IN recent days, a lot of talk has been generated from a couple of comments that were made by players and expanded upon further by Commissioner Manfred. One area of discussion focused on the universal use of the DH in the NL and the other dealt with a reduction back to a 154 game schedule. I am now going to spend some time elaborating on both of these and how my views are changing as it relates to where baseball is now in 2015.
Let’s start with the discussion about the designated hitter. When I first discovered baseball as a kid in 1985 at the college level and especially in 1986 when I was forever hooked by the big league game, I found it odd that the NL and AL had different rules. My 13 year old mind thought, the NFL does not use different rules for NFC and AFC teams, the NBA didn’t when you switched from Eastern to Western Conference teams, so why does baseball do this? At that time though, it was critical to understand that Major League Baseball as we knew it was in effect two very separate leagues and the only areas of common ground they shared were in terms of the overall governance of the sport, in that the Commissioner of Baseball had power over both of them and both had working agreements with the minor leagues and with each other when it came to the World Series and All Star Game. But through 1999 in terms of legal recognition, the National and American Leagues were two separate entities.
When the NFL and AFL decided to join forces in 1967 with a complete merger in place by 1970, the two leagues had to agree upon which rules to follow, one key difference being the AFL using a 2-point conversion option in addition to the standard 1 point kick attempt. The NFL version would become law of the land, but the 2 point conversion would return after 24 seasons for the 1994 campaign. When the NBA took on four former ABA teams in 1976, those teams had to adjust as the NBA did not have the 3 point shot, an ABA invention. Three seasons later when the 1979-80 campaign opened, it was back and now is a tremendous offensive weapon for most successful teams. While I am not going to claim to be as much of an expert on hockey, I am sure there were ideas from the old WHA which would have four of its teams absorbed into the NHL in 1979 and hockey today looks nothing like the game did 35 years ago. So what does this merger history of our other major sports leagues have to do with baseball? Simple, the two leagues quietly merged in 2000 and since then, legally we have had one baseball league known as Major League Baseball. Now days, the AL and NL are largely unified, they share umpires, all baseball business is conducted as one total organization where votes are based on a majority or three fourths majority vote of the total ownership, where as in the past, some procedures required three quarter votes in favor within your own league and just a simple majority in the other league, sometimes the other league had no say at all. So in 1973 when the American League adopted the designated hitter, the National League could not stop them from doing so and in the same manner, the AL could not force the NL to use it.
But now, we are in a merged league, the 16th season of a joint solo baseball league is upon us. From the time of the completed mergers going forward, all teams in the other sports played by the same rules, you did not have NFL teams playing under different rules in 1985, the absorbed ABA teams into the NBA did not have their own special 3 point rules in place 16 years post-merger in 1992-93, no special hockey rules either for those teams 16 years post-merger in 1995-96. Put simply, baseball needs to get with the program and have one uniform rule in today’s era of interleague play. If you want a DH league and a non-DH league, interleague play would need to go away and thus, MLB would need to expand to 32 or contract to 28 teams. We know the ladder is not going to happen and while expansion could and should happen at some point, it is not likely in the next three to five years and no matter your views on interleague play, usually when something new is brought into a sport, it is there to stay in some form or another.
Since I have openly advocated for a schedule where all teams play everyone, this only furthers the point that baseball needs to either fully embrace or get rid of the DH. Given the lack luster ability of modern pitchers to hit a ball in today’s hyper specialized game of baseball, that is a point for the DH, which until a few years ago I opposed. Pitchers are no longer trained to hit unless they are truly talented as two-way players in high school and college. As professionals, they never take a turn at bat until double or triple A and even then, only if it is a game between affiliates that are both from NL organizations. Here, football is the obvious comparison, because by the time you get to the top level of the professional sport, you are a specialist on offense, defense, or you are a kicker, you are not expected to play both safety and receiver, both offensive and defensive line, and you are certainly never going to be both a quarterback or running back and a defensive player. Since modern baseball has taken this approach with pitchers and decided that they are no longer going to be able to train as hitters in the minor leagues for as long as three or more years while they develop as professional ball players, this too brings me to another point in favor of a universal DH.
