The current MLB schedule allocates a total of 25 off days, setting the 162-game season into a 187-day calendar. Four of those days go to the All Star break, and one comes the day after Opening Day, and on average, another day is sucked up by a make-up game towards the end of the season.
The nature of the MLB calendar has led to a number of growing trends — managers’ reluctance to use relievers three days in a row, and the higher number of pitchers per game has necessitated larger rosters. Anyone who’s watched a Yankee game over the past three years has seen them adopt an informal scheduled rest system, giving players an extra day off in July so they’re hopefully fresher come October.
Of course while all this is happening, we’re on an inevitable path to expanded playoffs. While I don’t think we’ll see a permanent shift to the 16-team field of 2020, I think we’re certainly getting a 12 or 14-team bracket, and the problem with expanded playoffs is it reduces the importance of having such a long season. You just don’t need to be as good as long if more teams make the postseason.
All these factors lead to me think that, after a shortened 2020 and an almost-certainly shortened 2021 season, MLB needs to reduce the schedule permanently. A return to the classic 154-game season is the right move, and helps to solve a lot of those issues above. A 154-game season translates to 33 off-days, and if we remove those six that go to the All Star break, Opening Day and a makeup game, we’re left with 27. The major league calendar is 26 weeks, meaning teams would be allocated one off-day every week, rather than the current model of one off-day every ten.
From a performance standpoint, the best players are going to play a higher percentage of the total innings across the season. This is one of the problems baseball struggles with, especially with respect to other sports. LeBron James touches the ball on every possession, and Patrick Mahomes literally controls the entire flow of a football game. Aaron Judge just doesn’t have that much of an impact on any given game, just as part of the fundamental nature of baseball.
Weekly off-days means, hopefully, players stay fresher, and in the case of the Yankees, stop getting hurt quite so often, or for people like Luke Voit, actually get to rest an injured abdomen or foot rather than having to play through it. An extra eight off-days probably doesn’t reduce the risk that Aroldis Chapman blows out his elbow on any randomly selected pitch, but it probably reduces the risk of general burnout and the performance decline associated with that.
From a competitive standpoint, an expanded postseason means the regular season has to be shorter. By going from two, to four, to five, to six or seven playoff teams in each league, baseball has admitted that the regular season matters less and less. In the ‘20s and ‘30s, the regular season meant a lot, seeing as the World Series was the only postseason round that existed. You either won the pennant and played in October, or you went home.
In 2020, the playoff picture was very different. Even though the Dodgers ran the table, being the best regular season and postseason team, teams like the Yankees and Astros made the playoffs despite middling records. The importance of any one regular season game was significantly watered down because there was just less of a chance of you being eliminated from playoff contention.
This is not going to change. Expanded playoffs was the biggest genie to come out of the lamp in negotiations around the 2020 season, and it’s not going back in. In one form or another, the regular season is going to be less important as more teams make the playoffs. Lean into that. Shorten the season, even if only by a little, give the best players more time to rest and a higher portion of the innings.