It’s roughly around this time of year when I start to wonder if 162 games is a mistake.
My bias is pretty clearly in this regard. The approximate middle of the season has not been kind to recent iterations of the Guardians. The team is currently 34-38 at game 72; in 2022 they were 40-41 at game 81; in ‘21 they were 42-42 at game 84; in 2019 they fared better, but at game 71 were just 37-34 before turning on for the second half.
But it’s not just the Guardians! Over on the decaying husk of Twitter, I’ve seen a few posts wondering about the state of baseball, in particular the Central divisions, and how poor it seems at the moment. To me, discourse like this is a symptom of bored fans. And as we accustom ourselves to the pitch clock era, I think it’s okay to admit that accommodating bored fans has hurt no one (the pitch clock is good), so let’s dispense with the idea that 162 games are necessary.
I’ve touched on this subject before, in 2018, imagining what expansion might do to the MLB schedule and concluding that returning to 154 games would be good. I stand by that work but think we could take it even further, specifically by integrating a break in the season for a tournament.
Imagine, if you will, that instead of watching low-scoring games with little meaning against the A’s drift into extra-innings in the middle of June, you could watch teams compete with real stakes in an elimination tournament. The tournament could be an MLB-only event, similar to the NWSL’s Challenge Cup, which breaks up that league’s regular season with regularly scheduled contests. Or, even better, an FA-cup style tournament including preliminary rounds throughout the minor leagues and the winners of those rounds competing in single-elimination games against MLB teams, as Merritt suggested in 2017.
Whether you prefer the relative equity of an MLB-only tournament or the chaos of an all-levels competition, I think breaking up the season with a new tournament would be a big win for baseball. Not only are some fans bored of regular season games, but players need more rest. Yes, the 162-game season has been around for a long time and your dad’s favorite player never complained about 162 games, but the game has changed in many ways since the schedule expanded to its current length.
The best example of this is the number of pitchers throwing 100 mph or greater, as Tom Verducci wrote for Sports Illustrated: “Twenty-seven pitchers hit 100 mph in April, as many as pitchers did over the entire season 10 years ago.” We’re seeing teams manage players differently as a result of the ways the game has changed. Gone are the days of “iron men” and consecutive games streaks; only 2 players played 162 in 2022 and neither of them were the 2 that played 162 games in 2021.
Breaking up the season with the tournament would allow managers to rotate players, perhaps specifically because they discount the value of the tournament. That’s okay! If, say, Dusty Baker thinks the new tournament is a waste of time and wants to have a mostly bench or Triple-A roster for the tournament, that then allows him to save his best players for the regular season. This means the Astros likely won’t be winning a trophy in June, but maybe they’re more likely to win their division or more in October. That’s a choice, and it’s a perfectly fine one, because another team, perhaps the Mariners, will like their odds of finally winning a trophy and go all in for the June tournament. Do you think the celebration of the Mariners' first-ever trophy would be a bad time? It might reach Jack Grealish-levels of debauchery.
Even if the June trophy is not the Commissioner’s Trophy (which is just a “piece of metal” per Rob Manfred, lest we forget), it’s still going to mean something to the winners. And with time that meaning will only increase as the competition gains history. Whether we like it or not, the regular season is already getting discounted by teams as they rest players more and focus on building for October success. And it’s not just a baseball thing, as other leagues are considering similar moves in response to teams managing players’ workloads. By being proactive and creating a new tournament, the league could accommodate the way teams are already operating and create a fun new way to engage fans and make money (because that’s what it’s all about for the teams, anyway).
Baseball has to keep evolving, so kill the 162-game season, I say.