MLB schedule: Deciding on 154 or 162 games isn’t myth, it was math

Manager Casey Stengel, L, of the New York Yankees and Manager Paul Richards of the Baltimore Orioles before one of the teams' 22 schedule meetings in 1958 (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
Manager Casey Stengel, L, of the New York Yankees and Manager Paul Richards of the Baltimore Orioles before one of the teams' 22 schedule meetings in 1958 (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images) /

The decades-long debate over the length of the MLB schedule bubbled up again over the weekend after Major League Baseball proposed a change to the 2021 season that would have included a 154-game schedule to be played after a one-month delay in starting the campaign as well as adoption of the universal DH and expanded playoffs.

The Major League Baseball Players’ Association, however, rejected that offer in favor of keeping the 2021 season on track for its regular 162-game MLB schedule, no designated hitter in the National League and returning the playoff field to 10 teams after last season’s pandemic-induced expansion to 16.

MLB schedule: Through the years

There has long been rumblings that baseball simply plays too many games and that damages its level of interest from the long-sought-after casual fan. There are nostalgists who long to return to the days of the 154-game schedule, which was the rule of the day from 1904-60 in the American League and 1904-61 in the National League.

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When the American League added the expansion Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators in 1961, the schedule expanded to 162 games. When the National League followed suit in 1962 with the addition of the Houston Colt .45s and New York Mets, the NL mimicked the schedule expansion as well.

But neither figure was pulled out of thin air.

From 1901-03, the American and National leagues played 140 games per season, a number arrived at through simple mathematics. Each team had eight teams. Every team played the other league members 20 times each. Seven times 20 equals 140. Not rocket science. Just math.

To expand the schedule to 154 games, the teams were slated to play each other 22 times a season. Seven times 22? Yep, 154.

MLB schedule: Managing the first expansions in 1961, 1962

So when the American League expanded to 10 teams for the 1961 season, there was no way to make 154 games work and retain the balance of the schedule (since there would be no divisional play at this point).

Going back to 20 games per opponent would have still left an unworkable 180-game schedule. Reducing to 16 games against each other team would have resulted in a 144-game slate. So 18 was the compromise. Nine times 18 equals 162. It was the way to (a) keep the number of games against each opponent even to retain home and road balance and get closest to 154 games.

It was just math.

MLB schedule: The complications of 1969

The introduction of divisional play in 1969 with the addition of four more expansion teams — the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots in the American League along with the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres in the National League — complicated things.

Retaining the 162-game schedule wasn’t even unanimous between the two leagues prior to the 1969 expansion. The American League opted for a two-division alignment.

The National League, however, had agreed to a 165-game schedule — 15 games against each opponent while retaining a single division, even if that meant an uneven number of home and road games for each team.

In the end, the NL mirrored the AL plan and the game went forward.

For the first time, the number of games against each opponent would not be equal. Instead, teams would play 18 games each against their divisional rivals (90 games total) and 12 games against every team from the opposite division (72 games in all).

You guessed it: 90 plus 72 still equals 162 and it placed more emphasis on divisional play — important since only the champions of each division advanced to the postseason.

MLB schedule: From 1977 on, maintaining 162 got … weird

From here? It got murkier.

The American League expanded to 14 teams in 1977, adding the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays with seven teams per division. But in order to keep the schedule at 162 and retain a heavier divisional load, the number of games per opponent would not be identical across the divisions.

Instead, teams would play each divisional rival 15 times (90 games), they would play five of their foes from the opposite division 10 times (50 games) and they would play two of those non-divisional opponents 11 times (22 games). It got things to 162, but for the first time, balance was eroded.

In 1979, the AL returned to balanced scheduling, but a structure that would entail playing more inter-division games (84) than intra-divisional contests (78). Teams would play each divisional foe 13 times and match up 12 times against each team from the opposite division.

When the National League added the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins in 1993, it adopted the same schedule.

When baseball moved from two divisions to the current three per league in 1994, it kept the same schedule in place from 1993, so it was nightmarishly unbalanced.

The Atlanta Braves, moved to the NL East, would have played 13 games each against the West Division’s Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers, Padres and San Francisco Giants; and against the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros from the new NL Central and played 48 games in its division.

By contrast, the Marlins, Mets, Expos and Philadelphia Phillies were scheduled to play 51 divisional games — 13 each against each other and 12 against Atlanta.

The players’ strike rendered those anomalies moot, at least initially.

MLB schedule: Inter-league play just made things … weirder

With the introduction of inter-league play in 1997, balance was abandoned entirely with each team somehow still getting to 162.

It remained this way through the 1998 expansion that brought the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to the American League, the Arizona Diamondbacks to the National League and necessitated the move of the Milwaukee Brewers from the AL to the NL, giving the AL 14 teams and assigning 16 to the NL.

In 2013, inter-league play because an every-day reality. The Astros were moved to the American League, each league had 15 teams and the schedule was realigned to what it is today:

  • 19 games against divisional opponents (76 games)
  • 6 games against four non-divisional opponents (24 games)
  • 7 games against six non-divisional opponents (42 games)
  • 20 inter-league games

Again we arrive at 162 games, with a heavy emphasis on divisional play that can skew playoff seedings, which were changed from a rotational basis among the divisions to being based on winning percentage in 1997.

This change happened after Major League Baseball emerged as an umbrella governing body in the 1990s. The individual leagues became more like the conferences of the National Football League and other North American pro sports and scheduling decisions were consolidated.

A team winning a division with several weaker teams will amass more wins than a team in a more competitively balanced division. That doesn’t mean, however, that Team A is better than Team B. It just means that almost half of its schedule was played against inferior opposition.

Next. Death, taxes and the A's being broke. dark

But in any event, there really is no mythology behind 154 games or 162 games. One of these (154) was strictly an equation on paper. The other began that way and has been shoe-horned to continue to fit the changes in the structure of the leagues.