Previously, the Eastern League was the only league lower than Triple-A classification that played the schedule as a full season endeavor. Starting in 2019 that changes as the league goes to a split-season format.
The Eastern League of Professional Baseball has announced the league will be changing their playoff format from a full season format to a split season format. Under the new format the first place team from each division during both the first and second halves of the season will qualify for the postseason. This change will go into effect immediately, starting with the 2019 season.
The first half of the season will end on the 76th day of the regular season and the second half of the season will begin on the 77th day of the regular season. For the 2019 season, the final day of the first half of the season will be on Tuesday, June 18th, with the second half of the season kicking off on Wednesday, June 19th. The second half of the season will conclude on Monday, September 2nd, the final day of the regular season.
Postseason berths will be awarded to the first place teams in both the Eastern Division and the Western Division during the first half and second half of the season. In the event the same team finishes in first place in their division in both halves of the season, the second playoff spot for that division would be awarded to the team from that division that had the best full season record. The standings for postseason berths will be determined using the won-loss record (games behind column), with winning percentage having no impact on the standings.
The first round of the postseason will feature the first half winner from each division facing the second half winner from their respective division. The team that finishes in first place in the first half will host games three through five of the best-of-five opening round series. The second half winner will host games one and two of the opening round series. Winners from each opening round series will advance to the Eastern League Championship Series, which will feature a 2-3 format, with the series beginning in the Western Division in even numbered years and the Eastern Division in odd numbered years.
With the constant upheaval and changes in minor league rosters, the players that end the season are rarely the ones that started it. At the very least, this rule change gives every team an opportunity to reset the board and start back at even on June 19.
Take for example last year when the Portland Sea Dogs were not very good to begin the season. They posted a horrid 26-43 record in the first half before reworking their roster and finishing four games above .500 for the second half. If this new format was implemented before last season, the Sea Dogs would still have fallen short of the Eastern Division second half championship by one game but fans in Portland would have had a team to root for all the way through the final game. Instead, Portland slogged to a cumulative 63-76 last-place record that realistically had them out of the playoff race in July.
Now if you’re worried this is going to change a lot. Don’t be. Recent history has shown the best teams over the course of the full season are the same ones that will qualify for the playoffs in the new format….for the most part.
Doing the best I can to estimate where the first half would have ended with the new rules retroactively put into past seasons, nothing at all would have changed the last three years. The 12 teams that made the playoffs the last three seasons are the same 12 teams that would have made it under the new format. Expanding to the five seasons prior to that (2011 through 2015), however, shows that five teams who failed to make the playoffs would now be in the postseason.
In four of those cases, the teams went from a bad first half to a great second half. The best example of this is the 2011 Binghamton Mets. The B-Mets began the year 23-45 before turning it around and going 42-31 in the second half. Back in 2011, Binghamton finished in fifth place 8.5 games out of the playoffs behind Reading garnering the last postseason slot.
Only once in the timeframe reviewed has it happened where a team blitzed the competition in the first half and played so poorly in the second half, it failed to make the playoffs. That was the 2015 edition of the New Britain Rock Cats who went 40-31 in the first half before sputtering to a 29-40 finish. Under the new format, that would have been good enough to push out the B-Mets who went 77-64 that season.
But that wouldn’t have been the best team of the last nine years to miss the playoffs under the new format. In 2014, Richmond finished with an overall 79-63 record. Good enough for a first-place finish six games better than all other teams in the Western Division. But if today’s rules were in place, the Flying Squirrels would have gone home after the regular season ended as Akron and Erie qualified.
Much like the recent addition of the extra wild card team in the MLB postseason was meant to keep more teams in the playoff race later in the season, the same can be said about moving to a split-season format. A bad April and May won’t subject a team to a death march through summer to the end of the season.
It’s not perfect and there may be teams that get screwed in the end, but the intent is to keep interest through the dog days of August for fans and players alike. And that can’t be a bad thing.