Amid the seeming, never-ending carousel of MLB’s rules changes, there has been considerable speculation as to which would have the most effect. The outlawing of the infield shift? The pitch clock? The legislation against unlimited throws by pitchers to first base?
But the change that might have the biggest impact on the 2023 championship season is the revamped schedule.
Division rivalries have taken a back seat. Where for the past decade or so, when each team played the other four teams in its division 19 times, that format has been slashed to 13 games per team. Since divisional play began in 1969, that is the least amount of divisional games played against an opponent.
From a competitive standpoint, with two of the three likely worst teams in the National League — Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates — residing in the Central Division, that means that a prospective division winner like the St. Louis Cardinals will have a hard time winning 90 games or more, compared to the 93 the Cardinals won as division titlists last year.
Why? Because there will be 12 games fewer to play against the Reds and Pirates, against whom they were a collective 25-13 last season.
Excluding the short season in the pandemic year of 2020, the Cardinals were 98-73 against Cincinnati in the nine seasons division rivals played 19 times and they were 101-70 against Pittsburgh. In nine years, the Cardinals lost the season series only once to the Reds and once to the Pirates both by 10-9 counts.
Playing fewer games against MLB division rivals
While the Cardinals are playing their division punching bags less, the powerhouses in the National League East, for instance, are playing contending teams in their division fewer times. The money-to-burn Mets, for instance, will have to play the defending NL champion Philadelphia Phillies and defending division champion Atlanta Braves just 13 times apiece instead of 19 times.
In the National League West, the perennial champion Los Angeles Dodgers will have to play the potentially contending San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, and Arizona Diamondbacks only 13 times, rather than 19.
In the American League East, the New York Yankees will have to play the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays only 13 times while, in the AL Central, division champion Cleveland Guardians will get only 13 cracks at potential bottom-feeders Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins. The Guardians were 25-13 against those two clubs last season.
World champion Houston will lose out on 18 games against Anaheim, Oakland, and Texas. Texas may be a lot better this year but Oakland won’t be and maybe not Los Angeles Angels either. Last year, the Astros were plus-21 against the Angels, A’s, and Rangers.
But besides the loss of potentially key September division games is the fact that less than one-third of the MLB’s 162-game schedule will feature division games. In fact, the number of division games is only six more than the number of inter-league games at 46.
I dare say very few MLB fans want to see that many interleague games at the expense of division games.
Almost as bad is that teams will play more games out of division than in division in their respective leagues. There were 64 games against the other teams in the league, compared to the 52 in the division.
Last season, because there were only 20 inter-league games for each team, there were 66 league games out of the division, compared to the 76 games in the division.
Want to know how many times the Chicago Cubs will be in St. Louis this year? One. That’s because two of the Cardinals’ six projected home games against Chicago will be played in London.
On the upside, the Dodgers and Giants, bitter rivals, will play seven times in the final 10 games of the season. On the downside, they will play only six times in the first 152 games of the MLB season.
How much sense does that make?
Rick Hummel, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame for baseball writing, is the baseball columnist for Sportsnaut.