MLB: Why September Baseball Stinks, and How to Fix Baseball's Season & Playoffs
Major League Baseball slides into September—is your favorite team still fighting for a spot in the postseason?
For fans of many Major League Baseball franchises, the answer is no. As of today, 16 of the 30 teams have virtually no playoff hope, and five others have a slim chance to sneak in.
There are essentially only nine teams fighting for the eight postseason berths.
In a recent column for Sports Illustrated, Frank Deford wrote about this issue and several other important problems with baseball.
He also proposed some radical solutions. As crazy as they may sound, they could go a long way toward improving the MLB season and keeping casual fans interested.
With that in mind, let’s explore some of baseball's problems and some of Frank's suggestions, and consider a plan that would make significant changes to the season and improve Major League Baseball.
Early April Has Lousy Baseball Weather
While it’s doubtful that many folks were thrilled with triple-digit heat during the summer, it’s unlikely that baseball fans and players were happy with the cool weather in late March and early April.
Several temperatures at game time from the first week of the season were in the low 40s.
The Opening Day temperature in Yankee Stadium was 39 degrees, and that was in the early afternoon!
Baseball is a summer sport. The ball flies much better in warmer temperatures.
Not only is it better for the game itself, but the fans shouldn't need their winter gear for a trip to the ballpark.
Meaningless Games Drive People Away from Baseball
As of Labor Day this year, about two-thirds of the teams' chances for postseason play are slim to none.
Despite this, all of the teams have about two dozen games left in the regular season.
How is this a good thing for baseball?
After the minor league seasons end, the active rosters expand to 40 players.
Instead of playing for this season, teams have “late season spring training” to see if their AAA players can make it in the big leagues.
With multiple teams doing this, the quality of the game deteriorates, and teams don't even get a realistic test of the AAA players against major league talent.
Because of the relatively low number of teams that qualify for baseball’s postseason, many teams will be out of contention by late August or early September.
The casual fan gives up on baseball and starts watching their favorite NCAA or NFL team. And why shouldn't they? There’s no hope left for their baseball team this year.
Even if they’re not football fans, they’re probably more likely to go watch new episodes of their favorite TV show rather than watch a meaningless baseball game.
There are many other ways a person can spend leisure time other than watching mediocre sports.
Player Salaries and Few Postseason Teams Let Big Spenders Dominate
Most professional sports leagues make a reasonable effort to balance teams' player salaries across the league to promote competition.
MLB has a luxury tax that is a joke, and so several teams (not just the Yankees) are easily able to out-spend their competitors.
Combine this with the small number of teams in the postseason, and it shouldn't surprise people that the richer teams are able to easily take the majority of playoff spots.
It's not impossible for teams that aren't big spenders to make the postseason, but it is harder.
Since there are only four postseason berths per league, and the teams with huge payrolls are likely to be better, the teams with smaller payrolls have a substantially tougher road to the postseason.
Unlike the other major American team sports, fans of a majority of teams have given up on any hope of the postseason well in advance of the regular season's conclusion.
This cannot be a good thing.
What Should Be Done?
Frank Deford made several suggestions in his column to make improvements to the regular season and postseason in Major League Baseball:
1. end the season on Labor Day; 2. reduce the length of the regular season to 140 games; 3. double the number of playoff teams; and 4. consider opening the postseason with round-robin play.
The heads of baseball purists may have exploded after reading Deford’s column. Nevertheless, it makes sense to analyze whether these suggestions have merit and would help professional baseball.
MLB has issues. It unquestionably has more competition now than it did in the past, both in regards to other sports (especially football) and other non-sport entertainment options.
If it is not able to retain casual fans, it will not be nearly as strong as it once was, and the sport and the fans will suffer.
So, let’s get to specifics. What could MLB change regarding its regular season and postseason to keep games meaningful and keep fans interested?
Before Changing the Season, Let’s Balance the Leagues
Before we start, I’m going to assume that MLB decides that it won't be the end of the world to have interleague play every day and chooses to balance the divisions and leagues.
It does not make sense, and is simply unfair, to have one division with only four teams while another division has six teams.
Cincinnati has to fight five teams for a division title, while Oakland only has to battle three. It's not right and everyone knows it.
With each league having three five-team divisions, scheduling will be much easier and fairer than it has been with the unbalanced leagues and divisions.
Each team from the same division will have nearly an identical schedule.
