Baseball needs to shorten the regular-season schedule.
OK, I guess I can't just leave it at that because that declarative statement is far from self-evident. Allow me to explain.
The topic of a shortened season has come up again because of a rash of early-season postponements. It didn't come up because of some comments by the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo. It came up because of unusually volatile spring weather that has coincided with the earliest collective start date in baseball history.
Shortening the season is not a personal preference. I was in the press box at Dodger Stadium for Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, the only game ever played there in November. I was also there for Opening Day of this season, on March 29, the earliest regular-season game ever played at that ballpark. For me, less baseball is never better than more baseball. Even when it's the right thing to do.
With the new collective bargaining agreement, early start dates are an unfortunate necessity created by the current postseason format and the new provision that expands the definition of a season to 187 days from the previous 183. This provision has ironically made the rescheduling of all these postponed games easier.
The problem is that the players didn't push for extra days to simplify the effort to make up games. They wanted the additional days off to save on the physical and mental wear-and-tear that comes with playing a 162-game season. Now, many of those open dates are being soaked up by makeup games.
The bad weather that has persisted this spring is probably a fluke. However, the earlier you start the season, the greater the chance that you are going to run into this kind of a problem. Besides, the schedule shouldn't be shortened because of the weather in the spring. It should be shortened because of the weather in the fall.
March to November baseball is fraught with imminent peril, with impacts on everything from player safety to fan comfort to competitive integrity. As memorable as the Cubs' 14-10 win over the Braves was last weekend, any remembrance of the event carries the asterisk that the game should never have been played in the first place. How would we remember that game if those conditions surfaced during an early November World Series between teams in cold-weather cities?
By shortening the regular season, and mixing in at least one doubleheader per team per month -- always in advance of an off day -- we could easily avoid these ultra-early starts at the beginning, and kill the specter of November baseball at the end.
The right number: 154 games.
This was the figure going around a couple of years ago as a possibility in advance of the last round of labor negotiations. It didn't happen because both sides had bigger priorities. And even if the shortened schedule had really been pushed by the MLBPA, it would have run into the always insurmountable brick wall of money.
That money would become a tug of war in the form of revenue for the owners, and compensation for the players. With a shorter schedule that takes four home games per team off the docket, reduced sales for the owners means reduced payroll for the players. In theory.
The thing is, I'm not convinced that's what would happen in any kind of significant way. There are various ways to shore up the revenue shortfall. Plus, given the exponential growth of revenues in baseball in recent years, we are not really talking about a revenue decline. We're talking about a reduction of revenue growth.
Possible ways to marginalize this effect:
Fewer games decreases supply, but if teams effectively market the remaining games there could be a corresponding increase in demand. Per-game attendance could increase and perhaps at a slightly higher per-ticket cost.
Last season, just 59 players appeared in at least 150 games, down from 83 in 2016. As an increased focus on sports science convinces more teams that rest for their regular players is more a necessity than preference, this could be a growing trend. With a shorter schedule, maybe star players are rested more infrequently. Maybe, the heightened certainty of seeing your favorite player results in a per-game attendance bump.
With more days off, teams would be able to get through larger portions of the season with the kind of four-man rotations we mostly now associate with early April, when there are more open dates on the schedule. Bullpens would also be easier to manage. As a result, managers might figure out ways to get their top rotation options out there for a higher portion of a team's games. Those star pitchers might also help bump per-game attendance.
That brings us to the biggie: An expansion of the postseason schedule. We're talking about more games but not more teams, though if baseball expands, we'd probably get another couple of playoff teams whether we want them or not. In effect, we're talking about replacing some of the least profitable games with more of the most profitable.
The idea is to make the wild-card round a best-of-three, with the higher seed getting all the home games. Also, the league division series would become best-of-seven. These additional postseason games could make up for some of the lost revenue from the shorter season.
The happy side effect is that the new format enhances the integrity of the postseason. It also enhances the integrity of the regular season by increasing the incentives to avoid that wild-card round, especially if you're not going to get any home games out of it.
To a small degree, reducing the schedule by eight games impacts the final standings by increasing the role of random variation. This doesn't trouble me: 154 games is enough to sort teams out, just as it was for decades when there were only 16 teams. It is also long enough to keep pursuits of single-season records in play.
Also, a 154-game docket will work nicely if and when baseball expands to 32 teams and, likely, eight four-team divisions.
