Some 2020 rules that must die

2020-06-24 DavidPriceMookieBetts

Seriously? You want the man on the left (David Price, pitcher) taking his lifetime .080/.132/.080 slash line to the plate with a rally on the line? You want the man on the right (Mookie Betts, right fielder) brought in to pitch if the game is close enough for the other guys to break open?

Oops. We’re going to have the universal designated hitter after all when the Show returns next month. Some said yes with reasonable knowledge; some said no, also with reasonable knowledge, and I did kind of jump the gun on the latter the other day. But now we’ll have it. For awhile, anyway.

Everybody repeat after me, with or without apologies to R.E.M.: It’s not the end of the world as we know it, and we feel fine. Or, we ought to feel fine. I don’t know which has been more absurd: that the DH was originally a National League brainchild that the American League once rejected (yes, you can look it up); or, that people to whom “tradition” is a fetish forget how often traditions prove untenable at last.

Forgive me. I’m not a man who dismisses tradition lightly unless incontrovertible evidence tells me otherwise. Once it was tradition that non-white players alone could play major league and other “organised” baseball. Surely that was one tradition whose time should never have been so in the first place. Of course the tradition of pitchers batting isn’t even close to the disgrace of black, Latino, Oriental, and other races and ethnicities barred from “organised” baseball.

But pitchers in the 2010s hit for a .131/.161/.165 slash line. They hit about likewise in the decade preceding. You want the thrill of pitchers hitting home runs? Tell me what you’d call one bomb per 239 plate appearances if that was the production of the rest of the lineup. Now tell me you wouldn’t call that the Second Dead Ball Era.

Remember: Thomas Boswell had it right when he argued he’d surrender thrills like that “to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.”

There are far worse protocols coming forth for whatever the 2020 season is going to be.

The three-batter minimum for pitchers. This is something kicked around well before the coronavirus’s world tour as it was. It was likely to be implemented for 2020 even if the coronavirus never got past a Chinese province. I admit that at first I couldn’t make up my own mind about it, but now I’m convinced: it’s a terrible idea.

Maybe I don’t like the crowd of commercials accompanying every pitching change even two or three in an inning, either. But I’m going to hate watching some poor sap who doesn’t have his best that particular turn get beheaded before his skipper can lift him for a fresher arm because one stupid rule says he must face three batters before Skip can even think about getting him away from the guillotine.

The extra innings in which each team begins its turns at the plate with a runner on second base. What the hell is this, the Nursery League? Now, forget the image of everyone getting the cookie and tell me whether you think it’s going to be all that much fun to see a gift man on second brought home in two quick shakes with a sacrifice bunt and then a sacrifice fly at minimum.

Ponder this: J.J. Cooper of Baseball America discovered what happened when the minor leagues adopted the cookie on second to open the extras: extra-inning games decided in the first of the extras went from 45 percent in year one to 73 percent in the last two years.

Come on. This is one fight in which the trads have the better argument. The second two loveliest words in the English language (the first two, of course, are “Play ball!”) are “extra innings.” You’d think an America starved for baseball over the pandemic postponement would stand athwart the cookie on second opening the extras, yelling, “Foul!”

Well, as radio legend Gabriel Heatter once crooned, “Ahhh, there’s good news tonight”: The cookie on second gets eliminated for the postseason. Goody.

Position players pitching. That was then: it was allowed for teams being blown out only. This is now, for 2020 at least: A manager can send a position player to the mound any old time he wants. Brilliant. Didn’t we always want to see Mookie Betts or Pete Alonso or George Springer or Nelson Cruz or D.J. LeMahieu on the mound as openers or coming in to bail the team out of a critical mid-innings jam? Seriously?

Newly-installed Chicago Cubs manager David Ross once hit his first major league home run off a position player. (His first home run and he hits it off Mark Grace. I feel sorry for that kid.—Mark Grace, said position player.) Fourteen years later, Ross pitched two perfect innings (one apiece in two games), and after the second one he led off the inning by hitting one out.

Did I mention Ross was a catcher and he pitched while his team was being blown out? (Did I also mention Ross opened his career with a homer off a non-pitcher but ended it by hitting one over the center field fence off a bona-fide pitcher leading off an inning in Game Seven of a World Series?)

