Five ways MLB can squeeze extra regular season games into the schedule after coronavirus pandemic

Major League Baseball, like many sports leagues around the world, has been shut down indefinitely because of the growing threat that is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Spring training has been suspended and Opening Day has been pushed back to at least mid May, and that remains subject to change as the situation develops. 

Whenever baseball does return, MLB and the MLBPA will have a ton of questions to answer and logistics to figure out. That is still true even after the two sides came to an agreement regarding salary, service time, the draft, and several other matters. Among the biggest questions remaining: how many games will MLB play in 2020? The answer could be zero. I hope not, but it’s possible.

The tentative plan right now calls for picking up the schedule at whichever point Opening Day arrives. That’s what Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall told reporters, including The Athletic’s Zach Buchanan, when the shutdown was announced, and that’s what The Athletic’s Jayson Stark reported more recently. Generating a new schedule is a logistical nightmare because:

  • Venues have already been booked.
  • Team travel arrangements have already been made.
  • Tickets (and commercial time) have been sold.

Organizing a major league season is a massive undertaking that requires months of planning. It’s not something MLB can slap together in two weeks during spring training. The schedule will stay as-is with two caveats: MLB and the MLBPA want to play as many games as possible, and the league wants every team to play the same number of games to maintain competitive integrity.

With all that in mind, here are five ways MLB and the MLBPA could maximize the number of games played in 2020 once the regular season begins, whenever that is.

1. Schedule weekly doubleheaders

The most obvious solution and something that is very much on the table. The MLBPA rejected doubleheaders following the 1995 work stoppage, which is why they played only 144 games that season, but the union is apparently open to them now. Some players even told ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Kiley McDaniel they’re willing to play two doubleheaders per week.

“In theory, yeah, I think all of us would be up for some sort of doubleheader situation,” Rockies manager Bud Black said recently. “The thing that’s going to be in front of all of us is it’s going to be the same for everybody. It’s got to make sense for the clubs and the players.”

Two doubleheaders per week is excessive — teams would essentially need a seven-man rotation — even with expanded rosters, but one doubleheader per week would help. Make every Saturday doubleheader day — all MLB has to do is add a game to the series already being played — and you get what, 6, 8, 10, 12 extra games? I have no idea, it’ll depend on when the season begins, but Saturday doubleheaders seem like the easiest way to add games.

I should note seven-inning doubleheaders have been floated as a possibility. Minor league doubleheaders include two seven-inning games, though the minors are about development, not wins and losses. A seven-inning game would fundamentally change a major league contest. Teams would use their bullpens very differently. Seven-inning doubleheaders are possible but unlikely.

2. Eliminate (some) off-days

Replacing common off-days with games is a good idea, in theory, but it is much easier said than done. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, the regular season will begin July 1st. Here are the common off-days the defending World Series champion Nationals have with the opponent they just faced or the opponent they are about to face:

  • Mon., July 6: Astros can stay in Washington an extra day or Cardinals can come in a day early
  • Thurs., July 30: Rockies can stay in Washington an extra day
  • Mon., Aug. 24: Mets can come into Washington a day early
  • Mon., Sept. 1: Braves can come into Washington a day early
  • Mon. Sept. 14: Nationals can stay an extra day in Miami or Orioles can come into Washington a day early

That’s it, only five extra games in three months of baseball, and that’s not factoring in all the logistical headaches. That Aug. 24 game? The Mets would be flying in from Oakland. You’d be asking them to fly across the country, lose three hours, and then play a game the very next day. It’s not fair. It’s neither fair nor safe for the players, really.

Also, the collective bargaining agreement includes scheduling guidelines that mandate off-days. Teams aren’t allowed to play more than 20 consecutive days, and only once per season can a team play a day game on the West Coast one day and a night game on the East Coast the next. The Mets would have to do that in our hypothetical Aug. 24 game in Washington.