We could minimize any competitive effect by cutting interleague games, which in most cases have lost their luster anyway. You could retain four such games, with each team assigned a natural rival. This covers most teams, and for the others, we could rotate assignments. You would then play two games at home and two games away against your interleague rival. That leaves 150 games against teams from your own league.
In the current schedule format, each team plays 142 of its 162 games against opponents from its own league. In my format, you'd be playing eight more games (in a shorter overall schedule) against the teams you are actually competing with for postseason slots.
For any of this to happen, it will take a concentrated effort on behalf of the players' association when the next round of labor talks begin. An accord could be structured so that the effect on player salary is tied to observed, real-world effects on top-level revenue, which should become clear over the span of a few years. Money will always be the obstacle, but it should not be an insurmountable one.
What the numbers say:
A Fenway record you didn't see coming
There is a fun milestone coming up of which I suspect only a few people are aware. I know I'm not the only one, though, because I was inspired to do the following Retrosheet-based research by an offhand comment on a Facebook post from the page for the Institute for Baseball Studies. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to re-find that comment so I can't credit the individual, or compare my research to see if we match. Apparently, it's easier to research 19th century baseball than it is 21st century Facebook.
Anyway, as you might know, the St. Louis Cardinals play in what is ostensibly the third version of Busch Stadium. The current venue is across the street from where the old one used to be, where the Cardinals played from 1966 to 2005. So if you consider that the same "site" (which we're not doing for today's purposes), that would mean the Cardinals have played 4,145 regular-season games in that part of downtown St. Louis.
That's a lot, but even if we included the two Busch Stadiums as one site, that number would be nowhere near the record for most big league, regular-season games played in a single geographic location. In fact, it's not even the record for St. Louis.
The first version of Busch Stadium was actually Sportsman's Park, which acquired the "Busch" moniker beginning with the 1953 season. That stadium was located about 4 1/2 miles northwest of the current one. There were other versions of Sportsman's Park as well -- with different structures and field layouts -- but all were in the same place. Major league baseball was played on that spot from 1882 to 1891, then again from 1902 to 1966. Before that, there were proto-St. Louis big league teams that played 94 games there from 1875 to 1877, plus a National League team from Indianapolis that played three games there in 1878. To get the numbers below, you have to agree that the 19th century's National Association was a major league, which not everyone does -- it's actually a highly debated topic among baseball historians. For our purposes here, we're counting those games. You'll see why in a moment.
Prior to the middle of the 1920 season, Sportsman's Park had been solely occupied by the Browns. From that point to the end of the 1953 season, the venue was occupied by both the Browns and the Cardinals, with the former departing after 1953 to become the Baltimore Orioles. That's 33 1/2 seasons of double-occupancy. Using Retrosheet, I calculated that there were 8,362 major league regular-season games played on that site in northwest St. Louis.
That's a lot. More than any other site in any other city. But not for long.
When this season started, the Red Sox had played 8,337 regular-season games at Fenway Park. They have since played nine home games in the 2018 season, pushing the total to 8,346. That means with 21 more home games, the Fenway site will have seen more regular-season games than any other spot on Earth. Barring further postponements, that milestone game will be played June 6, when Boston hosts Detroit in a night game..
You could easily make this more complicated. If you wanted to include postseason games, Fenway actually broke Sportsman's Park's record last season. Also, if you wanted to expand our definition of "site" to adjacent locations, as per the Busch Stadium example above, then the Comiskey Park area of Chicago comes into play. The current White Sox venue was built across the street from the old one, and, together, that site has seen 8,408 regular-season games, this season included. Then again, if you include postseason games, then we've got a real race: the Comiskey site is at 8,433, Fenway is at 8,428, with the Sportsman's Park location frozen at 8,396.
But let's keep it simple and just declare June 6 as the date when Fenway will become the most prolific locale in the history of major league baseball. That's fun, right?
Since you asked:
Maddon being Maddon, as only Joe can
Last week, the Cubs and Pirates had a verbal kerfuffle that was as silly as it was meaningless. During a 13-5 Cubs win, Javier Baez flipped his bat and failed to run out a fly ball. It was a bad look, Baez's teammates told him it was a bad look, and after the game, Baez called himself out for the incident because he knew it was a bad look. Chances are, it's not going to happen again.
The next day, for whatever reason, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle went after Baez during his pregame news conference with the usual "respect for the game" kind of rhetoric. That left it to Cubs manager Joe Maddon to chime in with the last word the day after that, as Chicago was preparing to open a series against the Atlanta Braves.
In the middle of that news conference, Maddon was asked how his Cubs had gotten so good at shrugging off the kind of sideshows that come with being a high-profile team in a big media market.