If you think Ross’s Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have even thought of sending Grandpa Rossy to the mound in a tight game with the other guys an out or two away from tying or going ahead, I have a North Pole beach club to sell you at a bargain price.

I get that this is going to be an extremely unusual season, falling considerably under the desperate times/desperate measures umbrella, especially with fans not being able to go to the ballpark for a good while. But the Show’s governors have a troublesome history of calling the repair man for what isn’t broken and dragging their feet on what is.

Even an unusual season doesn’t need the cookie on second to start the extra innings or position players on the mound for any reason other than to keep the rest of the bullpen from further late blowout humiliation. The DH needs to stay universal. But why do I think that won’t be so while at least one of the others will?

Ads on uniforms. Assume the owners get what they’re said to want like five minutes ago. If we must have them, at least let them be sensible per player. Some examples:

Every Boston Red Sox—Samsung television.
Matt Carpenter—Black & Decker.
Bartolo Colon (if a team is convinced to let him have a comeback shot)—Pillsbury.
Mike Ford—If you have to ask . . .
Every Houston Astro—Nikon cameras
Aaron Judge—Legal Aid Society.
Every Miami Marlin—Mrs. Pauls.
Charlie Morton—Morton’s Salt, of course.
Every Pittsburgh Pirate—Long John Silver.
Except Bryan Reynolds—Reynolds Wrap.
Every Seattle Mariner—Red Lobster.
Mike Trout—Bass Pro Shops.

Let’s not leave the managers out, either:

Rocco Baldelli (the youngest current MLB manager)—Mattel.
Joe Maddon (the oldest current MLB manager)—Viagra.

Just keep them to one ad per jersey, preferably on the sleeve. Bad enough the Nike slash now occupies the upper right breast. This is still baseball—not NASCAR.

Let it stay. Permanently.

2020-06-22 BartoloColon

Let’s not and say we did: Averaging 5,492 plate appearances a year from 2010-2019, Show pitchers averaged 23 home runs a year. Or, one home run per 239 plate appearances. Oh, funsie. (Newsday photo.)

I get the impression that the only baseball debates more bristling than those over the owners vs. the players in the current pandemic impasse are those bristling over the universal designated hitter that’ll be put in place for this year (if there is a this year) and next year at minimum. OK, you asked for it: Let the universal DH stay forever.

That’s my call and I’m sticking to it. And you’re dealing with a guy who would sooner have tried to pass the camel through the needle’s eye than insist the National League give up the ghost—and, by the way, the futility of 99.99 percent of those pitchers who bat in the number nine hole—and accept the DH.

I insisted on that refusal until some time between 2018 and 2019. Because reality has a way of knocking you down faster than any hitter ever got knocked down by Bob Gibson after hitting one out off the Hall of Famer. Sure as hell faster than it took (age 42 years, 349 days) for Bartolo Colon to hit the only home run of his major league life.

In my case, reality only begins with making note that, in 2019, major league pitchers posted a wonderful .128/.159/.163 slash line. (Batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage.)

Which was a mild improvement over 2018’s .115/.144/.149. Yep, last year’s balls might have been juiced, after all. Oho, but what about the eight seasons prior to that? What about them? Very well, as the man said on television once upon a time, you asked for it:

2017—.124/.156/.161.
2016—.132/.164/.171.
2015—.132/.160/.170.
2014—.122/.153/.152.
2013—.132/.164/.169.
2012—.129/.162/.166.
2011—.141/.174/.182.
2010—.141/.175/.174.

The slash line for pitchers at the plate all decade long? .130/.161/.165.

Now tell me how nuts Thomas Boswell to write a year and a half ago:

It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.

Tell me, too, how nuts an old magazine known as Sporting Life was to write thus:

Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

That was written in . . . 1891. The year in which then-Pittsburgh Pirates owner William Chase Temple first proposed leaving pitchers to pitching strictly and having someone else who isn’t a pitcher bat in the lineup in his place.

The following year, after the collapse of the ancient American Association sent four teams into the National League, Temple’s fellow owners missed implementing the DH by four votes. According to Temple himself, the somewhat mythological Chris von der Ahe, owner of the former A.A. St. Louis Browns (I am der Boss Pressident of der Prowns) let him down by voting against it.

