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Envisioning the next phase of Major League Baseball

What would Cleveland’s schedule would be in a 32-team league with 154 games?

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Toronto Blue Jays v Cleveland Indians - Game One Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

We’re due for a change in MLB.

Not the Rob Manfred BS, but changes to the league writ large. Expanding to 32 teams and reducing the schedule to 154 games have been discussed widely and loudly in recent months, and I think they could work and be good for the game.

But how would it work? I’m glad you asked.

I’ll start with expansion. If you’re wondering why baseball would expand, well, Chris Mitchell wrote it best in the Hardball Times Annual 2018: “Baseball averaged one multi-team expansion every 6.2 years between 1961 and 1998, which kept pace with U.S. population growth.” Population growth hasn’t stopped since 1998, which means there are more fans and, more importantly, more potential players out there. So adding two teams seems right.

Mitchell also broke down where expansion could work best, but I’m going to use my preferred sites in this exercise: Portland, Oregon, and Raleigh, North Carolina. I like these two because Portland already has backers willing to buy land for a stadium and Raleigh has the distance from other teams and demographics to best support a team.

With that established, how do all 32 pieces fit best together? Two eight-team divisions are a terrible idea (because the old two-division setup sucked and I don’t want to lump the Indians in with the Yankees and Red Sox, selfishly), so four four-team divisions seems perfect. We can try to maintain current connections and rivalries as much as possible, but some teams will simply have to realign. (And, yes, to get ahead of the comments, since some teams will have to switch their league I think the designated hitter should become a universal position.)

New American League divisions

AL East AL North AL South AL West
AL East AL North AL South AL West
Red Sox Indians Royals Mariners
Yankees Tigers Astros Portland
Orioles Twins Rangers Angels
Blue Jays White Sox Rockies A’s

New National League divisions

NL East NL North NL South NL West
NL East NL North NL South NL West
Mets Brewers Braves Giants
Phillies Cubs Raleigh Dodgers
Nationals Cardinals Marlins Diamondbacks
Pirates Reds Rays Padres

The divisions aren’t perfect (the NL North sure seems like the NL Midwest and Kancas City is only “south” in the way Missouri likes to think it is southern), but this system bunches the teams together best geographically. And with division set, we can look at the schedule.

Jayson Stark wrote a good piece at the Athletic about expanding the schedule, and I’m going to take the suggestions he got from Dan O’Dowd and run with those. Namely, 154 games, every Monday off after the third week of April, more early season games in warm weather cities or domes, traditional double-header days, and early-season international series.

So balancing the new rules with the new divisions (and less interleague), I took a stab at what the Indians schedule might look like if these changes took effect in 2018 (for interleague purposes, AL North and NL North play each other as the AL Central and NL Central do this year). In this you get less interleague play, more interdivision play (20 vs. 19 games), and a lot more days off.

First off, the season starts in April, not March. It’s not a big difference (three days) but it feels better. Since the weather in Seattle was fine (plus an optional roof), the Indians kick off the season there. The season begins with 11 games over 12 days on the road, which is a little rough, but that’s the tradeoff to be made for cold-weather teams.

After that stretch, the Tribe gets to battle the weather at home, but only for three games, then they head to Puerto Rico for a series (one of many early season international destinations the league should institute yearly). Instead of the Twins, the Tribe get a pair of games against the Pirates in San Juan, mostly because the Indians and Pirates should still play yearly because of geographic proximity (like the Reds). The team hits the road again after Puerto Rico, including moving the Milwaukee games up because of their roof, and then squeezing in some games at home at the end of April seems like the best timing.

May and June stay mostly the same, with a few opponents moved, but are mostly noteworthy for the consistent days off. As noted in Stark’s piece, excluding Sunday Night Baseball, Sunday games could be afternoon affairs and Tuesday games would all be night contests to maximize rest for players.

July is interesting because it features Cincinnati (in an abbreviated Ohio Cup due to less interleague play) over the Fourth of July, which is ideal timing for the “rivalry” series, in my opinion. When teams return to action after the All-Star break, why not have the first traditional double-header day? Players will be well-rested and it would give fans an action-packed midsummer Saturday with teams all around the league playing two.

Moving toward the end of the season, Cleveland starts to see the reverse of April, with more games at home. This isn’t entirely fair to cities like LA or Tampa, but their weather isn’t fair to those of us who make our living where it snows. The first weekend of September marks the second double-header day, this time for teams on the road previously, serving as a goodbye to summer for most folks. The season then ends on September 30, which is the same as the current schedule and might not be ideal for some people, but seems fine to me. Playing late into the year hasn’t really hurt the World Series in recent years; if it was a sticking point, cutting a few Monday off days would get the season finished a little earlier.

As for playoffs, there are a couple ways to do it with the new setup. Currently five teams per league make the playoffs (if you count the Wild Card Game as the playoffs), and you could keep that as is and simply have one wild card winner play the division winner with the fewest wins. With smaller divisions, however, it seems somewhat likely that the first team out will often have more wins than the worst division winner.

Thus, in the 32-team MLB, there should be two Wild Card winners per league playing a best-of-three series against the two division winners with the fewest wins. Rather than a straight-forward elimination game, best of three offers more high-stakes baseball and it eliminates a little bit of the randomness of the Wild Card Game. However, making it a best of three lengthens the postseason, which could mean some of off days need to be eliminated from the regular season.

But even going to best-of-three Wild Card Series wouldn’t be too drastic. The playoff format would grant byes to the top two teams and series would last three games — five games — seven games — seven games. This could attract more casual fans, as extended playoffs in leagues like the NHL and NBA are wildly popular. Likewise, this would be an improvement for baseball because, in addition to getting more teams in the postseason (and earning the revenue that accompanies it), it would better reward teams for their regular season play by giving the two best in each league an extended rest before the Division Series begin.

Cities like Portland are clamoring for a team. Players are openly requesting a shorter season. Everything works out. I only had to mockup a schedule for Cleveland here, which made my task significantly easier than what MLB would have to do. But if I can make it work on paper, the fine folks at MLB who are smarter and make more money than I do can surely make it work in reality.