Thursday, April 1, 2010
MLB's Unbalanced Schedule: Just Add Water
To get NotAsGoodAsYouThink's attempt at a baseball preview going, we'll start with something that has been been irking me for a few years now. Major League Baseball instituted the unbalanced schedule in 2001 in an effort to make the long regular season more interesting by adding juice to its existing rivalries and maybe even creating some new ones along the way. For those who are unaware, the unbalanced schedule calls for each team to play about 17-19 games a year against each of the other teams in its division, which will take up about half of the team's 162 games. The rest of the schedule is made up of anywhere from 6-9 games against the rest of the teams in your league, plus between 15-18 interleague games. The heavy amount of intra-division games was supposed to intensify division races and rivalries through sheer volume and familiarity.
It's worked, but only to a point. Sure, baseball gets to showcase (read: TV revenue) a ton of Yankees-Red Sox, Phillies-Mets, Cubs-Cardinals, and Giants-Dodgers games for its fans' viewing pleasure. But there's an ugly other side to that coin, because for every extra marquee matchup the unbalanced schedule gives you, it gives you a Pirates-Reds, Padres-D'Backs, or Royals-Indians sack of garbage to go with it. Plus, fans can get a little tired of seeing the same teams over and again throughout the season - I bet most Phillies season ticket holders would gladly trade a series against the Nats for another more compelling series against someone like the Cardinals or Rockies. It would have been cool to see AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke face the top lineup in his league last year, but we didn't get to, because the Royals only saw the Yankees for three games in early April and three games in late September, none of which were pitched by Greinke. Such is the drawback of the unbalanced schedule.
I will say the unbalanced schedule is a decent way to keep teams' levels of travel relatively lower, since everyone gets a few extra nearby series within their division versus an extra trip or two across multiple time zones. But even that notion is a bit overrated, since most divisions feature at least one long plane ride within themselves anyway (i.e. New York/Philly to Miami, Milwaukee to Houston, Seattle to Arlington, TX). Finally, the unbalanced schedule calls for the final 3 weeks or so of the regular season to be just about all intra-division games. This is cool at first glance because it guarantees late-season head to head matchups to decide division winners. But it also gives you a good number of games where a team in the hunt gets to match up with (and feast upon) a lowly team's minor league call-ups, which throws a just bit of a wrench into the integrity of the pennant race, yes?
To be honest, it was a welcome change from the way it was before - a bland, auto-fill spreadsheet of a schedule where every team played an equal amount of games (two home series, two road series) against all the other teams in its league. But the novelty has worn off, and now the inordinate amount of intra-division games has created rather unfair situations for teams that are in especially strong or weak divisions. For instance, Tampa Bay must play 36 total games against the Yankees and Red Sox this year; that's 22% of their schedule against two teams widely considered to be among the top 3 in baseball. Not only do they have to contend with the two giants for the division itself, but the Rays must also contend for the Wild Card against teams from the other AL divisions who play a considerably softer schedule. Now, before anyone starts making violin-music jokes, Tampa is a very good team in its own right, and many people are convinced they'd be a playoff shoo-in if they were housed in another division. Some have even gone so far as to propose radical realignment policies in order to counteract the pitfalls of the unbalanced schedule.
If you couldn't get through that realignment article without getting a headache, don't feel bad. It's definitely discussion worthy, but way too off-the-wall to happen. That's why I'm here with a simpler proposal - just water down the unbalanced schedule. Instead of playing 18 games a year against your division counterparts, make it 12-13 games a year. Eliminate one interleague series a year, namely the "rivalry" series (interleague matchups built into the schedule where certain pairs of teams meet for two series during interleague play). I've always viewed this extra interleague series as unnecessary and just an excuse to get Yankees-Mets and Angels-Dodgers for 6 games a year instead of 3. Disburse those 27 games or so that we've just freed up among the other teams in the same league, and all of a sudden you've got a schedule that still caters to the big rivalries but falls short of being disproportionate to the league as a whole. The fans and networks still get their share of headliner matchups, and no one can complain all that much about any team having a ridiculously easy or difficult schedule just because of what division they're in.
Anyone have Bud Selig's number?