The DH didn’t cross the mind of any American League owner, apparently, until 1906, when Connie Mack got fed up with his pitchers swinging at the plate as though their bats were made of papier mache. (The 1906 Philadelphia Athletics’ main pitchers hit for a collective .201 that year. Don’t even think about it: in the dead ball era pitching wasn’t quite as tough or hard as it became much later.)

The Tall Tactician’s proposal didn’t go anywhere. Neither did a 1928 proposal to introduce the DH—by National League president John Heydler—that the American League rejected. Not until several minor leagues including the AAA-level International League adopted the DH in the 1960s did the idea get traction again, and then because maybe the single most despised owner in baseball at the time took it up.

Charlie Finley noticed the DH’s staying power in the minors. He also noticed two more things in 1972: 1) The National League out-drew the American League when the AL’s run production shrank. 2) His Oakland A’s pitchers couldn’t hit if you set the balls up for them on tees: their slash line was .165/.198/.203. (The very outlying exception: relief pitcher Rollie Fingers. His 1972 slash line: .316/.316/.474.) The American League’s pitchers overall in 1972: .145/.184/.182.

That’s when the American League—with commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who usually took anything Finley said as a declaration of war, giving his blessing—turned to the DH. (Year One A.D.H., aka 1973: the American League out-hit the National League.) The National League took it up again in 1980 and 1982 and it lost.

Without the DH, but with the remaining cop-out of pitching around the number eight hitter to strike out the opposing pitcher, Boswell wrote, “some weaker pitchers survive in the NL But survival-of-the-unfittest isn’t good for the evolution of a league. Over time, high-quality hitters migrate to the AL, where they can have longer, richer careers by finishing as a DH. That is the main reason the AL has dominated interleague play in this century.”

Actually, from before this century. Since regular-season interleague play emerged in 1997, the American League has a .522 winning percentage. (3,166-2,898; or, the AL has won 268 more games.) And only in five seasons has the National League won more interleague games than the American League. Sure, they did it last year and the year before, but that snapped a fourteen-season American League winning streak.

I don’t like a lot of the possible temporary 2020-2021 rules proposed for the Show’s return. Especially the idea of starting extra innings with each team getting a man on second to open the tenth inning.

I’m not as wild about the three-batter minimum for pitchers as I thought I might be. I don’t like the pack of television commercials for each pitching change, either. I’m also tired of things like that reviving meaningless and usually mal-informed debates about the death of the complete game, too.

(News flash: Complete games began dying off after the dead ball era ended. Damn right you can look it up. And thank God for it, unless you love the idea of ruining arms prematurely and ignoring the concept that pitchers like Warren Spahn and Nolan Ryan  were and remain anomalies. Or, that Robin Roberts was so worn down from his passel of early ’50s complete games and 300+ innings seasons he had to remake himself as a junkballer to stay in the Show as long as he did. I love complete games, too—but I’d rather see pitchers have longer, more productive, less injurious careers.)

But you know what I like even less?

1) I don’t like managers and coaches paying so little attention to warmup activity in the bullpen (more than you think don’t) that they don’t realise the guy they’re about to bring in might have thrown the equivalent of a quality start’s worth of pitches before he got into the game, with about a better than 50 percent chance of being gassed—and battered—going in.

(And if he’s been throwing that much in the pen before coming in, why the hell are we still letting him throw eight more pitches on the game mound before facing his first hitter?)

2) I don’t like the thought of some poor soul—who may or may not have been overworked in the pen before coming in in the first place—coming in with less than his best stuff and getting killed to death because his skipper can’t lift him until he’s faced three batters minimum.

But I like the idea that a National League lineup spot won’t be wasted anymore by the single most automatic out in baseball. I like the idea that National League managers might come to enjoy having, among other things, the option American League managers have: you could, in theory, use that number nine hole for either an extra cleanup-type or an extra leadoff-type. Quite a few teams have.

From 2010-2019 the Show’s pitchers averaged 5,492 plate appearances a year and, for those who insist it’s worth the wait to see a pitcher hit one over the fence, 23 home runs a year. One bomb per 239 plate appearances. If you watched a team’s regular lineup hit one homer per 239 plate appearances on a season, you’d call it the Second Dead Ball Era. Oh, funsie.

