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What if MLB’s season were only 16 games?

Nov 1, 2013, 10:30 AM EST

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So, a couple of friends suggested to me that instead of making this a series of rule changes I would like to see (and will never happen), I should instead come up with “Five things that might make you think differently about baseball.” That does seem to make a bit more sense. My first rule change to cut out the soul-killing intentional walk in baseball. The second was not a rule change at all but a plea to make the minor leagues more autonomous and, in that way, bring real baseball to places all over America.

This rule change is not a rule change or a plea. It’s … well, I’m not sure what it is. I hope it’s interesting.

The other day, I was thinking about something that maybe you’ve thought about too: What would baseball be like if there were only 16 games in a season? I’ve often toyed around with that thought. I sometimes write columns when the baseball season is 16 games old. But I must admit I had never REALLY thought about how this would affect baseball. This time I did.

And I came to believe this: If a baseball season was just 16 games and structured like the NFL season — Major League Baseball would look A LOT like the NFL.

Here are six ways that MLB at 16 games would look like the NFL:

1. You would have one starting pitcher. He would be the focus of the team, not unlike the quarterback.

I’m not sure if any of these things are true, of course. They’re guesses. It is possible that if there were only 16 baseball games — one a week — that managers would not have starting pitchers as we know them now. They might have several pitchers with different roles. They might have three pitchers designed to go three innings.

But I can’t help but think, no, they would have one starter — maybe, on rare occasions, two starters — who would pitch every single week. This just makes the most sense to me. The quarterback comparison is too strong. I would say there are fewer than 30 GREAT pitchers in baseball right now, just like there are fewer than 30 GREAT quarterbacks in the NFL. There are teams who would have Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright and Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez. They are Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Drew Brees and so on. Then there’s a tier of very good pitchers (Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Chris Sale, Yu Darvish representing Joe Flacco and Cam Newton and so on) and you have your phenoms (Matt Harvey = RGIII; Stephen Strasburg as Andrew Luck). You would have your game managers. You would have your lousy starters too.

I think teams would take on the personality of their pitcher the way NFL teams take on the personality of their quarterback. You would have announcers saying that you can’t win without a great starter the way they say you can’t win without a great quarterback.

As far as the rest of the pitching staff goes, I envision a staff of five pitchers. You’d have a starter, his backup (and people would shout for the backup — another way it would be like the quarterback position) and then three others. One would probably be an emergency starter/reliever. The other two would specialists of some kind.

I’m sure there are some of you who would disagree and say that teams would carry more pitchers — three or four lefty specialists, three or four late inning specialists, but I think not. Here’s why. There’s only so much you can do with pitching. That is to say, you can’t hold a team to LESS than zero runs. With one or two excellent starting pitchers and a couple of relievers, you have enough pitching I think.
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2. You would see much more managerial strategy in baseball than is used now.

Let’s assume that teams would keep five pitchers. That would accomplish two things. One, it would mean the quality of pitching would go way, way up because you would essentially be dropping more than 50% of the pitchers used in baseball right now.

But, more significantly, assuming rosters stay at 25, it would mean that managers would leave 20 everyday players to use. Think about that. TWENTY. With that many players, a manager would have room on his roster for players of many different talents. You want a designated pinch runner. Heck, you can carry two. Go to the Olympics, get Usain Bolt. You want a designated bunter? Heck, call David Eckstein, get him out of retirement, he’s yours. You have room for defensive wizards and power-hitting slugs. You have room for pretty much any kind of ballplayer you would want.

And then, because every game would be so important and every run would be so precious, you would have managers trying all sorts of crazy things to score runs. I’m confident they would come up with strategies that no one has dreamed of in the 140-plus year history of the game. Why? Because they would HAVE to come up with new ways to score runs. There wouldn’t be a choice.

The strategies would be wild, I’d bet. You know the shifting defenses that are beginning to play a big role in the game. Managers and coaches would supersize them. They would play a different kind of shifting defense every game. There would be 20 different kinds of hit and run. Base stealing would become a much bigger part of the game. And I think there would be all sorts of innovations that my mind can’t reach now. Baseball would get its own Bill Walsh or Sid Gillman who would revolutionize offense. Baseball would get its own Buddy Ryan or Tom Landry who would revolutionize defense.

There’s a commonly held believe — I hold it — that football is a game more designed for strategy than baseball. Every play has its own special design. Coaches are placed all over the field to make adjustments. Teams huddle up before every play to talk about what they will do next. But maybe a big reason is football coaches simply have MORE TIME to design the game. If baseball was played only once a week, you better believe that managers and coaches would use every second of it to come up with ways to win.