Now, let’s get started!
Cut the Regular Season by 20 Percent
While cutting it to 140 games is a large reduction, it’s still not enough to avoid the lousy early April weather and the problems of meaningless September games.
We’re going to cut more.
Each team will play 130 games, with 108 games in its own league—48 against its four division opponents and 60 against the remaining 10 teams.
For interleague play, each team will play 22 games, all against one division.
Against four opponents, the team will meet for a four-game series (two opponents at home, two on the road). Six games will be against the last opponent, with three at home and three on the road.
The schedule will contain eight two-game series, 22 three-game series and 12 four-game series, for a total of 130 games. Each team within a division will have an identical schedule of games against its own league, and a very similar schedule of interleague games.
Reducing the regular season from 162 games to 130 will also allow a reduction of the regular season from 26 weeks to 20.5 weeks. There will still be plenty of baseball, but not so much that the season continues past its “sell by” date.
So when does this season start?
Start the Regular Season Later and Finish It Sooner
Now that the regular season is down to 130 games, MLB can avoid the cold of early April and the weakened competition of September.
Opening day will be no earlier than April 10 and no later than April 16.
It will be on a Thursday (specifically the Thursday after the second Tuesday in April). This is much more in line with traditional and more reasonable start dates of the past.
The All-Star game will continue to be in July (between the 9th and the 15th). While the “first half” and “second half” of the season won’t be nearly as balanced as before, it will still provide a break and still showcase MLB's most talented players.
The last day of the regular season, as Deford suggested, will be Labor Day.
All final regular season series will be four-game sets from Friday to Monday. As summer vacations conclude, the vacation weekend will determine who is in the postseason, who is out and who gets the home games in the first round.
The regular season will last 145 days and include 130 games, a three-day All Star break and 12 off-days.
For comparison, the current season lasts 182 days and contains 162 games, a three-day All Star break, and 17 off-days.
Now, let the postseason begin…
The Wildcard Round
Building on Deford’s suggestion, fans will see a lot of great baseball in early September.
In each league, the top eight teams will advance to the postseason (three division winners and five Wild Cards).
Teams will be seeded one through eight, with the division winners receiving the top three seeds. If needed, tiebreakers (not one-game playoffs) will determine seeding order.
Seeds one, four, five and eight will be placed in one group, and seeds two, three, six and seven will be placed in another group.
The teams will play a round-robin mini tournament. Each team in the group will play two games vs. one opponent followed by a travel (or makeup) day, and will then repeat until every team has played each opponent in the group twice (six games in eight days).
The higher seed will always be the home team in the Wild Card round.
Therefore, the two best division winners in each league will be at home for all six games. The last division winner and best Wild Card will host four of the six games, and the next two Wild Card teams will host two of the six games.
The seventh and eighth seeds will play every Wild Card round game on the road.
More teams will make the playoffs, but the home field goes to the better team. The postseason contenders with the worst records may never play a home game in the postseason.
The top two teams from each group advance. The bottom two teams from each group are finished for the year.
In nine days, the league will have more postseason games (48) than are even possible in the entire current postseason format (41).
Having eliminated half of the teams, the postseason continues…
Shorter Series Make Each Game Intense
In the NCAA basketball tournament and in the NFL playoffs, it's critical to win every game. If you lose, you're done.
The intensity of each game is part of what makes these events so exciting.
While a one-and-done approach isn't necessarily the best for baseball, the importance of each game is higher when there are fewer games per series involved.
The League Division Series and the League Championship Series will both be a best-of-five series.
Having a great pitching staff top-to-bottom will help, as teams may not be able to align their rotation as well as they would like to after the Wild Card tournament.
For those good enough to win their League Championship Series, the World Series will be as it has been for decades—a best-of-seven series.
So what is the time-line for this postseason?
Five Great Weeks of Baseball
The current postseason, with a total of four Division Series (five games), two League Championship Series (seven games) and one World Series (seven games), contains a minimum of 24 games and a maximum of 41.
If the World Series reaches Game 7, the postseason lasts 28 days.
In recent years, Game 1 of the World Series has often started after October 20, and the series can easily last until Halloween or later.
Creating the Wild Card round will bring many more games to the postseason.
Even with a shortened LCS, there will be a minimum of 70 games and a maximum of 85. For all of these additional games, the length of the postseason will only marginally increase, moving up to a maximum of 37 days.
