Shortened Season for Tanking Teams -- How might it work?

A while back, I suggested the crazy idea that tanking teams should be forced to close up shop early each season. It would be a very big change impacting the sport from multiple angles. I hadn't thought about any of that complexity before I posted it to social media -- oh, the horror!!

The thought would be to end the season for the fifth place teams in all six divisions on Labor Day. Putting the many valid questions aside, you hopefully see the underlying benefit to something this crazy. Team ownership certainly doesn't want to lose an entire month's worth of games, so they work pretty hard to make sure they don't come in last place each year. When pressed on that, I relented a bit and suggested having all of the 5th place teams play shortened series against each other instead.

Now, this is a pretty drastic change. If memory serves, I thought of this after I saw someone suggest some form of soccer-like relegation. On this quiet Friday afternoon, I thought it might be a fun exercise set those very serious implications to the side for the moment and come up with a solution to the nuts and bolts. How would the scheduling work?

Current 162-Game Schedules

The schedule opens and closes on weekends (Opening Day is the Thursday of the first weekend series) and consists of 27 weekend series, 25 mid-week series, and the mid-week All Star break with 52 series in all. At a high level, teams play against their 4 divisional opponents quite often, play home-and-home series against all of the other 10 teams in their league, and play a rotation of inter-league series with a "natural rival" opponent that they see annually. Some of these natural rivals are quite natural like Yankees/Mets, Cubs/White Sox, and Orioles/Nationals. The Tigers "natural rival," the Pittsburgh Pirates, is a little odd but a nice stadium to visit if you are in the region.

Opponent Games # of Opponents Games per Opponent Series per Opponent
Divisional 76 4 19 3 home, 3 away
Intra-league 66 10 6 or 7 1 home, 1 away
Division match-up (rotates)
16 5 3 or 4 1 4-game series -or-
1 home, 1 away
"Natural Rival"
4 1 4 1 home, 1 away
Each is a 2-game series

The inter-league scheduling adds a layer of complexity that isn't worth diving into here, but each team plays 20 inter-league games.


To implement my poorly thought-out plan, we'd have to split the season into two phases -- one before the breakpoint and the other after. All teams need common schedules leading up to that breakpoint. Attentive fans would know to keep an eye on records to see who advances and who doesn't but passive fans might not really notice much of a change from one phase to the next. The only obvious change would be the fact that games in the second phase aren't known until teams start clinching inclusion or exclusion based on record.

Starting to divide the season, there's really no option other than to play all of the non-divisional games before this breakpoint. Anything else would lead to unbalanced scheduling. That means the last phase would be only divisional series among the four remaining teams in each division. The fairly obvious answer here is to have the first phase consist of one less home series and one less away series against teams in the division. Otherwise, things get imbalanced and difficult to manage. This leaves each advancing team with 1 home-and-home against each of the other teams in their division during the last month. 6 series played over three weeks. That's... fairly appealing. Imagine the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and Blue Jays only playing each other for most of September. That creates a pretty compelling three-week sprint for the division race.

Now, it's worth pointing out that this effectively shortens the season for advancing teams because they all play one less home series and one less away series against the worst team in their division. Considering the fact that we're talking about the Orioles, Tigers, and Marlins here, that's not the end of the world. It wouldn't be crazy to shorten the season by one week in the hopes that playoff baseball isn't quite so cold in northern cities. The less drastic option would be to add to more inter-league baseball series. That scheduling is already a convoluted mess, so I doubt anyone would notice.

Scheduling the Last Three Weeks

Teams find a way to schedule playoff series with only a few days notice, so I don't think this would be as much of an issue. I also think we'd have great teams "clinching" inclusion in the last phase well in advance of that decision date. It's not like league officials will wake up on Monday morning knowing for the first time who all of the teams are. Clinching teams could be given home series to be played right after the decision date so they can begin selling tickets even if their opponent isn't identified right away. And knowing what we know about rebuilding teams these days, we can expect more than one team to clinch the bottom spot well in advance as well -- though the whole point of doing this would be to spur those bottom teams into gear.

