Let’s talk about a split season

John Smoltz's idea would have more merit if he didn't complain about everything

I’ve never taken to John Smoltz’s post-career career as a prominent voice, mostly because he spends a lot of his time complaining. I suppose I grew used to such broadcast booths from the last decade of Hawk Harrelson, but a national analyst has 29 other teams to choose from if one is disappointing him on a personal level.

When seeing all his complaints and solutions distilled into one Bob Nightengale column, he reminds me of a Sam Zell type. He brings a bunch of revolutionary ideas, some better than others, but he wouldn’t have the patience to see even the good ones through, and then he’d exit with a golden parachute and no real reflection.

At any rate, his big idea among a bunch of gripes is a split season for the majors. First-half champs, second-half champs, with a bye for teams who won both:

“I know change is coming, it has to come,’’ Smoltz tells USA TODAY Sports, “I just don’t know when. But we better hurry.’’

Smoltz wants to eliminate the shift (“I think it’s single-handedly killing the game), curtail the relentless use of relievers, stop the exploitation of the disabled list, but most of all, revolutionize the schedule.

Smoltz proposes that MLB adopt a split-season schedule, just as they do in the minor leagues, in a move that he believes will create dramatic division races again, reduce the number of teams tanking for draft picks, and make baseball great again in September.

The shift parenthetical sums up my issue with Smoltz. If the shift was “single-handedly killing the game,” then the list would end right there, wouldn’t it? And it isn’t, but giving the game some time to evolve and counteract shifts doesn’t scratch that itch. He presents his ideas as game-saving rather than game-improving. Why? I dunno. Why does baseball content to have one of its loudest voices sounding so miserable about his sport? I dunno.

It’s the same thing with framing this year’s American League as an issue. Sure, the AL Central is a sinkhole, but the rest of the playoff picture seems like a commissioner’s dream: The Red Sox are going for super-team status with the Yankees trying to check them, the Astros attempting a dynasty in the fourth-largest city, and the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays coming through with inventive small-market success. The National League is doing fine with September excitement, and it’s far from the first time in baseball history one league had all the fun.

Besides, last year’s problem was a lack of good teams, which allowed a mediocre Twins team to take the second wild card spot. This year’s problem is there are too many good teams, which relegates a mediocre Twins team to a year-long also-ran. If Minnesota were better, the league would have one pennant race and all complaints would be warded off. I’m content to blame the Twins for everything that’s wrong with baseball and move along.

If I can isolate Smoltz from his relentless griping, the split-season idea isn’t a bad one on its face, because it gets to the heart of the tanking issue. Teams aren’t so reliant on attendance and interest as they used to be. Between the national TV deal, the streaming deal and revenue sharing, teams make plenty of money before a single fan sets foot inside a ballpark. Owners don’t have to try as hard to field a winner, and Buster Olney has made the point that rebuilding favors owners because they’re excused from improving the product with their wallets for years.

By opening the postseason up to small-sample randomness, it gives management fewer excuses to lie dormant. There are trade-offs, chiefly opening up the World Series to terrible teams who had one hot half. It’s already weird when a wild card team wins it all, and those teams had to be respectable when October arrived. The Great Falls Voyagers won the Pioneer League with a below-.500 record. It’s acceptable in the minors because it rewards minor-league teams that pushed their players up the ladder. In the majors, players have nowhere to go but down.

But I can see the appeal of two white-knuckle periods instead of one, and potentially two trade deadlines instead of one, that could generate enough excitement on a regular basis to offset the overall diminished importance of the regular season. I don’t mind having that solution in the back pocket in the event baseball truly faces an existential threat. Hell, maybe it’ll arrive in 2021 organically if the league can’t agree on a CBA. Jeff Katz can tell you all about it.

I’m just loath to suggest changes after a season with extreme outcomes, because the problem that an overhaul aims to fix may no longer exist by the time it’s implemented. It’d be a godsend for teams like the White Sox and Mariners, who are fundamentally unable to build a team that can last 162 games, but I’d rather see the Sox conquer their issues than let the league meet them halfway.

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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I’m content to blame the Twins for everything that’s wrong with baseball and move along.



I actually agree with Smoltz on the shift issue. While maybe not “killing the game” it does take alot of potential offense off the bases and hurt players in terms of their value. Other leagues have things like illegal defense/formations so it would not be a bad thing if the MLB decided to cut the legs off the shift. The split season thing seems a little wacky though. i thought part of the challenge of winning a division was that 162 game grind.

Ted Mulvey

The shift has been going on forever, though. Sure, teams do it more often and in alignments that seem more extreme, but it’s not new.

Like Jim says above, I’d rather see strategies against shifting evolve organically rather than from a mandate by the league. If, for some reason, no team figures out a way to successfully counter shifts then sure, maybe MLB institutes a new rule.

Even then, I’d prefer to see it be something like a limit on the number of shifts a team can use per game, rather than an outright ban. That’d introduce an element of situational strategy that might make it more entertaining (use it only in high-leverage situations? Only with certain players?) to folks against shifts without eliminating it entirely.