Not only will fans see more postseason action, but they’ll never have to wait until November for a World Series Game 7.
The World Series will always start in early October, and the latest possible Game 7 would be on October 15. The League Championship Series will always start in September and will end in either September or October.
While there would be fewer regular season games, there would be many more postseason games.
Doesn’t it make sense to trade meaningless September “late spring training” games for meaningful postseason ones?
You Can’t Do That, Because… (Part 1)
Any proposal for change in Major League Baseball is going to be met with opposition.
A bit of perspective can help.
One likely objection: "The regular season is long in order to determine who is worthy of the postseason. If the postseason is expanded, the regular season is devalued."
The regular season is already devalued, partly by being too long.
Baseball is a warm-weather sport. The cold weather of early April is not conducive to good baseball (there’s a good reason spring training is in Florida and Arizona).
At the other end of the season, September’s only value to many teams is to see if their prospects might be able to make the big leagues next year.
Many teams are effectively out of postseason contention. If there were more postseason berths, more of the teams still have something to play for this year late in the regular season.
You Can’t Do That, Because… (Part 2)
Another expected objection to the changes: "By changing the length of the season, you can’t compare current player records to player records from prior years."
Statistics are different throughout eras and will continue to be.
Rules have changed and will change again. The home run rule was modified several times. The size of ballparks (outfields) has not only varied throughout history, but varies today in different ballparks.
The pitcher’s mound was lowered. The strike zone has changed. The designated hitter was created. Teams moved from a five-man rotation to a four-man rotation. The steroid era resulted in many changes to the record books.
Some people didn’t accept Roger Maris breaking the single-season home run record because Babe Ruth played when there were only 154 games in a season. Others don’t want to acknowledge Bonds’ home run records because of steroid use.
But people who want to compare players of different eras will find ways to do so. Statisticians will continue to come up with new ways to analyze records, players, teams and the debates will continue.
And that’s fine.
The Benefits of Change (Part 1)
In what other ways might baseball get better?
Big Spenders Unable to Keep Others Out of Postseason
The Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies can still spend tons of money on players, but with eight teams getting to the postseason from each league, there’s no way they can keep all of the other teams out.
Good teams without the huge payrolls would be rewarded with postseason play.
Tampa Bay, even at 14 games above .500 on Labor Day, will be finished by the end of the regular season. While this is “the way it’s always been,” that doesn’t make it right.
Less Wear and Tear on Players Over Time
There are no guarantees, but playing in fewer games could help keep the players in better health.
After ten seasons with 130 regular season games, MLB players will have played the equivalent of only eight seasons with 162 regular season games.
In addition, playing fewer games in cold April weather can only help.
More Weekend Games with More Saturday Doubleheaders
Technically, there’s no reason this can’t happen now.
But teams may have an added incentive with only 12 off-days during the regular season.
If each team participated in two Saturday doubleheaders (one at home and one on the road), all of the teams would have two additional days off.
Teams could also benefit from the higher attendance of a weekend vs. a weekday game.
The Benefits of Change (Part 2)
Better Chance to Recover After Bad Start
By eliminating 20 percent of the regular season, every game is that much more important.
But because the season is still 130 games, and because twice as many teams make the playoffs, even teams that struggled early will have a chance to come on strong late and grab a spot in the postseason.
Better Competition with Fall NFL Games
There will always be an overlap between the baseball and football seasons, but MLB can do so much more to keep people watching the games on the diamond.
Postseason games after Labor Day will help keep the focus on baseball.
Teams Keep Fans Cheering Later In the Season
This is perhaps the biggest benefit.
Casual fans are more likely to keep watching and attending the games when their team has a better shot at postseason play.
Whether the team is fighting for a division title, a high seed or just to make it into the postseason, more teams will have those opportunities, and more fans will show up or tune in.
The 2011 season is a bit extreme, but it illustrates the point well. With several weeks left in the season, over half of the teams are looking ahead to next year.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Change Is Good
As old as baseball is, it can be very resistant to change when it wants to be.
But regardless of what MLB decides to do, the world around it has changed.
Baseball is no longer the only game in town—not by a long shot. There are other sports and entertainment options, and many, more ways people can spend their time and money.
Major League Baseball needs to adapt.
There will always be some who want to keep baseball “the way it is.”
But baseball always changes, although at times it is painfully slow to change. Hopefully a better regular season and better postseason will become a reality sooner and not later.