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Tuesday, April 30, 2013
MLB's growing scheduling problem

It was the kind of April only Al Roker and Jim Cantore could love.

Snowouts in Minnesota. Back-to-back rain-and-cold-outs in Cleveland. And we're not even going to get into Denver, where rumor has it the Rockies have ripped through more snow shovels than broken bats.

We've seen 18 postponements already, tied for the fourth most in any April since baseball began keeping track in 1986. So it's been a bigger month for the Doppler than it's been for, say, the Dodgers.

But this is not another story about the weather. OK, so the jet stream is off to a rougher start this season than Aaron Hicks. Nothing anyone can do about that.

What some people in baseball think might be fixable, though, is the schedule. Which -- in case you hadn't caught on -- has a completely different look than it's ever had.

Interleague play all season long. … An odd number of teams in all six divisions and both leagues. … More series than ever before involving teams making their only trip to that town.

It's created, well, issues.

And when glop falls out of the sky, 18 games don't get played as scheduled and the day-night doubleheaders start multiplying, uh, guess what? So do the complaints.

And Katy Feeney has heard them all.

"No matter what we do, nobody will ever be happy with the schedule," said Feeney, baseball's longtime scheduling guru. "They might find one little piece they like. But I don't think we've ever had a year where everyone's been happy with the schedule."

The funny thing is that this year's schedule format -- as forced by realignment -- was actually redesigned with the specific purpose of making people happier. And it has, in one area. At least teams can stop grumbling now about not playing the same interleague opponents as the other clubs in their division.

"This fixes that," Feeney said. "But that's about the only thing it fixes."

Right. Apparently. Other than that, the gripes just keep on coming. We've spent the past month compiling the complaints we've heard about this year's schedule. So here are the big ones -- with a look at just how "fixable" they are:

Why are we playing in (pick a city) Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, etc. in April when we go there only once all year?

No scheduling question has come up more often -- or more loudly -- than this one. And there's an excellent reason for that:

Under the new format, other than the three visits a year that teams make to cities inside their divisions, no team visits any other club in its league more than once.

That's not a huge change in the National League. But in the American League, the number of one-time-in series has ballooned from 23 to 33 per team, Feeney says. That computes to a jump of 43 percent on our calculators.

What it means is, if the Yankees get rained out in Cleveland two days in a row (as they did), they have no choice but to make a special trip back to Cleveland, on what was supposed to be an off day. At home, naturally. Before this year, there was a much better chance they'd have been scheduled to play a second series in Cleveland later in the year. So those games could have been rescheduled then.

If that's the big issue, the solution would seem simple to those of us on the outside: Just don't send teams in April to places like Cleveland, where the weather is notoriously not so balmy, if they're not scheduled to return later in the year.

Voila. There you go. Problem solved. … Or is it?

"Maybe we could do some of that," Feeney said. "But it's never going to be perfect. With all the uneven numbers [of teams per division], you run out of times you can send people to San Diego."

Nevertheless, players have told us the union has requested that next April, schedule-makers should make a greater effort to load up on early-season division games, especially in meteorologically challenged cities. They're by far the easiest to make up.

There's also a Part Two to that April request: Schedule as many out-of-division, one-time-in series as possible in warm weather and domes.

So, for instance, instead of the Marlins traveling to Minneapolis to get blizzarded out, there would be an effort to send the Twins to Miami, minus their parkas.

Sure sounds logical. But Feeney's reaction: "It's easier said than done."

That was especially true this year, when schedule-makers had less time to address those sorts of issues than normal. Realignment took a long time to get approved, you'll recall. That was one problem. And New York requested that the All-Star Game be held a week later than usual, for logistical reasons. That was another problem. So the schedule had to be pushed through much more hastily than usual.

"The biggest problem of all," Feeney said, "is that it's not just April we're making a schedule for. We're making a schedule for six months."

Yeah, that's true. It just happens to be a lot warmer in those other months!

Has travel for West Coast teams gotten worse than ever?

The answer to that is: No doubt.

Here's a perfect example: With the addition of Houston to the AL West, 12 of the Angels' 13 road trips this season will take them to the Central and/or Eastern time zones, beginning with Opening Day in Cincinnati of all places. They don't visit the Astros and Rangers back-to-back (or vice versa) at any point. And there's only one time all season where the Angels will go directly from Oakland to Seattle (or vice versa).

By contrast, they made just nine trips to the CDT and/or EDT last season. And one of them was a quick three-day visit to Kansas City, in the midst of playing 16 home games in 21 days.

"We need more efficiency built into our schedule," said one AL West executive. "What we really need is more common sense built into our schedule."

Baseball sympathizes, Feeney says. Sincerely. But the options are limited.

"They're the ones with tough travel," Feeney said of those West Coast clubs. "They're far from their division opponents. We know that. But it's tough to cut down the mileage. And it's tough to make a schedule for one division."

One possible solution: More three-city trips, maybe even occasional four-city trips, to lump as much inconvenience into as compacted a time frame as possible. But those trips set off a bunch of complaining, too.

"I have no problem with three-city trips if they're all East Coast and it means longer homestands," said one NL West player. "Less trips east is definitely better. But [baseball] doesn't give us that schedule."

Instead, these are some of the trips we've seen West Coast teams make this month: New York-Colorado (Padres), New York-Colorado-San Francisco with no off days (Diamondbacks), Oakland-Chicago (Mariners).

And the inconvenience of those itineraries is compounded by night games on getaway days, followed by trips of nearly 2,000 miles. But that's a never-ending battle between business people and baseball people. And now more than ever, it's a fight the baseball people never seem to win.

We had a chance to blow up the whole schedule and finally get it right. This proves we blew that chance.

If ever there were an opportunity to splatter the schedule onto a blank canvas and start over, this would have been the year. Right?

New division structure. New league structure. New alignments. New interleague options. Imagine the possibilities.

"I don't think anyone ever looked at it and asked, 'What can be done?'" said one manager. "I think we could have crumpled up what we've done in the past and taken a whole new approach. We need to break down some of the old schedule rules and get it right, because the schedule now is more complicated than it's ever been in the history of baseball."

So what could have been done? How about fewer games, for one thing? Even paring a handful of games off the schedule creates a surprising amount of extra flexibility, not to mention a more humane pace for players.

One baseball official told us last year that going to 158 games was an option that was "seriously looked at" during the last round of labor negotiations. With all the money flowing into an $8 billion industry, you'd think that's a concept that might actually have had a shot to happen. Naaah. Too many teams balked at giving up two dates apiece.

Another option that was kicked around was an expansion of the interleague schedule to 30 games apiece. That would have broken down this way for each team:

That would have created more games in each team's time zone and, if we're applying this logic correctly, less oppressive travel. Unfortunately, Feeney said, the math doesn't work. All those three-game series, she said, "can't fit" inside a 26-week schedule.

There are other options, too, of course: more scheduled doubleheaders. Or fewer off days (but also less wiggle room) during the postseason. Or even starting series on Saturday or Sunday to help smooth out travel.

But every solution has a complication. Every move has a ripple effect. And every attempt to fix one team's mess creates a whole new mess for someone else. So as much as everyone wants to see a schedule that wouldn't feel this insane, this is still a constantly shifting jigsaw puzzle where pieces keep popping out all over the floor.

"With interleague and the number of teams we have right now, I don't think there's any such thing [as a schedule that would solve everyone's problems]," Feeney said. "I hear people talk about schedules in the past, and looking back, those schedules look wonderful. But the truth is, people complained then, too."

And you know what else is the truth? They always will.