Using common off-days to play games could work in some cases and add a handful of games to the schedule throughout season. It is not a viable league-wide solution, however. Even if the MLBPA is willing to relax the CBA mandated scheduling rules, replacing off-days with games on a wide-scale basis is not logistically possible.

“Nothing’s off the table for us right now,” commissioner Rob Manfred said recently. “I think we are open, and we’ve had some really positive conversations with our players’ association about relaxing some of the rules that govern our schedule. They’re very focused on returning to play and playing as many games as possible.  

3. Cancel the All-Star break

This feels inevitable and, because of that, I propose starting the season with the All-Star Game. Get everyone excited for the return of baseball with an All-Star Opening Day and use those four days in July to play regular season games. The All-Star travel cuts into spring training, not the regular season, and we still get an All-Star Game. That’s good. No All-Star Game would be lame.

Of course, the season has to begin before the All-Star break (scheduled for July 13-16) for canceling the All-Star Game to even matter. If the season doesn’t begin until, say, August 1, then this doesn’t help at all. MLB could still play an All-Star Opening Day in that case, but those four days would be lost to the shutdown and not available for regular season games.

“The players are open to having a discussion about just about everything,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said recently. “Obviously the calendar is going to dictate a lot of what can and cannot be done. But right now no door is closed.”  

4. Extend the season into October (and play longer series)


MLB stadiums across the country are currently sitting empty and unused.

This has been discussed so much in recent weeks that it feels inevitable. MLB could play the existing schedule out, then add more regular season games in October, and push the postseason back into November. Even if they have to play games at neutral sites to avoid open-air stadiums in cold weather cities, so be it. They want to get those extra games in.

If the regular season is indeed extended into October, MLB would be smart to play longer series and reduce travel. Rather than the customary three-game series, send teams into cities for five or six games at a time. Less travel equals less wear and tear for the players, and also fewer logistical issues because teams would be making fewer travel arrangements on short notice.

There needs to be a conversation about the safety of pushing the postseason into November — give players one fewer month to recover in the offseason and you’re putting them at increased risk of injury in 2021 — and that’s something MLB and the MLBPA will have to consider when extending the schedule. Playing extra regular season games in October is very much on the table though.

5. Shorten the postseason

There is almost zero chance this happens. In fact, it is much — much — more likely the opposite happens and MLB expands the postseason to a) generate more revenue because postseason games are big moneymakers, and b) create a system that is a bit fairer after a shortened regular season in which randomness could wreak havoc on the standings.

Think about it though, shortening the postseason equals more time for regular season games. How’s this total chaos postseason system sound: the division winners with the second and third best record meet in the Wild Card Game, with the winner moving on to face the division winner with the best record in the League Championship Series. This would’ve been last year’s bracket:

American League
Wild Card Game: Yankees vs. Twins
ALCS: Astros vs. Wild Card Game winner

National League
Wild Card Game: Braves vs. Dodgers
NLCS: Dodgers vs. Wild Card Game winner

Eliminate the League Division Series entirely and use those days to play regular season games. It is possible, if not likely, a day with four LDS games will generate more revenue than a day with 15 regular season games, plus there could be many disinterested teams and players late in the season if only division winners make the postseason, which could be a net negative for the sport.

Shortening the postseason is an extreme measure and one MLB is unlikely to take. Because the league is presumably facing a truncated timetable to play a championship season, anything that maximizes the total number of games played should not be dismissed out of hand. A full day of regular season baseball may be better than a day with four LDS games.

I am hopeful — possibly irrationally — we will have baseball in 2020. MLB and the MLBPA will do everything in their power to play as many games as possible to make money and remain relevant. They want baseball to stay in the public’s consciousness. I don’t know when baseball will return (no one does), but I am hopeful it will return this year, and when it does, MLB and the MLBPA will try to squeeze in as many games as possible.

“There are a number of moving pieces involved around the resumption of play. A number of those pieces are tied to local, state, and federal regulations,” Clark told reporters, including the Boston Globe‘s Alex Speier and the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman. “… We are remaining as optimistic as can that we will play as many games as possible.”

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