All-in for big changes to MLB’s schedule, for now and the future

March 31, 2020 Atlanta: The third base gate to the Atlanta Braves Truist Park is chained shut while the stadium sits empty on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Atlanta.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

I’ve been surprised by the silence of baseball purists as MLB considers playing a drastically shortened season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Guardians of The Game, a group that includes current and ex-players, usually have a lot to say about big change. Baseball is famously resistant to it, in large part because it is obsessed with the integrity of its records.

Greg Maffei, of all people, seems to be a lonely voice bringing up that concern. Maffei, CEO of Braves owner Liberty Media, contemplated a truncated season during a CNBC interview last month and said: "The real question is, will we have enough games to be able to have a full, credible season that allows us to ... produce winners of divisions and the like?"

That question isn’t being asked much even as recent reports indicate the season could end up including about 80 games. MLB has scheduled 162 games per season since 1962. It’s never played fewer than an average of 107 games per team in the modern era.

I guess it’s hard for traditionalists to care as much about the season’s credibility under the circumstances. Massive challenges must be overcome to have any season at all in 2020.

I still expected to hear more griping from some baseball people about the possibility of a gimmicky season. Franchise owners and players are arguing over money, but no one seems concerned about whether the season will be credible.

I think that’s a good thing. Baseball could use a jolt to divert it from its maniacal focus on tradition. The current circumstances, awful as they are, provide a chance for MLB to make big changes with few objections from those who normally would protest.

The reported proposal of about 80 games per team and seven postseason bids per league (up from five) sounds great to me. I’m all in for a sprint to the postseason that has spots for nearly half the teams, instead of a crawl that ends with 10 of 30 in the playoffs. That sounds fun.

It’s the kind of thing that would generate excitement even if people weren’t desperate for entertainment while staying at home. MLB is proposing to start the season in July. We could immediately get into the spirit of postseason races instead of waiting and waiting for the standings to sort themselves out.

I’m not a wild-eyed radical calling for big changes to baseball. In fact, the thing I like most about baseball is that it’s a hard game. Great athletes also must be skilled and consistent to be good at it. It takes time so, unlike with basketball and football, even the best prospects would be overmatched if they immediately played at the top level.

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Those are reasons why I like the 162-game schedule. The long slog through the summer produces legitimate results. Players can’t live off luck for that long. Teams can’t win their division on a few fortunate bounces.

Fewer games and more playoff spots would mean luck plays a bigger factor in results. If that makes the season less fair, it also would make it more interesting. Unpredictability can be entertaining. I think I’d like an 80-game season with extra playoff slots, even if it comes at the costs of some things I like about baseball.

MLB may be forced into accepting a radical schedule change because of the COVID-19 pandemic. My hope is that MLB will be inspired to keep taking chances with its schedule once the pandemic is contained. Based on MLB’s history, any big change will take a long time.

The last time circumstances drastically shortened the season, MLB stumbled into a good idea. It then abandoned that idea for 13 years.

MLB teams played an average of 107 games in 1981 after a midsummer players’ strike split the season roughly in half. The first round of the playoffs featured division “winners” from the first half against second-half division winners. That format created a (kind of) playoff wild card for the first time in baseball history and produced some novel results.

The Yankees and Dodgers advanced to the World Series after neither had the best overall record in their divisions. The Reds were excluded from the postseason despite posting the best record in baseball. The Cardinals were home for the playoffs though they had the best record in the National League East (they would win the World Series the next year).

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The Dodgers won the 1981 World Series. The MVPs that season were Rollie Fingers (American League) and Mike Schmidt (NL). Fingers and Fernando Valenzuela (NL) were Cy Young Award Winners. All were added to the official record book without baseball losing its soul.

MLB didn’t adopt a playoff wild card until 1994, when it created one for each league. It was a popular move. Any reasonable change that adds interest to the game should be quickly embraced. But baseball doesn’t do change quickly.

MLB didn’t add a second wild card for each league until 2012. The idea of a one-game “playoff” makes me break out in a rash. As a numbers guy, it pains me to see the “better” team decided by one baseball game. But I must admit that the second wild card makes the regular season more interesting.

From the first modern World Series in 1903 through 1968, the NL and AL teams with the best regular-season records played for the title. The leagues expanded in 1969, so from that year through 1993 the two division winners played for the pennant in the league championship series (1981 was the exception). The first wild-card era began in 1994 (though there was no postseason that year) and the second in 2012.

Now baseball is in the COVID-19 era. It was an unexpected shock to everyone’s normal way of doing things. MLB will have to accept radical change if it wants to play a season of any length in 2020. I’d like to see MLB keep that same energy after the pandemic is under control.

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