I’d be ok with experimenting with mandating how many fielders can be on one side of the field (sort of like an illegal formation penalty). Teams would have to weigh whether it’s worth moving the SS to the right of 2nd if they have to move their CF into LF.

Lurker Laura

This would be an interesting experiment, I agree. You can shift, just not everybody all at once. So who you do choose?


It doesn’t seem all that complicated – when the shift is on, settle for a single with a simple push bunt. No new rules needed.

karkovice squad

The data suggests that the shift just trades singles for extra bases.

The increase in strikeouts (which is also connected to reliever specialization and increased fastball velocity) has a much larger impact.


The only players whose value is being hurt is those who were overvalued to begin with. That value is then being redistributed to players who are able to hit to the opposite field, a skill that should be valued. It’s like saying that throwing a slider isn’t fair and hurts the value of players that can only hit fastballs. If the defense can use a strategy to get a batter out, and the batter can’t adjust to that strategy to get an easy hit, that’s the batter’s fault.


I think there are a lot of problems with the split season proposal. Number one for me would be schedule inequalities. There is already some strength of schedule unfairness among teams, particularly in wild card races. But those would be exacerbated in a half-season schedule.

karkovice squad

A split schedule would probably mean the end of both imbalanced schedules and non-exhibition interleague play.


Yeah, but even so, there would be imbalance between the halves unless you play exactly half of your games against every team in each half. I would think that would be a scheduling nightmare.

Thank goodness we wouldn’t have to listen to Hawk complain about the lack of Sox/Cubs games though, were this proposal to be adopted.


I cant stand people wanting to change the rules of baseball because hitters are too stupid to hit the ball away from a shift. Ridiculous!!!!!!!!!!!

Lurker Laura

Even good hitters can’t do it with regularity, that’s the problem. It goes against physics – the direction of the ball coming in, the direction of the bat being swung, the direction you want the ball to go after, etc. It’s extremely difficult to do.

Not saying we should eliminate the shift, but “the hitters just need to be better” is too simple.


its really not, pitchers lay down perfect bunts all the time, guys who let themselves be shifted to the extreme where there basically isnt a fielder within 120 feet of them on one side of the diamond need to be better. We aren’t talking about being able to go the other way ALL the time either, its just doing so enough that it would easily dissuade teams from shifting.

karkovice squad

Pitchers aren’t bunting for a hit. Their perfect bunts involve making an out.


and if noone is there to field the ball its a hit, which is the scenario I described if a hitter is facing an extreme shift, the bunt has to be basically not foul, not exactly a high bar to clear. If you want more offense why not move the fences in, why not push the pitching mound back 5 feet, why not move the bases closer together, etc etc etc, all dumb ideas just like making rules against how a team can align their defense

karkovice squad

The pitchers’ “perfect” bunts are typically getting fielded by the pitcher or catcher. It’s not an apt comparison at all even if shifts were having a dramatic effect.


If MLB hitters cant bunt or hit a ball to a half empty diamond they are bad at their job. They should improve on their technique. Its not up to the MLB to mandate a rule that protects them from a shift.

karkovice squad

Your argument boils down to almost everyone who isn’t Williams, Gwynn, or Ichiro being bad at baseball. That ought to be cause to reconsider your understanding of the skill involved with redirecting a round ball thrown 90+mph where a hitter wants it to go using a round bat.

Cricket may be more your style.


Yea just those 3. Its not at all hard to redirect a ball to one side of the field enough times to keep a defense honest. Its borderline easy to lay a bunt down to one side of the field if no fielder is there to make a play on it. The shift problem would solve itself and a dumb rule wouldnt have to come into play. Its moot anyway as a shift rule isnt going to happen.


This just in, Jim Thome was not a good hitter


It is up to the MLB. They changed mound height and added the DH because it was their job. The infield fly rule and balks exists to help offense.

karkovice squad

Relegation solves tanking better than a split schedule does. Just saying.


more popular idea for NBA then MLB but to end tanking i would utilize the draft in 1 of 2 ways. Option 1, literally make it a draft lotto, any team not in the playoffs goes into the lotto all teams equal chance of the number 1 pick and draw for picks 1-20, or option 2 reverse draft order for non playoff teams, let teams fight all year for both the playoffs and then the top picks. Team that finishes 11 gets the 1st pick, team that finishes 30th gets the 20th pick, punish the hell out of the race to the bottom teams


I like the idea of a lotto where your odds of winning the #1 pick decrease for consecutive years of being a bottom 5 (or whatever) team. Would be good for the NBA too


Get rid of the draft entirely. And don’t let organizations control 250 players like the old Cardinals system.

karkovice squad

The short answer is that sustained failure can kill franchise value. But it’s not really a question with a simple answer because it depends on how the relegation ladder and revenue sharing payments are set up.

lil jimmy

Relegation is not going to happen. A split season is more likely.

karkovice squad

A split season doesn’t really solve the problem any more than Wild Cards do.

So if we want to talk about things that are both possible and effective, that would be giving teeth to the spending requirements for revenue sharing in the CBA.


I posted this a few weeks ago. The Guardian ran a good piece on tanking, rebuilding, and relegation.

I highly doubt that American sports could ever accommodate such a system.

