This started as part of the post on the rule changes, but then I realised it was really its own category. As part of the new CBA, MLB released what I keep hearing described as ‘the new balanced schedule’ late last year, with expanded interleague play and less intra-division games. The first thing to note about it is that it isn’t actually balanced, it’s just less unbalanced than the schedule that’s been used since 2013. Teams still play their own division more than anyone else, for example the Royals play 13 games against Detroit next year and 15 games total against the entire NL West. The fact that this seems to continually escape the notice of analysts is kind of baffling to me. The other day on MLB Network they were talking about how it would be harder for the Royals next year, playing fewer games against the AL Central and more against the big teams in the National League. I get why, on the face of it, one would think that, if the schedule were actually balanced. But it’s not. Yes, we play the Tigers six fewer times, but we also play Cleveland six fewer times and the games against big teams like Los Angeles and San Diego are balanced out by games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Of course, we can quantify this instead of just vaguely saying there are good teams and bad teams. This is a bit of a digression, but I like numbers and analysis, so if you want to skip the next couple of paragraphs I don’t blame you. Under the old schedule the Royals would be playing the NL East in interleague play, plus four games against St Louis, our ‘natural rival’. (Much more on this later, because it’s surprisingly important.) We’re still playing the NL East, and also playing three games each against the five teams in the NL West and the other four teams beside St Louis in the NL Central. Those extra 27 games mostly come from playing six fewer games against the other four teams in the AL Central, though we actually also play one fewer game against the NL East than we would have under the old schedule. That leaves two games unaccounted for, as far as I can tell they come from playing one fewer game against each of the AL East and West. There’s always a random element to which of those teams we played six or seven times, so there’s no way to know exactly which teams we would have played one extra time. That makes for a bit of uncertainty, but uncertainty always exists and it is important to acknowledge it and ideally quantify it, not just ignore it.
The standard way to judge strength of schedule is to just aggregate the winning percentage of the opponents weighted by number of games and compare before and after. This has the advantage of being simple, but it doesn’t really work because it blurs the distinction between how good (or bad) a team is and how many times you play that team. For example, The Los Angeles Dodgers were 111-51 last year. The two teams at the bottom of the NL West, Colorado and Arizona, were 68-94 and 74-88, respectively. The combined winning percentage is above .500, specifically .521, but if you played each team the same number of times—as the Royals do next year—that’s twice as many games against teams below .500 than above! Clearly averaging winning percentage doesn’t work. Instead you have to classify opponents (which you can kind of see in that above example—teams were classified into above and below .500) and see how the number of games against different classes changes. I’m going to use 70 wins as that’s decently close to the Royals win total last year. The only important thing is that a game against Cleveland or Detroit counts the same as a game against Los Angeles or San Diego. Of the 27 games lost from the old schedule, the Royals had at least six against teams with fewer than 70 wins last year, the six against Detroit. There might also have been two more, depending on which teams in the AL West and NL East we would have played one more time. (The AL East had no teams with fewer than 70 wins, so it doesn’t matter.) Of the 27 games gained under the new schedule, we actually have nine such games, against the Reds, Pirates and Rockies. It’s a pretty small difference, but the schedule is actually slightly easier for the Royals next year. Again, that 70 win number is an arbitrary one. But the answer actually doesn’t change even as you move the threshold around: The more balanced schedule is at worst the same and at best slightly easier for the Royals in 2023.
It’s also important to note that the Royals would normally play the NL East next year, which had two 100-win teams and an 87-win team, so the comparison might be different in 2024. But it’s useful to demonstrate two things. One is how superficially a lot of the analysts are approaching the new schedule, which bugs me. The other is how small the actual difference in strength actually is. It doesn’t really matter, and that’s without even getting into the fact that even a lopsided matchup in a single baseball game is a lot more even than most other sports.
Anyway, I’m not nearly as annoyed about the change itself as I am with the discussion about it. I have nothing against playing all 29 teams in a year. I’m enough of a traditionalist that I don’t really like interleague play and now that the DH is universal (grumble) there’s no extra appeal to playing in an NL city. But at the same time, I remember when I was a kid and how excited I was to see teams and players that I had never seen before come to the K. I always insisted we go to the game when there was an NL team in town. And I still like seeing new teams come to town. I have a goal of seeing every team play in person, which I’ll be able to achieve a lot quicker now. So I’m fine with that.
MLB did not do a good job of actually implementing this change. To be fair, it is hard to build a good schedule for all thirty teams, especially without changing the total number of games, which at this point is probably a non-starter*. But this year the Royals have back-to-back off days at the end of May/start of June and a Sunday off day in August. Back-to-back off days are annoying, but not really an issue. The issue is a Sunday off day. I know that way back when there were Sunday off days and Monday double headers, but that’s not what’s happening here. This is just a Sunday afternoon in August with no baseball, which ought to be illegal. (And I don’t mean against MLB rules, I mean there should be a federal law against this, along with the Constitutional amendment banning Astroturf and the designated hitter.)
*I say this because 162 feels like one of the game’s sacred numbers now, but emphasis on now. For almost sixty years the season was 154 games long, and it was only changed to 162 because of the change in the schedule necessitated by expansion to ten-team leagues—it was a balanced schedule of 18 games against each of the other nine teams. But when the leagues continued to expand the length stayed at 162 games. It’s probably not going to change again, but it might make things easier.
This is particularly frustrating because as difficult as schedule creating is in general, this one actually has a pretty easy solution. Both of those weird off days come about because of a two-game series against St Louis being put into a slot for a three-game series. But it would be very easy to make both into a three-game series! First off, both are mutual off days; the Cardinals could play us without them having to move another game. That would make for a 164-game schedule, which we don’t want, so we have to take away two games from elsewhere. Luckily, as mentioned previously, we have some ‘extra’ games against AL East and AL West opponents. Of those ten opponents, we play six of them six times (two three-game series) and four of them seven times (a three-game series and a four-game series). There is no reason we could not make two of those four-game series into three-game series, preserving both the 162-game schedule and the conventions of playing every Sunday and not having back-to-back off days. Hopefully the front offices complain about the lost revenue from weekend attendance and this gets fixed next year, because it is very easy.