Fifty games? In a Major League Baseball season? It's some kind of joke, right?
We wish it was, but in 2020, the year a pandemic threatened to scratch entire professional and college sports seasons, it's starting to feel like baseball fans will be lucky to get even a 50-game season.
I know. "Lucky" isn't how I really feel, either. But when you consider that we're almost certainly going to see zero minor league games in 2020, a 50-game MLB regular season, followed by an expanded post-season, is starting to look not so bad.
But how would you possibly put together a 50-game schedule that would result in anything resembling legitimate results?
Well, first of all, you need to immediately expand your usual standards for "legitimacy."
Let's face it, from the moment MLB sent players home from their spring training sites to wait out the pandemic crisis, there was never going to be a MLB season with even a trace of legitimacy to it. Individual and team records will mean nothing within any historical context.
This was never going to be anything but a glorified exhibition season, so let's just not get wrapped up in what can or can't be considered "legitimate."
Yes, it could have been MORE legitimate if MLB owners had been willing to play 100+ games. as the MLB Players Association proposed. But that would have meant the teams' owners would lose a few more dollars and we know that nobody parts with a nickel more reluctantly than MLB owners (unless it's to pay off lobbyists and politicians to get favorable treatment from Congress, but that's a totally different issue).
It looks like it will be something like a 50-game schedule or nothing at all. "Nothing at all" would be a black eye for both MLB and the players' union, so let's assume they'll eventually agree to the short season.
Admittedly, the two sides probably deserve that black eye, given that neither of them has shown any regard for baseball fans throughout this process. But there's a whole new round of negotiations over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement on the horizon in the next year, so there will be plenty of time and opportunities for both parties to demonstrate just how much of a (dang) they don't give about fans then.
Back to the topic du jour. How could they make a 50-game schedule work?
First, throw out the American and National League labels fans have gotten accustomed to. We're going to have a bunch of divisions based strictly on geography. This accomplishes a couple of things.
First, from a safety standpoint, it limits travel for teams. Let's not forget that the COVID situation is not yet resolved. You minimize travel and you minimize the circle of contacts the uniformed members of each team have with different opponents.
Then you only play teams in your division. Period.
Not only does this minimize contact with other groups of players until the playoffs begin, but it at least offers some level of legitimacy to the results on the field.
If you play 50 games against 15 or 20 different teams, you don't face any of those teams often enough to determine relative strength. But if you play all 50 games against just a few rivals, you stand a much better chance of at least crowning legitimate Division Champions.
How many teams in a division? Well, it obviously has to be an even number or you'd always have one team taking several consecutive days off. So we're talking about five 6-team divisions, which allows teams to play ten games against each of their five divisional rivals.
That may not be as many games as they would typically play against division rivals in a 162-game season, but it's a lot more than, say, major college teams play against one another, and conferences still seem to think that's enough to declare conference champions.
So, you play 50 games and then start the postseason. But what would the postseason look like?
Well, if the owners had their way, they'd probably forgo the regular season entirely and just throw together a 30-team tournament. The prorated salary agreement from March only applies to regular-season games. No regular-season means no prorated player salaries. Problem solved!
But those greedy ballplayers won't stand for that, will they? They're going to want to get paid.
Reports are that both sides would agree to an expanded playoff structure this year, so let's say it's 16 teams, which seems to be the most prevalent number you hear being tossed around. How do you get 16 teams from five divisions, especially when there have been absolutely no cross-divisional games?
It's not so hard, really.
Obviously, the five Division Champions go in. You'd probably even say the five Division runner-ups should all go into the postseason. So there are ten of the 16 teams.
I suppose you could say the six remaining teams with the best regular-season records should get the remaining spots, but how do you know a third place team in Division A, with a record a couple games above .500 is really better than the third place team in Division B, with a record a couple of games under .500, when you have no cross-divisional head-to-head games to base that opinion on?
So, I say we just add the five 3rd place finishers into the mix, giving us 15 teams. But who gets that final 16th spot?
Since I'm one of those people who actually LIKES the current system that forces two teams in each league to play a one-game, win-or-go-home wild card game every year, I'm going to suggest expanding the postseason field to 17 (or, potentially, more) teams. Of the remaining 15 teams, the two with the best record play a one-game play-in game. If there are ties for those spots, you play additional one-game play-in games to get to the play-in game. Just the way you can potentially have multiple "game 163" scenarios in a normal season. Let's start the postseason with some immediate drama!