Which leads to this:

3. There would be a lot more film watching in baseball.

I’ve spoken to many former baseball players who see no value at all in the video work that teams do. They say that breaking down the swing too much can mess with your mindset. They say that breaking down the pitcher fills the mind with too many thoughts. Hitting is a natural act. “See the ball, hit the ball,” Tony Perez always said.

I’m not sure how much of that is true but I do believe this: If they played baseball just once a week, managers and coaches and players would SCOUR over video just like in football. They would not only break down pitchers to the nth power, they would break down each individual hitter. They would break down each individual fielder. They would break down the other coach’s tendencies. They would gameplan each game differently.

The managers would do more of these things NOW except there’s no time. There’s another game tomorrow. And another game the day after that. And the day after that. And the day after that. There are too many pitchers to study intently, too many hitters to build a thorough portfolio on, too many fielders to worry about. There’s more gameplanning in baseball now than even three years ago. Specialty defenses. Expanded hitter breakdowns. Deeper scouting reports on pitchers — those old ballplayers say they used to get information like “Steve Carlton: Watch out for his slider.”

But if the game was once a week, there would be an information explosion. Like the NFL.

4. Baseball would become dramatically more violent.

I’m not 100% certain of this, of course. But I am probably 75% certain. Right now, we don’t tend to think of baseball as a contact sport. There IS contact — plays at the plate, double-play meetings at second base, the occasional hit-by pitch and ensuing bench-clear — but it’s mostly tangential to the game. Football, meanwhile, is violent at its core. Or anyway, that’s what we think now.

Except — baseball was extremely violent in its early days. And I think that if the game was played just once a week, if you faced each team only once or twice a season, if every game was critical, there would be a lot more violence in baseball. Collisions at the plate would be intensified. Nobody would concede the double play without really taking out the fielder. Pitchers would be much more likely to send message pitches. And I think you would probably find violence where there is none right now.

Here, think about it another way: What would happen to football if there were 162 games in a season. It’s unimaginable the way football is played now. Players could not survive. But if there was a 162-game football season, football WOULD NOT be played like it is now. Not even close. I think the violence would drop to almost nothing. It would become a glorified game of two-hand touch. Big hits would almost never happen — maybe in the playoffs. There would be less coaching. There would be less intensity. Football would HAVE to evolve that way for survival.

5. Baseball would get much better TV ratings and much bigger crowds.

Again, there’s a deep belief that football is a better television game than baseball. Again, I believe it. But part of the reason is the scarcity of pro football on television. Baseball is everywhere, all the time. The baseball game of the week is wonderfully done by ESPN with the fantastic Dan Shulman doing the games (and the equally fantastic Boog Sciambi backing him up). But it’s not the event that Sunday Night Football has become because you can watch those baseball teams play any night you want all summer long.

If each baseball team played just 16 baseball games, all the numbers numbers would jump. Ratings would jump. You would see 80,000 people at baseball games even though the ticket prices would go way up. Interest in each game would skyrocket.

Would that be good for baseball? No, not scaling all the way back to 16 games. There’s no way to make up for all the lost revenue — even if you did get 80,000 per game for eight baseball games, that’s still only 640,000 people, which is way less than half of what they drew in Tampa Bay this year. You could double or triple the ticket prices and never make up the lost revenue. And while the national television revenues might go up, the regional numbers would go down.

BUT there are many people who think, for the long-term health of the game, they absolutely SHOULD cut the schedule back fairly dramatically, create a bit more scarcity, make itself more of a national television product. I don’t sense people in baseball will go in that direction. They simply would not give up the gate.

6. Baseball statistics would mean a lot less.

People do follow football statistics, largely because of fantasy football. But everyone knows that baseball is the numbers game. This again is at least partially a function of the 162-game schedule. It isn’t necessarily that the baseball statistics are BETTER than the football statistics. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But baseball has so many games, the only way you can really keep up with the game is through the numbers. We need them to make sense of a very long season with millions of events. If baseball was only 16 games, we wouldn’t need those numbers in the same way.

And, obviously, with the much smaller sample size, they wouldn’t mean as much either.

Obviously baseball is not going to a 16-game schedule. Baseball won’t even shave a few games off its schedule. But, I do think it’s interesting to think about how much of baseball’s character is the game itself is locked up in the length of the season. I do think it’s interesting to realize that the baseball we watch is not the only way to play baseball.

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