Let’s play two: Baseball would be better with a split season
Commissioner Rob Manfred is open-minded to any suggestion that would make baseball better, so here’s another idea for him to consider:
A split season.
Yes, you read that right – and hold off on your “No! Stop! Leave the game alone!” tweets until you at least read the rest of the column. (Actually, have at me now if you must – but at least throw me a bone and continue reading!)
A split season – two halves of 81 games each – would improve the game in two notable ways, creating September-like urgency throughout the season and giving teams that stink in the first half the chance to start anew in the second.
We’re talking greater excitement, increased fan interest and yes, potentially higher ratings for networks such as FOX. We are not talking about abandoning the tradition of the sport.
The 162-game season (or 154-game season, if baseball returns to that number) is part of what makes the game special. Yet, it would be possible to reward the best teams of both halves and the best over 162.
Here is one possibility, preserving the current postseason structure:
* The AL and NL teams with the best overall records in each half would qualify for at least the wild-card game.
* The division winners after 162 games would qualify for the Division Series.
* If either wild-card qualifier won its division, the team with the next-best record over 162 games would go to the wild-card game.
The All-Star Game would take place at the halfway point. Baseball, at the one time of year when it stands nearly alone on the sporting landscape, could provide a white-hot pennant race instead of simply a gussied-up exhibition.
Remember how former commissioner Bud Selig used to talk about “hope and faith” for low-revenue clubs when pushing competitive balance? The split season would be an extension of that philosophy. Many low-revenue teams cannot sustain success over 162 games. But over 81? Different story.
Two such clubs, the Brewers and Athletics, might have won their respective first halves last season (the Athletics held on for a wild-card spot, anyway). Two more upstarts, the Astros and Twins, would stand a chance for the best overall record after 81 games this year.
And that is just one concept.
Baseball could get creative and devise formats that would reward more than one team in each league per half. The sport just would need to guard against penalizing a club that did not win either half but finished with the best overall record in its division (something that might have happened to the Cardinals last season).
Better minds than mine could figure it out. In fact, better minds than mine would need to figure it out, because one very large obstacle stands in the way of enacting a split season:
Good luck trying to achieve the proper balance between home and road games, division and non-division games. Good luck creating an even distribution of off-days, accounting for postponements and addressing tie-breaker possibilities. Then again, when is the schedule ever fair, anyway?
I’ll tell you one thing that would need to go: interleague play. Selig introduced that novelty to boost attendance. The split season, though, would protect the sport against erosion by spurring greater interest.
Think about it: Two trade deadlines likely would be necessary, leading to greater action and more complex decision-making. Would a team such as the Marlins sell knowing it could try again in the second half? Or would it stand pat or even buy to load up for another shot?
Again, better minds than mine would need to forecast any unintended consequences. Maybe baseball would be better off eliminating the deadline, eliminating the August waiver period (please!) and eliminating September roster expansion (double please!). True, deadlines spur activity, but the A.J. Prellers of the world seem quite comfortable wheeling and dealing year-round.
A split season would carry two other potential benefits:
* Teams would be in better position to recover from early injuries.
The Marlins, Rangers, Athletics and Padres, to cite just a few examples, all anticipate the returns of multiple injured players. Such clubs might be in better position to compete in the second half than they were in the first half.
* Teams might be less inclined to keep top prospects in the minors for service-time considerations.
Each game, in theory, would carry greater weight, so teams would have more incentive to go with their best.
Consider the Astros and shortstop Carlos Correa. Granted, the team holds the best record in the AL, and Correa is developing on a reasonable track at Triple-A. But would the ‘Stros be as inclined to wait on him if they were trying to steal the overall first-half crown?
The split season is not foreign to baseball; it is employed by every minor league except the Triple-A International and Pacific Coast Leagues, Double-A Eastern League and Short-Season Class-A New York-Penn League. Most players were accustomed to it once; they could grow accustomed to it again.
I’m certain many fans would oppose the idea on principle, just as they initially opposed many of Selig’s innovations. But as Manfred moves forward, the split season should be part of any discussion about the sport’s future.
What is the downside in at least talking about it?