Starting next season, baseball will see some significant changes to the game. Pitchers will now have to deal with pitch clocks as the game looks to speed up the pace of play. The controversial shift, as we’ve known it for the past few years, will be shelved as infielders face restrictions on where they can line up. Yet, another change might have greater ramifications for how we view MLB and how MLB views itself. Starting with the 2023 season, the league will modify its schedule. While still 162 games, teams will play fewer games against division rivals. Additionally, every team will play every other team during a full season.
That such a move happened is not that surprising. Since the start of inter-league play in 1996, the old divides between the AL and NL steadily eroded. The idea of getting more matchups between teams that usually never played proved too much for MLB to ignore. In 2020, the COVID-shortened season saw teams matched up with an emphasis on geography as much as leagues. With both leagues adopting the Designated Hitter to start the 2022 season, differences continue to grow that much smaller.
What will this mean going forward? The respective leagues (NL/AL) will remain a key division point, much like the AFC and NFC alignments for football and the geographic divides for the NBA and NHL. All-Star teams will still follow the classic divides. Teams will still strive to win their respective pennants to get to the championship. It is likely some new rivalries may emerge, with each team facing off against each other. Could Dodgers/Astros turn into the biggest blood match of MLB, especially given the current successes and contentious past with each other?
Yet, something else likely changes. Currently, each league has its own series of year-end awards. You have AL/NL MVPs, Cy Youngs, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year, as well as league-specific Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, etc. These have not evolved, even as the separation between the leagues continues to diminish. However, will that remain the case, and should it?
Consider the other “Big 4” sports leagues. The NFL still has the AFC and NFC. Stats are still kept on how each player performs vis-a-vis their own conference. However, when it comes to end-of-year awards when looking at MVPs, Rookies, Coaches, position-specific honors, and All-Pro teams are not divided by conference but considered by individual performance. Given that each team plays foes from the other conference now up to 5 times a year, there is enough crossover to effectively measure player performance across all teams/leagues. The NBA and NHL operate similarly, as all teams play each other at least twice.
With a standard set of rules and increased cross-play, the league-separate awards hold less and less significance. While it may not happen right away, it is not far-fetched to see that in the near future, there will be only one MVP or one Cy Young. There will be only one set of Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger awards, accounting for performance from all 30 (or more) teams.
What resistance could hinder this eventuality? Perhaps more than expected. Of all the sports, baseball tends to move slowest where innovation is concerned. Tradition and the idea of “that is always how we’ve done it” permeate the sport. When it comes to individual awards, the players may have quite a lot to say about the matter. With bonuses and service time consideration tied with end-of-year awards, limitations on those awards out there would seem to favor management and those wanting to keep salaries and costs down.
Granted, it is likely that baseball would emulate other sports and go with 1st/2nd/3rd team awards. (Various sportswriters/sites/organizations already do this). This could offer a compromise for players so that they receive credit for their on-field performance and not get punished for the contraction of awards, and offer fans and other teams talking points to promote players for future matchups, thus putting more money into more pockets (management, advertisers, players).
Does this ultimately change how we evaluate and rank players? Possible. It does create the fun drinking-session debates about who was really the best pitcher, MVP, etc for MLB over the course of a year. For amusement's sake, let’s consider the awards for 2021:
- AL: Terry Francona
- NL: Buck Showalter
- AL: Julio Rodríguez
- NL: Michael Harris II
- AL: Justin Verlander
- NL: Sandy Alcantara
- AL: Aaron Judge
- NL: Paul Goldschmidt
- AL: Justin Verlander
- NL: Albert Pujols
Now imagine what it would be if, instead of one winner for each league, it was ONE winner only? Who wins what? Is Verlander still the pick for Cy Young? Judge likely still takes the MVP, and Pujols edges out Verlander for Comeback Player, but even then, you will have plenty of argument about who was really better/more deserving. Perhaps those debates are coming sooner rather than later? From this author’s perspective, it will inevitably happen, but it is only a matter of when.
Yes, baseball has the All-MLB awards coming out this week. This is a rather recent phenomenon and one that accounts for the increased interaction between the two leagues. How much longer before all the other awards follow suit?
What say you? Think that baseball is heading the way of the other “Big 4”, where we will no longer have league-specific awards, but only the MLB ones? Offer your takes below:
Editor's note: Limited Edition FOCO Astros Bobbleheads will go on sale here at the Crawfish Boxes at exactly 10 AM. They will disappear quickly.