Should MLB Adopt the 154-Game Schedule?
New Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred recently suggested he was open to the idea of reducing the regular season from 162 to 154 games.
The 154 game schedule is not a new idea. The American and National League adopted the format before the 1904 season, ensuring the eight teams in each league played their opponents 22 times. Until 1904, teams played anywhere from 135 to 154 games a year in the decade prior, settling most years between 138 and 144. Expansion to 154 guaranteed teams 77 home dates for a sport dependent on attendance for revenue and the railroads for travel.
The schedule formula agreed to then remained in place until the American League expanded to 10 teams—an adventure worthy of its own article—prior to the 1961 season. With new teams in place in Los Angeles and Washington, teams now had nine opponents in a single division to schedule for, not the seven that had been in place for almost 60 years.
Simple division tells us that 154 and nine does not end in a whole number. A 153 or 162 game schedule did come out correctly and the American League decided to go with the 162-game version, ensuring each team would play each other 18 times. Although the National League announced in 1960 Houston and New York would receive expansion teams, they chose not to bring the Colts and Mets into the fold until 1962.
For one season, 1961, the AL played the new 162-game schedule as the NL stayed one last time with the 154-game season. Starting with 1962, and every non-strike season after, MLB has gone with the 162-game regular season. Through several rounds of expansion and a radical change in the postseason, the length of the regular year has remained stable now for 54 seasons.
Manfred has a point in looking at the workload today’s players have. With 10 teams making the playoffs as opposed to only two in 1962, the season now stretches from early-March’s Grapefruit and Cactus League’s exhibitions through early November if the World Series goes the distance. A long season for sure.
If in the future shortening the season is seriously debated, shrinking eight games off the schedule cuts around 10 days off the regular season and allows the Wild Card round to be expanded without lengthening the overall calendar.
The easiest way to cut the season, however, is the biggest obstacle to make it happen. An eight-game reduction would cut teams from the current 81 home games a year to 77. Although the loss of revenue could be made up by higher ticket prices or a guaranteed home game in the Wild Card round, the easiest way to cut is to lop off games in the division. Yes, clip the number of New York Mets-Miami Marlins contests from 19 to 17 per year.
Oh, and Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees and Chicago-Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals games too. Frankly, you can hear owners and television cringing at losing games guaranteed to draw well at the park and in the ratings. Can you ask the Tampa Bay Rays to cut four dates with Boston and New York off the schedule? Probably not.
An alternative would be to bring back another staple of baseball, the scheduled doubleheader. We could promise teams added doubleheaders can be those nasty separate admission day-night twinbills loathed by managers and players alike. Scheduling the doubleheader, say all in the division, would give owners the 81 home dates they need while shrinking the regular season from 26 to 25 weeks and keeps the option of playoff expansion on the table.
The Players Association would argue for a higher roster limit for those eight series per year and all that goes with it. If the owners somehow can make more money squeezing the schedule, then you could see it happen. If not, expect the current system to remain in place for the near future. Even with interleague and reduced schedules for games outside divisions, it works.