good in the regular season.
- The next round is the next day and involved the remaining surviving team and the next three lowest teams (Surviving Team at San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies at Philadelphia Phillies). One potential drawback here is that the Colorado Rockies would not get a home game while a worse team would. If you want, you can allow the Colorado Rockies to trade positions with the Miami Marlins. They would not do this.
- There are eleven remaining teams, but before things start to settle themselves out, it’s about to get wild on this, the fourth day of the playoffs. Because now, there are four league one-game playoffs. Here’s where we’re at with it: Rockies/Phillies winner at Cincinnati Reds, Survivors/Padres winner at Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers at Atlanta Braves, and Arizona Diamondbacks at St. Louis Cardinals.
- We’re finally gonna grant a day off. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to assume the home team won every game because I think if you care enough to follow along, you can. But after the off-day, the #2 and #3 seeds, the New York Mets and Washington Nationals, join the party. But because the Mets deserve something special that the Nationals don’t get, they get an extra advantage on the St. Louis Cardinals—in their upcoming, best-of-three series, the Mets get to host all three games. The Nationals will have a conventional two-out-of-three home field advantage against the Braves, with the Braves’ home-field game being dependent. Since they’re already in Atlanta, they’ll stay there and then head to Washington for two games if necessary. Had the Brewers won that game last round, they would travel to Washington and play two games there—if they managed a split, there would be a third game in Milwaukee. The final series pits the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, with the Reds getting home-field advantage. Each series lasts for three days. For those keeping track, the MLB playoffs have been going on for eight days.
- Hey, I haven’t mentioned the Dodgers yet, who were easily the #1 seed and frankly deserve something nice for it. That something nice is a five-game series in Los Angeles. At this point, we adopt more conventional scheduling—two games, off-day, two games, off-day, game five if necessary, which will also happen in the other series between the two highest-remaining seeds, though in that case, the superior seed will only get home-field advantage in games 1, 2, and 5 (if necessary).
- Suddenly, things become more conventional. The LCS and World Series follow the traditional seven-game patterns.
Maybe you think this playoff system is stupid. I wholeheartedly agree! However, can you dispute that said system incentivizes the regular season while also creating a delightfully chaotic postseason? It is a massive advantage to essentially get permanent home-field advantage in the LDS, as the top seeds will get. Other higher seeds get the luxury of facing lesser teams with jumbled rotations. And fans of the Baltimore Orioles will get to see their team in the postseason. You’re welcome, America.