"Otherwise, the best way to disarm it, um, what's the protagonist from all the Clancy movies? Ryan? Jack Ryan. It's the Jack Ryan theory. We've talked about this before, too. He wasn't only the president's friend, he was his best friend. The deal on the boat in 'Clear and Present Danger,' the drug bust in the Caribbean. I mean, why do you want to run away from that answer? Yeah. He was not only my friend, he was my best friend. That was Jack Ryan's advice to the president at the time, in the book, where these spin doctors are trying to create this smokescreen to throw everybody off course. Which, of course, eventually they're going to be put back on course at some point." Joe Maddon on, well, you figure it out.
I'm not making fun of Maddon in the lines that follow, at least not in a serious way. When it comes to giving thoughtful and expansive answers to any question you might have, and being entertaining while doing it, he's the best I've seen.
Maddon is also passionately literate and draws on his love of reading to make analogies. I'll never forget how in 2016 he expressed empathy for a disconsolate Tommy La Stella because of his own mind-bending experience in the 1970s of reading Kurt Vonnegut. However, sometimes in an effort to draw his analogies, Maddon can leave your head spinning. With that in mind, I leave it to you to sort out his response to the sideshow question:
"Part of it is authenticity. I've talked about that for a couple of years. We don't try to hide anything, I don't think. It's like, if you ask us a question, if we can't give you the answer, we'll tell you that we can't tell you. You know? The best way to tell you something I can't tell you is to tell you I can't tell you.
"Otherwise, the best way to disarm it, um, what's the protagonist from all the Clancy movies? Ryan? Jack Ryan. It's the Jack Ryan theory. We've talked about this before, too. He wasn't only the president's friend, he was his best friend. The deal on the boat in 'Clear and Present Danger,' the drug bust in the Caribbean. I mean, why do you want to run away from that answer? Yeah. He was not only my friend, he was my best friend. That was Jack Ryan's advice to the president at the time, in the book, where these spin doctors are trying to create this smokescreen to throw everybody off course. Which, of course, eventually they're going to be put back on course at some point.
"So I like the way our guys do this. I love the way our guys do this. They know that they have our support. Now, they're going to screw up. We all say some stupid things on occasion. We really try to keep that to a minimum. But I do like Javy's authentic conversation about our guys."
The scary thing is that after I typed it up, I realized that I actually knew what Maddon was getting at. Be transparent. Be authentic. If you are, all of the sideshow stuff will take care of itself. As for the strained analogy, would you have wanted him to answer the question in any other way? Quintessential Maddon.
Coming right up:
Watch out for the super-sophomores
Have you heard of the "sophomore slump"? Well, don't go looking for it in the 2018 season. In fact, if you want to see a surefire show on any given night, figure out where the sophomores are playing. Some of the most improved players in baseball just happened to be last season's top rookies. Here's just a sampling:
-- Aaron Judge, Yankees: Has a higher OPS so far than he did during his historic 52-homer rookie season and reached 60 career homers faster than any player in history.
-- Matt Chapman, Athletics: Last season, he looked like Brooks Robinson at the hot corner, only with a better arm. This season, he has improved his OPS from .785 to .954 and ranks fifth in WAR. All while still playing that otherworldly defense.
-- Paul DeJong, Cardinals: With his fifth homer of the season at Wrigley Field earlier this week, DeJong reached 30 career homers faster than any Cardinal, ever. His isolated power since he debuted last season (.248) is the highest of any current shortstop -- even better than Carlos Correa or Francisco Lindor.
-- Ozzie Albies, Braves: Has a .995 OPS this season and leads the National League in total bases. Not for nothing, his speed on the bases and his range at second base has marked Albies as a prime contender to take Baez's spot as the most exciting player in baseball.
-- Rafael Devers, Red Sox: So far, Devers has shown that his small-sample, age-20 OPS of .819 last season was no fluke. Through Thursday, he's at .881.
This list doesn't even include the amazing Jose Berrios. The Twins righty burned his rookie eligibility in 2016, when he had a 8.02 ERA over 14 starts, so he's not a true sophomore. Call him a redshirt sophomore. This season, Berrios sports a 1.63 ERA over his first four starts, with 29 strikeouts against one walk in 27 2/3 innings. Berrios is Minnesota's excuse for not signing an ace over the winter. The Twins already had one, and he's fun to watch.
We already thought we were in a golden age for young talent even before last season. With the way this season is progressing -- even with all the clouds -- the future looks very bright.