MLB Must Consider Shortened Season as It Loses Attendance, Weather War

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistApril 19, 2018

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 01: Anthony Rizzo #44 of the Chicago Cubs in the dugout before the game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on April 1, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Anthony Rizzo
B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images

The MLB season is too dang long.

That's not a universal truism, but it's definitely the opinion of Chicago Cubs first baseman and three-time All-Star Anthony Rizzo. He has a point.

Here's what Rizzo had to say Tuesday on Chicago's ESPN 1000 (via ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers):

"I think we play too much baseball. Yes, guys are going to take pay cuts. But are we playing this game for the money or do we love this game? I know it's both, but in the long run it will make everything better. ... In a perfect world, we'd start the season later and play a few scheduled doubleheaders going into an off day. As a fan you're going to a baseball game in April, and it's raining, snowing and [with] freezing rain. Is it really that much fun? That's my question."

Thus far, Mother Nature has bolstered Rizzo's complaint. MLB initiated its season on March 29, the earliest Opening Day ever. On Sunday alone, there were six rainouts, bringing the season total to a whopping 21. 

Partly, that's an unavoidable act of God. Short of requiring all clubs to install retractable roofs, baseball's powers that be can't control the weather. 

And even domes haven't been able to escape the wrath, as freezing temperatures sent ice falling through a hole in the Blue Jays' roof on Monday.

What they could do, as Rizzo suggested, is shorten the season, starting deeper into spring when rainouts are less likely. Sunny weather attracts fans; dreary drizzles drive them away.

At the very least, Opening Day should be pushed into mid-April. The dream scenario might even be delaying the season until late-April or the start of May.

It's a widely known fact MLB teams hate home games during the school year.

Dome and warm-weather teams already suffer by having to host early-season series when fewer fans can attend. In some cases, those teams are forced to waste the sole visit of a big ticket draw like the Yankees or Red Sox.

This all hurts the owners' pockets.

Eliminating weeks when nightmarish weather strikes and attendance suffers is not an illogical ask.

Gary Landers/Associated Press

As Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan reported Monday, 2018's average MLB crowd of 27,532 is down about 2,700 fans per game from 2017, roughly a 10 percent dip. To paraphrase former Vice President Joe Biden, that's a big frickin' deal.

As Passan added, the downtick in attendance might signal a more serious problem for baseball:

"Inside front offices all spring, officials wondered whether the significant number of teams that neither spent in free agency nor harbored realistic notions of contention would have a tangible, negative effect on fans attending games."

Fair enough. Surely the rainouts have played a role, though.

Back to Rizzo's contention: Would it be prudent to truncate the season? And, if so, by how many games?

The 162-game schedule has existed since 1962, an interesting bit of numerical symmetry. Before then, 154 games was the standard, with fluctuations throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries. 

The most obvious modification would be 154 contests. Baseball, arguably more than any other sport, is steeped in tradition. A return to 154 could play on the nostalgia of many fans and commentators. 

Said nostalgia might offset the most obvious argument against shortening the season: stats.

This is a game built on numbers and records. If the season were shortened, how could we judge home run totals, a pitcher notching 20 wins or 200 strikeouts, a .400 average, etc.

Here's one answer: The steroid era erased all that. As hallowed marks became mere video-game anomalies, the sanctity of the stat sheet was forever tarnished.

Barry Bonds' 73 home runs don't matter the way Roger Maris' 61 and especially Babe Ruth's 60 did. Quick: What is Bonds' record all-time home run total? If you hesitated or came up blank, you proved our point.

Here's another answer: The popularity and increased acceptance of advanced metrics has taken stats to a new level.

We care less about batting average, pitching wins and even home run totals, and more about WAR and FIP and launch angle. We're drilling deeper. In the process, we've relegated the old metrics to the dustbin of history.

Then there's the matter of injuries. Fewer regular-season tussles decrease the likelihood of key contributors and bankable stars limping into the postseason or missing it entirely. 

John Minchillo/Associated Press

Rizzo hit on the biggest obstacle to a shorter season: money. Yes, he claimed he'd accept a diminished paycheck. He's also an established star who could earn more than $50 million between now and 2021 if the Cubs exercise his options. 

What about younger players just breaking in? And what about the Major League Baseball Players Association, which is loath to accept anything that negatively impacts its members' bottom line?

"I appreciate the thought, but it's not going to work," former Miami Marlins president and CBS Sports analyst David Samson said after Rizzo's remarks, per CBSSports.com' Dayn Perry. "Just like owners aren't going to take fewer home games. We tried in the last collective bargaining agreement to maybe go to 154 games, and we couldn't find enough teams who were willing to lose four home games only."

If that 10 percent attendance decline continues or spikes, it may alter the calculus. For now, Samson is probably correct. Cold, hard cash will keep the season at 162 games despite the cold, hard rain, not to mention the injuries and player griping.

Still, Rizzo isn't wrong.

While MLB continues to obsess over individual game length, and trying various tweaks fans don't like and that don't enhance the product, they ignore the real problem. 

The MLB season is too dang long.

It's about dang time someone said it.

        

All stats and contract information courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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