Idea: Return to the Split Season of 1981, but Intentionally

This is an idea I’ve been toying with for decades, a revamp that I think would add excitement and drama to the MLB regular season.

ESPN has already made a deal to televise an expanded postseason. The players’ association wouldn’t agree to it. Right now the union isn’t agreeing to any changes. 

Most likely, MLB will just add some more wildcards, thus making its long regular season less meaningful. This is a bad idea in my opinion. 

Here is a proposal that would give more teams’ fan bases a reason to stay tuned in throughout MLB’s marathon:

Part 1: Three 50-game seasons

The division winner in each 50-game set advances. The teams with the best overall record(s) among the teams that didn’t win a portion of the season, advance to provide four teams from each division.

Part 2: Pennant chase

Each team from the division plays the other three qualifiers in a three-game series for a total of nine games. The team with the best overall record has the home-field advantage in each series.

Stats count as part of the regular season. Team with the best record in each division from pennant chase advances. Team with the best second-place record from the pennant chase advances. Ties (I anticipate a few) are broken by a one-game playoff.

Part 2b

For the six teams that don’t make the Chase, a “rebuilding tournament” held in Phoenix in conjunction with the Arizona Fall League. Teams are encouraged to use younger players (though not exclusively; testing them against veteran competitors would be part of the purpose). Fans of teams that have lost all year long can gauge the progress of their rebuilding against the other bottom feeders. It would give baseball a chance to showcase emerging talent, which the sport does a poor job of compared to football and basketball.  

Part 3: The postseason

We are down to four teams in each league. The pairings are decided by the team in each league with the best overall record in the season and the pennant chase. They get to decide which opponent in the first round.

Home-field advantage in each series goes to the team with the best overall record in the season and the pennant chase.

Well, from there, it’s kind of like we do it now. Division Series is best of 5, League Championship Series best of 7, World Series best of 7.

In 2019 the season might have gone something like this:

First third winners

AL East: New York Yankees

AL Central: Minnesota Twins

AL West: Houston Astros

NL East: Philadelphia Phillies

NL Central: Chicago Cubs 

NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers

Second third 

AL East: None (Yankees repeat)

AL Central: Cleveland Indians

AL West: Oakland A’s 

NL East: Washington Nats

NL Central: none (Cubs repeat)

NL West: none (Dodgers repeat)

Last third

AL East: Tampa Bay Rays

AL Central: none (Twins again)

AL West: none (Astros again)

NL East: Atlanta Braves

NL Central: St.Louis Cardinals

NL West: none (Dodgers repeat).

Wild cards

AL East: Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays

AL Central: Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals

AL West: Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels.

NL East: New York Mets

NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds

NL West: Arizona D-Backs, San Francisco Giants, and San Diego Padres

Pennant Chase

AL East

                  W L 

Rays           8  1

Yankees     7  2

Blue Jays   2  7

Red Sox     1   8

AL Central

                    W L 

Twins          6   3

Indians       5   4

White Sox  4   5

Royals        3   6

AL West

                    W L 

Angels         6   3

Astros          5   4

Rangers      4   5

A’s               3   6

NL East

                   W L 

Mets           8  1

Nats           6  3

Braves       3  6

Phillies      1  8

NL Central

                   W L 

Cardinals   7  2

Brewers     6  3

Cubs          5  4

Reds          0  9

NL West

                  W L 

Dodgers     8  1

Giants        5  4

D-backs     4  5

Padres       1- 8

The Nats beat the Brewers in a one-game tiebreaker for the final postseason spot.

AL playoffs

The Yankees, Rays, Twins, and Angels qualify. The Yankees have the best overall record and choose to play the Angels.

The Yankees beat the Angels. The Rays beat the Twins. The Yankees beat the Rays.

NL playoffs

The Dodgers, Cardinals, Nats, and Mets qualify. The Dodgers decide they want nothing to do with the Mets and choose to play the Nats. The Nats beat the Dodgers. The Cardinals beat the Mets. The Nats beat the Cardinals.

The World Series

The Nats win in seven games, taking all four games at Yankee Stadium.

Genesis

In September of 1964, my mother explained to me that something exciting was going on in baseball — a pennant race. “The top team play each other and fight it out for what they call the pennant.” The winner went to the World Series.

That was the year I learned about baseball. And by learning about baseball, I mean the basic rules, the names, and cities of all the major league baseball teams.

I could read some, but I didn’t read the newspaper. My dad would read the sports page and kind of interpret the events for me. It all seemed very exciting. 

The 1964 season was great for pennant drama, perhaps the best ever. Both leagues had thrilling races. The New York Yankees finished a game ahead of the Chicago White Sox and two ahead of the Orioles to win the American League flag. In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies suffered an epic collapse. The St. Louis Cardinals won it by a game over the Cincinnati Reds. There were five teams within five games of the lead.

When does the pennant race start?

By the next season, I had figured out how to read the standings and the box scores. But some time in May or so, I had a question.

When did the pennant race begin? My dad looked at me like I had two heads. 

You see, based on how my mother had explained it, I thought the top teams from the regular season were invited to the participate in the pennant race, and then whoever played the best over a couple of weeks won the pennant. 

My father explained it didn’t work that way. 

I accepted that, but I always wondered if the way I misconceived it might have a certain appeal.

The first split season

Fast forward to 1981 when MLB had a big midseason strike, so when the players came back, the powers that be decided to split the season to pre-strike and post-strike and added another round to the postseason. There was a big problem: The teams with the best overall records in the National League, the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, were left out of the playoffs.

Led by rookie pitching sensation Fernando Valenzuela, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the NL West leaders when the strike started, wound up winning the World Series, beating the Yankees.

Fans — except for die-hard traditionalists and Reds and Cardinal fans — seemed to like the format. So it was ignored.  

Addressing problems

So this revamp would give us a split season, which gives more teams hope. And by splitting the season into thirds, it gives every team some hope. Even a bottom feeder might play well over a 50-game span. A young team that scuffles through the first few months might catch fire at the end. 

This format would eliminate the problem of the 1981 split season that kept the winningest teams in the National League from advancing.

The one-game wildcard playoff format made winning the division meaningful. We don’t want to go back to the days when the Red Sox and Yankees spent the last three weeks of the season trying to set up their starting rotations and resting star players. Under this format, good teams would have a motivation to play well throughout the year. Being home throughout the entire pennant chase portion would be a greater advantage than being home for 3 out of 5 games. The possibility of getting choose your opponent in the first round of the playoffs is another advantage.

Drama

The pennant chase provides another stage of drama. Even a team that has clinched advancing to the playoffs may need to win final games for the best overall record. You will probably need some one-game tiebreakers to establish the final postseason field.

Shortening the regular season

So most teams under this format would play 159 games before the postseason. It is not much, but it is a step in the right direction. The American League’s move in 1961 of lengthening its season from 154 to 162 games was a bad idea that has lived on. The reason was to keep a balanced schedule with every team playing each opponent 18 times — usually three series at home, three away — when the league expanded to 10 teams. When division play started in 1969, MLB should have gone back to 154 (already a marathon).

Fodder for pundits

The system is easy enough to understand but complicated enough for bloggers, columnists, talk show hosts, and podcasters to speculate about and come up with various scenarios. And heaven help a team that chooses an opponent that doesn’t have the worst win/loss percentage, then loses in the first round.

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