Weekly Hit Ground Ball: The new MLB schedule

There are many things on the minds of baseball fans during March.

We listen lazily to Spring Training games, grimacing at the sound of potential injuries whilst pondering Opening Day rosters and talented prospects that may join the Big League club later in the year.

Many of us become engrossed in fantasy baseball drafts, creating additional rosters to bring us additional joy and frustration.

And as the Spring Training games begin to lose their attraction, our eyes turn to the regular season schedule. Opening series, potential key games against rivals and the all-important – or at least we hope it will be important – September run-in all grab our attention.

Every year in recent times, fans from several teams have had reason to grumble when looking at how the 2,430 regular season games have been distributed. Logic and fairness would dictate that two teams battling for the same division title should play the same teams the same amount of times, but that’s not the case in MLB. The ‘unbalanced schedule’ could – and did – leave one team playing a more difficult, stronger schedule than that played by another team competing for the same prize, especially due to the distribution of Interleague games.

This unfairness was one of the reasons for the Houston Astros’ move from the NL Central to the AL West from the 2013 season onwards and the subsequent remodelling of the way every team’s schedule is created.  The changes have not eliminated the potential for unfairness – that would only truly be possible if there was a change in the number of games played or the number of teams – but it has made the schedule a little less complicated.

Last year’s introduction of the second Wild Card had the welcome benefit of increasing the importance of winning a division once again. With that being the case, games against division rivals take on an even greater significance. One of the problems under the old system was that the differing sizes of divisions (4 teams in the AL West, 6 in the NL Central etc) led to differing numbers of division-only games.

Now that there are 6 divisions of 5 teams, every team will play 19 games against each of the other 4 teams in their own division.

Division-only games will account for 76 games in each team’s schedule and they are joined by 66 games combined against the other 10 teams in the same league. You don’t need to be a maths whizz to work out that 66 doesn’t divide equally among 10 teams, so a team will play some of those 10 teams 6 times and the rest 7 times each. That means two competing division teams may well play league-only schedules of slightly different qualities, but only by a couple of games. And with 19 games against your closest division competitor, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to make any slight unfairness irrelevant.

Adding 76 division-only games to the 66 games against the other 10 same-league teams makes for a total of 142. That leaves 20 games against teams from the other league, an increase of 2 interleague games on the previous schedule for most teams.

Interleague play is a divisive topic, whether it’s due to harkening back to pre-1997 days when AL and NL teams would only meet once per year in the World Series, the impact of bringing together leagues playing under slightly different rules (i.e. the Designated Hitter in the AL), the scheduling imbalance Interleague games often created, or a combination of all three.

The commercial attractiveness of the ‘local rivalry’ aspect of some Interleague series is there for all to see (NY Mets and Yankees, Chicago Cubs and White Sox etc), but the competitive imbalance they can create along with the artificial rivalries (e.g. San Diego Padres v Seattle Mariners) are less welcome.

It’s clear that MLB is committed to Interleague play and the ‘local rivalries’, although the latter is being reduced from 6 games to 4 from 2013 onwards. Every team is matched with a team from the corresponding division in the other league and the 4 rivalry games will be played in one block at the end of May, 2 games at one team’s ballpark and then 2 games at the other.

The remaining 16 games of a team’s schedule will be played against the five teams from one of the divisions in the other league. This will be done on a rotating three –year basis, with the 2013 match-ups being NL West and AL East, NL Central and AL West, NL East and AL Central. A team will play 1 of the 5 teams 4 times, and the other 4 teams 3 times each. So, again, two competing teams in a division will not play exactly the same games, but it will be very close to it.

The end result is that the vast majority of the schedule played by teams in the same division will be the same and – what to me is the biggest improvement – where there are some minor differences, that is at least within the confines of a broader structure that is the same for every team in the Majors: 76 games against your division rivals, 66 against the rest of your league plus 20 Interleague games.

It’s not perfect, but it’s sensible. That’s a big improvement on the previous MLB schedule.

Rounding the bases

The one unavoidable sticking point to the new schedule is that now we don’t have an even number of teams in each league, whenever all 30 teams are playing on a given day throughout the season, one of the games will be an Interleague contest.  It will become a standard part of the season, rather than a special part of the calendar (except for the rivalry games), and will result in some teams playing under the other league’s rules at significant parts of the season.

The biggest concern some have is the prospect of a contending AL team needing to play without their DH at the end of the season. That will be the case in 2013; however the final Interleague series of the season will see Detroit travelling to Miami. DH or not, the Tigers would probably take that as a promising match-up to bring their regular season to a close.

The Yankees’ injury plagued offseason continued this past week with Mark Teixeira injuring his wrist and GM Brian Cashman breaking his ankle. Cashman’s injury will not affect his work, but the same can’t be said for Teixeira and that’s the last thing New York needed. The Yankees’ projected Opening Day roster looks the weakest that the franchise has fielded for many a year.

A couple of weeks ago, I noted in this column Hector Noesi’s horror show in his first Spring Training outing. His performance this past Friday against the Oakland A’s was a good news/bad news affair. The bad news: Noesi gave up three home runs over two innings. The good news: the game was rained out after four innings so the outing didn’t count towards his Spring Training stats. The good news story doesn’t last long though as the effect was to bring his Spring ERA so far down from 19.06 to 14.73. You shouldn’t put too much store into Spring numbers, but the Mariners will certainly want to see some improvement in Noesi’s case.

 

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