Once we have 16 teams, we have the issue of seeding. Seemingly, the simplest thing to do is seed the teams 1-16 based on regular-season record. (1-15, really. The wild card play-in game winner would be the automatic 16th seed). Seeding of teams with identical records could be determined by:
So let's plug teams into these divisions and see how this might play out.
One Good Earthquake and We're in the Ocean Division: Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, LA Angels, LA Dodgers, San Diego
Deserts, Mountains and Other Wastelands Division: Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Houston, St. Louis, Kansas City
We Think We're So Good We Don't Know Why They Let Anyone Else Play Division: NY Yankees, NY Mets, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Toronto
Damn It's Cold Here Division: Minnesota, Milwaukee, Chi White Sox, Chi Cubs, Detroit, Cleveland
We Didn't Fit Anywhere Else Division: Cincinnati, Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Miami
Could you make an argument for slightly different alignments? Absolutely. Do I want to hear your arguments? Not really.
Playing only 50 games, at six games per week, you only need a little over eight weeks to play your season. Kick things off Friday, July 10 and you can be finished with your regular season over Labor Day Weekend (just like the minor leagues do in any normal season).
With five divisions and only 50 games being played, you know you're going to have several very interesting series over the holiday. Then play your play-in game on Labor Day, itself. TV ratings, anyone?
So, 50 games later, we have standings that look like this:
Earthquake Division: 1-Dodgers 2-Oakland 3-Angels 4-San Diego 5-Seattle 6-San Francisco (Don't like these picks? I don't care)
Wastelands Division: 1-Houston 2-Arizona 3-St. Louis 4-Texas 5-Colorado 6-Kansas City (I still don't think Houston should even be allowed in the postseason, but that ship sailed)
Arrogant A-holes Division: 1-Philadelphia 2-Boston 3-Pittsburgh 5-Toronto 6-Mets (NYY in 4th?! Yeah. Screw the Yankees)
Ice Division: 1-Minnesota 2-Cleveland 3-Milwaukee 4-Cubs 5-White Sox 6-Detroit (Cubs in 4th? Yeah. See "Yankees" above. Same deal)
Leftovers Division: 1-Washington 2-Atlanta 3-Tampa Bay 4-Cincinnati 5-Baltimore 6-Miami (hey look, we found a way the Orioles might not finish in last place!)
We're going to say the Yankees and Cubs get the play-in game because, come on, who WOULDN'T want to hear the media and those two fan bases bitch forever about how they got screwed by having to play one game to get into the postseason?
We'll say the Cubs win. I'll admit this is possibly influenced by me not wanting there to be any chance the Twins have to face the Yankees in the postseason.
For the sake of brevity, we're just going to assume the 16 teams get seeded using a zig-zag process. Frankly, for this situation, it would probably make more sense than trying to analyze completely unrelated schedules to determine legitimate seeds, anyway.
So we end up with 1-Dodgers 2-Houston 3-Philadelphia 4-Minnesota 5-Washington 6-Atlanta 7-Cleveland 8-Boston 9-Arizona 10-Oakland 11-Angels 12-St. Louis 13-Pittsburgh 14-Milwaukee 15-Tampa Bay 16-Cubs
Feel better about seeing it in a (very informal) bracket? I'd love to show it to you, but I apparently can no longer upload my own pictures to go with my articles. So, you can either plug those seedings into one of the regions of that March Madness bracket you didn't get to use this spring or you can click this link to take you over to Knuckleballsblog.com where my informal bracket does show up.
With all of the teams set after Labor Day, we can kick off the postseason on, let's say, Wednesday, September 9. Let's allow 13 calendar days for each of the first couple of rounds, simply because you know the networks aren't going to want several games being played at once.
First round: September 9-22. Elite 8: September 24-October 7.
For the semi-finals and World Series, we can use the same schedule MLB uses for League Championships and World Series any other year. Start the semi-finals on a Friday and the World Series on a Tuesday (because that's how the networks want it, dammit).
That gives us the semi-final series from October 9-18. Which sets up the World Series beginning Tuesday, October 20-28. We are all finished before November 1. Easy-peasy.
Now, explain to me why you wouldn't watch these games. I know I would.