Yesterday, Major League Baseball released its 2023 schedule. The biggest news to come from the release is that for the first time ever, all 30 teams will play one another in a single season.
In order for MLB to accommodate such a demanding change, divisional games will be dropped from 76 to 52, meaning each team will play each of their divisional opponents only 13 times all year. They will play more intraleague games than divisional games in 2023. Hell, they will play almost as many interleague games. While I do think there are several benefits to this decision — namely giving every fanbase the opportunity to see all of the game’s brightest young stars every season — there are some potential downsides that I can’t overlook.
Divisions and conferences are becoming far, far, far less important than ever before with this change.
What I’m about to say is probably an overreaction. I understand that. Just because MLB is making an effort to have every team play every other team every year, that doesn’t mean divisions are unimportant immediately. I am concerned about the future of baseball though, and what it means for long-standing rivalries.
Think about the other pro sports leagues to have every team play every other team over the course of a season. The NHL introduced this concept in 2008. Since then, the league’s divisions, conferences, playoff formats, and everything in between have all undergone serious facelifts. It’s become tough for casual fans to keep up. The NBA has always had every team face every all other opponents, and now, the question of whether or not the NBA should eliminate divisions and conferences altogether has become an annual topic. How many times, in 2021 alone, did we hear an analyst or a fanbase argue in favor of a straight up 16-team playoff regardless of division or conference?
Here’s the thing. While that schedule may work for the NHL and NBA given many of the longest-standing rivalries in those sports — Lakers-Celtics, Avs-Red Wings, Warriors-Cavs, Lakers-76ers, etc. — cross over between divisions and even conferences. That’s not the case in baseball. Yankees-Red Sox is still one of the most marketed rivalries in all of sports. Giants-Dodgers, Padres-Dodgers, Braves-Mets, Mets-Phillies, Brewers-Cubs, Cubs-Cardinals, are all division rivalries. The only big rivalries I can think of that span leagues are Astros-Dodgers, Cubs-White Sox, and Yankees-Mets, and two of those are only because they share a city. I know there are other interleague rivalries that exist like A’s-Giants, Yankees-Dodgers, Cardinals-Royals, but those are not nearly as marketable as the big rivalries in baseball, and we’ll be getting far fewer of those big divisional rivalries with this new schedule.
Given what we’ve seen from the NBA and NHL since they started having every team play one another every year, I find it likely that MLB will follow suit in limiting the impact of divisions should they keep this style of schedule for years down the road. The league claims it’s doing so in the name of “balance,” because playing in the AL East is far more daunting and difficult than playing in the AL Central. However, most of the time, the difficulty of divisions rotates. In 2018, the NL Central had four teams finish over .500. Now, in 2022, they have three teams with winning percentages under .450. In 2017, the NL East had only one team above .500, now they have three. Sure, the AL East is always super competitive, which sucks for the small markets of Baltimore and Tampa Bay, but hey, they’ve managed to stay competitive in 2022, and have reached the World Series more times than the Yankees since 2005. Baltimore has never experienced that level of success, but they’ve been on the rise in 2022 and have gone 48-25 since top prospect Adley Rutschman was called up. That’s good for a 94-win season over the course of an entire year, and they’ll likely only get better in 2023 and beyond.
I think this new schedule is a slippery slope. When the year comes where a division struggles to produce an 85-game winner, like the 2005 San Diego Padres who won their division with just 82 wins, or the 1973 Mets who did the same, there will be murmurs of just eliminating them from the playoffs altogether. The 2005 Padres got swept in the NLDS after all. Sure, the 2006 Cardinals won the World Series after going 83-79, but that’s an outlier and likely won’t happen again for a very, very, long time.
Call me an old head who doesn’t like change if that’s what you want, but baseball has been hurting for viewers in recent years and pushing rivalries has been arguably the league’s biggest marketing success. They won’t get the opportunity to push those rivalry games nearly as often in 2023 and beyond. While it will be cool for Marlins fans to see Shohei Ohtani more often, the Angels host the Marlins in 2023, meaning fans in Miami still won’t get to see Ohtani play next season.
I don’t think we’re far removed from a future where divisions and conferences are eliminated altogether. While I do believe MLB will make every effort to keep long-standing rivalries intact, the fact that those teams are in the same division holds no long-standing reason as to why those teams need to face each other numerous times in the future. If anything, having those teams in the same division has been used as a framing device in order to schedule more rivalry games. However, if the league is determined on instituting a “balanced” schedule, then the next logical step would be for every team to play every other team an equal amount of times. Depending on MLB’s commercial success over the next few years with these schedule changes, I think we could see that become a reality in as little as 20 years.
Am I overreacting? Probably. Will MLB ever even come close to removing divisions and conferences? Probably not. However, I’m a pessimist, and always look at the worst-case scenario, and I don’t quite know how to feel about this potential future just yet.