If that's still a problem, here's one way to buy schedulers some time -- use the natural rival inter-league games as a buffer between identifying which teams advance and when those division games need to start. To draw that out a bit using the 2020 calendar:

  • Main phase of the MLB calendar: 138 games are played ending on Sunday Aug 30. By Monday morning, we know all of the teams who will advance.
  • Natural Rival week ending on Labor Day, Monday Sept 7: Every team plays their inter-league natural rival one series at home and the other on the road. In addition to what is a fairly prominent series for most teams, everyone is reasonably close to their home division making travel to their next divisional opponent reasonable (or at least as much as can be hoped).
  • Sept 8 through 27: Divisional sprint to the finish.

Here's all of that in an updated summary:

Opponent Games # of Opponents Games per Opponent Series per Opponent
First phase of the season -- weekend #1 through #23 -- 3/6/20 through X/X/20
Divisional 52 4 13 2 home, 2 away
Intra-league 66 10 6 or 7 1 home, 1 away
Division match-up (rotates)
20 5 3 or 4 1 series -or-
1 home, 1 away
Natural Rival Week -- week ending in weekend #24 -- ending Labor Day 9/7/20
6 1 6 1 home, 1 away
Each is a 2-game series
Sprint for the Division phase -- last three weeks of season -- ending 9/27/20
Divisional 18 3 6 1 home, 1 away

The Six Bottom-Dwellers

So, what do the non-advancing teams do? Well, my first thought was nothing. They go home. Stadiums sit empty. Players salaries are a little less (somehow). Broadcast partners lose out. Teams lose revenue. You want a real incentive to compete even if a team isn't going to win a title? This is it!! The loss of revenue is the whole point! And everyone involved is hurt by the fact that the team didn't try hard enough to compete. This is the same logic behind relegation. Hurt the bad teams' bottom lines so those will work really hard to not be bad.

Then I softened my view.

Instead, the bottom-dwellers all play against each other for the last three weeks. Players don't have anything to play for other than individual spots on next season's roster, but that's how it is now. We have to be honest here. I can't imagine anyone is particularly happy to have these games. Everyone knows the teams aren't very good and fewer fans are watching. But, it's a better solution than not having any games at all.

We can distribute six series over those three weeks. Travel is a very serious concern, but my solution would be to play one less game here and there. If a game gets rained out and there isn't a window to complete it -- oh well. We're talking about tanking teams playing each other -- it's okay if they end up playing 158 games in the season instead of 162.

Let's start with a home-and-home set of series against the team from the corresponding inter-league division. So, the AL-East loser plays the NL-East loser, AL-Central vs NL Central, and AL West vs NL West. From there, each team needs 2 home series and 2 away series against other bottom-dwellers. Again thinking about travel concerns, I would say use a "traveling pair" scheduling technique that we see with some college teams. For example, it's not uncommon to see teams visit Michigan and Michigan State on consecutive nights.

Mixing those two things together, here's what the scheduling might look like:

  • First midweek series: AL Central @ AL East, NL Central @ NL East, AL West vs NL West
  • Series over weekend #25: AL Central @ NL East, NL Central @ AL East, AL West vs NL West
  • Second midweek series: AL West @ AL Central, NL West @ NL Central, AL East vs NL East
  • Series over weekend #26: AL West @ NL Central, NL West @ AL Central, AL East vs NL East
  • Third midweek series: AL East @ AL West, NL East @ NL West, AL Central vs NL Central
  • Series over weekend #27: NL East @ AL West, AL East @ NL West, AL Central vs NL Central

The Tigers schedule last September would have looked something like: Tigers @ Orioles, Tigers @ Marlins, Mariners @ Tigers, Padres @ Tigers, Tigers @ Pirates, Pirates @ Tigers

So, there you have it. Yeah, it's a little nutty, but I still think this is better than relegation. Actually, this might just work. If nothing else, the scheduling certainly looks feasible enough to me.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of the <em>Bless You Boys</em> writing staff.