DETROIT – When the Major League Baseball season -- which has been pushed back at least two weeks by the coronavirus -- eventually starts up again, the league should not just start from that point in the current schedule.
The current 162-game schedule for each team is made up of about 19 match-ups against each division opponent, two series against the 10 non-division teams in the same league and about 20 inter-league games.
For example, the Detroit Tigers were scheduled to play each division opponent -- the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins -- 19 times this year, for a total of 76 games. They have 20 inter-league games -- 16 against NL West teams and four against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The remaining 66 games are made up of one home and one away series against each team in the AL East and AL West.
This structure is extremely important because division races are often won or lost in the 76 divisional games -- that’s nearly half the season.
Take a look at the Tigers’ 2020 schedule. At minimum, the first 12 games of the season are postponed, and seven of those games are against the Indians. If the start of the regular season is pushed back another week, the Tigers would miss an additional three games against the Indians.
Say, theoretically, baseball returned on Monday, April 20. The Tigers would miss 10 games against the Indians, five games against the Royals, three games against the Twins and three games against the Los Angeles Angels.
What’s the big deal? Cleveland is hoping to compete for a playoff spot this season, and giving the Indians 10 fewer games against the Tigers could be crippling for their chances. The Tribe went an incredible 18-1 against the Tigers last season. Take those games away and Cleveland went just 75-68 against the rest of the league.
Baseball can’t give the Twins 16 games against the Tigers and the Indians only nine games against the Tigers. With how dominant those two teams were against Detroit last season, that would essentially be like handing Minnesota a five-game lead at the start of the season.
This is only one example, but there are sure to be similar cases throughout the league. The New York Yankees went 17-2 against the Baltimore Orioles last season and would miss seven games against them if baseball simply picks up midway through the current schedule. Fellow AL East contender Tampa Bay wouldn’t lose a single on of their games against the Orioles.
What if the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers both win their divisions but finish tied in the standings? Their four-game series in St. Louis is currently postponed, so the only head-to-head series would be in Los Angeles. If the season doesn’t start before April 16, all seven of their meetings would be wiped away.
MLB officials have plenty of time to come up with contingency plans for the schedule. If the season is only delayed two weeks, they should have a 150-game schedule ready. If it gets pushed back further, they should have a 140-game schedule ready, and on and on.
If the delay is two weeks, the most obvious solution would be to cut out one three-game series against each division rival from the schedule. That would eliminate exactly 12 games for each team.
The Tigers, for example, could play four three-game series and two two-game series against the Indians, White Sox, Royals and Twins. Two of the three-game series and one of the two-game series would be at home, and the others would be on the road.
That way, the inter-league and inter-divisional games could remain intact, though the dates and locations would obviously have be adjusted for the changes.
Creating this massive schedule is by no means a simple task, but it’s not like MLB has a few guys sitting around a table with pads of paper. They can enter most of this into a program and have it spit out a new schedule, exceptions and special dates included.
It’s not atop the list of priorities as the league fights to slow the spread of coronavirus, but when the season resumes, the schedule is critically important. The easy solution would be to shrug, say “it’s just a weird season” and let the schedule continue as is. But the job of MLB isn’t to take the easy route -- it’s to do right by its teams.
Nobody knows when baseball will return, but when it does, it should come with an even playing field.