The big issue I have had with the DH was that it limited the number of strategies employed by the manager, but given the high use of the bullpen in today’s game with a strict pitch count in place for most starters, how much strategy is left when you decide to pinch hit for the pitcher in the sixth inning, when he might have been only and out or two away from being removed during the seventh inning anyway? Other than the overrated double switch, which hurts a team more by sometimes taking out a more capable hitter for what is in theory a weaker hitter from the bench to push back the pitchers turn in the batting order, all remaining strategies of baseball are in place even with the DH. Teams must decide when to hit and run, when and where to shift, what pitch sequence to throw, which batters to pitch around, which pitcher to bring into the game during a high leverage situation with two runners in scoring position in the eighth inning with a lead of just one run, where a hit could flip the game to the oppositions favor. All of those things, all of those beautiful strategies in baseball will always remain, even in a DH league. Thus, after opposing it for years, I have come around to being a supporter of the DH and it should be uniform for all teams in our single baseball league. The only time a pitcher should hit is if the DH has to be given up and moved into the field of play as a position player and while rare, this is something that should remain, not because I want to see pitchers hit, but because it will on those occasions force the manager into a difficult decision.
Now on to the length of the schedule. Baseball for a large part of its history from around 1908 to 1960 with only a couple of exceptions played a 154 game schedule. The growth to 162 with the 1961 AL and 1962 NL expansion was simply out of utility, not need. Baseball played a balanced schedule in 1960, 154 games divided by seven teams in your league only equaled 22 games against each team. IN the new format, 18 games against each of nine teams would be played, had the 154 been kept, the schedule would have been 18 games against one and 17 games against eight teams. Scheduling of course in the modern game had become much more complicated than even that simple mathematic result.
However, 154 in today’s game is very doable and in fact, you could retain the proposed format I shared last summer and give players a day off every single week.
The schedule I proposed last summer featured contests against every single team, three games against 14 and four against the 15th team outside your league for a total of 46, this would be played as seven series of three games at home, seven series of three on the road, and then a two-two home and road set that would be played over four consecutive dates, the rivalry series like we have now. IN a team’s own league, the ten teams outside the division would be played six games each, three home and three away for another 60 games, while the remaining 56 games would be divided into 14 games against each team inside the division, seven games home and seven away verses each team, with a three game and a four game series to be played at each ballpark home and away. Moving to a 154 game schedule, you would simply reduce the divisional games to a total of 48, or 12 total against each team. Now, you would be rid of those four game series and the only four-game set would be the rivalry home-road on the interleague schedule. While the length of the season on the calendar would not change, you would add more off days on the schedule, such that a team would have an off day every single week accept one and that one week where the off day would not exist would be for the two-two interleague series against the regional rival and all those rivalry games would be scheduled for the first Monday-Thursday after the All Star Break.
For those who will surely point to the baseball records that were broken on the longer schedule, I would point out that the number of at bats and not the number of games played would be a key factor when looking at offensive stats and baseball had a very compelling record pace set by one Albert Bell, the only player to ever go 50-50 doubles and homers and that was in a shortened 144 game season in 1995. A 154 game schedule would also allow baseball if it wanted too under a unified league, to consider more of a geographic realignment that would reduce travel, while exposing fans to all teams from across the country. One major idea which would be unpopular with many traditional fans but supported by players I am sure would be to play 82 games inside the division, 16 each against three teams and 17 each against the remaining two divisional opponents, the remaining 72 games against 24 teams would be played as 24 three game series, playing 12 teams on the road and 12 teams at home. The home and road assignments would switch each season. Furthermore, where duel markets were involved, teams would face those clubs either both at home or both on the road in the same season, so as to not allow for fans in those markets to see every team every year while denying that to fans elsewhere around the new league structure.
What would that alignment look like? Well for starters, let’s take a page out of the old hockey manual and name our five divisions after key figures in baseball history. Who those figures would be would certainly trigger debate, but I would want them to represent a variety of baseball generations, positions on the field and they should represent both American and international baseball culture and history. I won’t name the divisions here, but I will propose this alignment. If and when baseball expands to 32, I would favor four divisions of eight teams rather than eight divisions of four, stronger teams as wild cards are preferred in the former over weaker division winners which would surely come about from the ladder. The scheduling formula for 154 games and 32 teams would be simple, three games against 24 teams outside the division for 72 total just as proposed above, while the 82 games inside the division would be split among seven opponents, playing 12 games against five teams and 11 against the remaining two. But now, here is the new alignment with our current 30 teams.
Division 1, Mariners, Athletics, Giants, Dodgers, Angels, Padres.
Division 2, Rangers, Astros, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Royals, Twins.
Division 3, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, White Sox, Tigers.
Division 4, Reds, Indians, Pirates, Blue Jays, Rays, Marlins.
Division 5, Nationals, Orioles, Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox.
This post briefly ran for about 35 minutes with a calculation error that was based on 162 instead of 154 game scheduling, correction now reflected in posting above.