As Cirensica

I am all in for relegation, but I wouldn’t create it like in soccer, but rather like as it is done in tennis (Davis Cup). There are various leagues, and only those teams in the Champions League can opt to the playoffs. I know it sounds a lot like the soccer relegation, but it has a different “feel”. Teams being in danger to be relegated can fight with those trying to reach the Champion League or Bracket before being actually relegated.

Lurker Laura

The split schedule is an intriguing way to avoiding tanking. And to create interest in a potentially otherwise mediocre season for one’s team. Not sure how it would work with wild cares and such, though, and you know MLB is keeping those.

I don’t see the need for it, but I would like to stop seeing teams not care about winning. The offseason used to mean something, darn it. You’d watch to see who your team was going to sign in order to get better, not who they’d sign to flip for a prospect.

Get off my lawn.


There was never any talk about tanking when there was no amateur player draft. Set an organizational limit of 90 players (three full squads plus some room for injured players) under contract with no reserve clause and be done with it.

karkovice squad

And for most of the 50 years since MLB instituted the draft there haven’t been many complaints of tanking. It’s almost like the underlying issue is owners finding a new way to drive down players’ share of revenues and extract every ounce of profit, rather than anything inherent to the draft itself.


I’m more interested in potential solutions to the problem of too many pitching changes and overspecialization of relievers. “Bulpenning” and having guys only go once through the order is interesting when it happens occasionally, but would really detract from the game if it becomes the standard. If pitchers become like running backs in football – interchangeable guys who last a few years at most – then interest in the game is really going to wane.


I’d like it they mandated a pitcher has to face at least 2 hitters or something like that to eliminate some of the pitching changes. A reliever would need to at least be competent pitching to righties and lefties.


Yes, blaming the Twins for whatever is a good move.

My least favorite part of a split season is the possibility a team with a superior overall record could miss the postseason because it wasn’t particularly dominant in one half. That ranked Cardinals fans in 1981.


Exactly. Baseball should reward teams built to endure the long season.

Josh Nelson

Let’s say you had the split-season standings for this year. Cut-off date would have been around June 30th (* best record)

1st Half Division Winners:
AL East: Boston*
AL Central: Cleveland
AL West: Houston

NL East: Atlanta
NL Central: Milwaukee*
NL West: Arizona

2nd Half Division Winners:
AL East: Boston
AL Central: Cleveland
AL West: Oakland*

NL East: NY Mets (!?!)
NL Central: Chicago Cubs*
NL West: LA Dodgers and Colorado – tied

From there, how do the play-offs work? I don’t think the split-season format works with three divisions. It would have to be two or four divisions because who does Boston or Cleveland play after Houston and Oakland plays for the AL West?

National League is…chaos. A Game 163 between the Dodgers and Rockies to decide who plays the Diamondbacks, a series between the Braves and Mets, and Brewers vs. Cubs.

If you expand the divisions to four, I guess that would eliminate the need for a wild card. Have a one game play-off if the division winners in the first and second half differ, and then the team with the best overall record has home field advantage (1-seed) and plays the division winner with the worst overall record in the Divisional Series (5 games). Winners of the divisional series meet in the Championship series, and so on.

The idea is growing on me…I think I like it.

lil jimmy

The fact that they do it in the Minors makes it an easier case to make, but do we need to add two teams for it to work?


I agree with Jim’s closing assessment: baseball should reward those teams capable of building clubs that can win over a 162-game season. The current playoff system already gets away from testing the depth required to win over the long haul. The split season only exacerbates that problem, in my mind.

For those of you intrigued by the idea, take a look at 1981, when MLB adopted the split season format because of that year’s mid-season strike.

Patrick Nolan

There should be three sets of standings within a season. One tracks the full season standings, one tracks the first half standings, one tracks the second half standings. No one can mail in a season, and all the wins count. Everyone who wins one of those three things automatically gets into the playoffs. There are also Wild Card teams determined by methods. Once you get to the postseason, there will be a playoff bracket structure determined by the number of total qualifying teams, with byes and seedings in accordance with their regular season accomplishments. The draft order will be changed such that the first pick in the draft will go to the first team out of the playoffs. However, to prevent this from being a disadvantage to tanking teams, the team with the overall worst record for the season will be granted a playoff slot and added to the playoff mix above (note: they will most likely get the bottom seed and have to win a lot of games, because otherwise this arrangement would be completely unfair). The first half champions play against the second half champions within a division, and IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT that the full season champion is a third, different team, from both the first and second half champions, there will be a 1-game play in situation with the home team determined by home run derby, and then whoever wins, fights to the death with the overall season-wide leader. Finally, to truly reflect the title of “World Series”, the team that survives the aforementioned elimination tournament with well-defined structure will have to compete against the champions of the NPB, KBO, Honkbal Hoofdklasse, and two other national champions that can receive at-large bids via success in a worldwide round-robin tournament.

Boom, fixed.

Josh Nelson

In White Sox media news, Siera Santos is leaving NBC Sports Chicago. I thought she did a great job covering MLB’s trip to Cuba.


That concluding statement is promising. Curious to see her next gig.