 

The Show’s coming back?

2020-05-11 CodyBellinger

Where have you gone, Cody Bellinger—and Mike Trout, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Christian Yelich? A nation turns its quarantined eyes to you . . . but . . .

Baseball, the sport that more or less invented social distancing (if you don’t count the batter, the catcher, and the home plate umpire in a close enough cluster), is about to return to America, so it is said. At least the Show will. This brings good news, bad news, and very bad news.

The good news is, the proposed July return acknowledges a nation in dire need of respite from the coronavirus’s toll in human life and human mischief and exhausted of asking, “Where have you gone, Cody Bellinger—and Mike Trout, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Christian Yelich? A nation turns its quarantined eyes to you.”

The bad news is, there’ll have to come bristling debate on part of the proposal: will the players get only their cuts of a half-and-half league revenue split, or will they get their normal if prorated-for-time 2020 salaries?

The very bad news is that slightly more than half season to come may leave room for some of Commissioner Rob Manfred’s mischief. The proposal approved by major league owners and submitted to the Major League Baseball Players’ Association includes that the postseason will begin with fourteen teams, courtesy of two more wild cards each in the American and National Leagues.

Manfred has only sought such a postseason expansion for almost as long as he’s been Bud Selig’s successor, of course. Bad enough that some of his thoughts about redressing play-of-game issues have run the gamut from nonsense to more nonsense. Worse is that he has no apparent thought that play-of-postseason requires even more serious redress.

Even if the proposed structure for this year is one time only, well, we’ve heard it before when baseball’s governors tried things once—and let them linger regardless of their wisdom or enhancement of the game.

The postseason is already long enough. And we’ve suffered long enough, too, the thrills and chills of teams fighting down the stretch to the very last breath to determine who’s going to finish . . . in second place.

The original wild card advent legitimised the second place finisher as a championship contender, which was bad enough, and removed the time-honoured incentive of the first place finish as the sole legitimate entree into postseason play. Manfred appears to be witless to comprehend it even as he further exposes himself a man to whom the common good of the game equals little more than making money for it.

You guessed it: here I go yet again. But a three-division league giving a round one bye to the division winner with the best record of the three, while the other two slug it out in a best-of-three division series, with that winner playing the bye team in a best-of-five League Championship Series, would a) produce far more of a genuine league champion and b) far fewer viewers turning off or avoiding television sets or radios on the road to the best-of-seven World Series.

All that said, there are a couple of things to come in the short 2020 season that Manfred, the owners, and the players alike would be wise to make permanent. Rosters are proposed to expand from 26 to 30. Sound as a nut. Make it permanent.

The designated hitter will come to the National League for the short 2020. Good. Make it even more permanent. Pitchers batted for a .128/.159/.163 slash line in 2019. That is unacceptable production no matter what you think of “tradition,” and baseball history is nothing if not full enough with traditions that deserved to be and were killed. OK, you asked for it: Thomas Boswell’s wisdom, one more time . . .

It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.

As a result, some weaker pitchers survive in the NL. But survival-of-the-unfittest isn’t good for the evolution of a league. Over time, high-quality hitters migrate to the AL, where they can have longer, richer careers by finishing as a DH. That is the main reason the AL has dominated interleague play in this century.

Depending upon the team’s up-and-down lineup possibilities, I’d far rather have what amounts to an extra leadoff hitter or cleanup hitter in that spot than a gang of spaghetti bats who might maybe hit one to the back of the yard as often as Halley’s Comet shows up. Assuming they don’t get injured swinging or running the bases and taken out of action when you need their arms the most.

I don’t want Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jack Flaherty, Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Josh Hader, Noah Syndergaard (when he returns), or Jon Lester wasting time at the plate no matter how many home runs they’ve hit once in a blue moon. I want them strictly on the mound missing bats or luring outs. That’s why they’re paid what they’re paid.

Beyond that? I’m not going to complain about the possible electronic strike zone, I want the balls and strikes called right, too, which means by the rule book and not according to Angel Hernandez’s mood on a particular afternoon or evening.

But I’m going to complain that Manfred and company continue underrating and underdiscussing umpire accountability, which still seems not to exist much if at all. More’s the pity. When the Korean Baseball Organisation sends an entire ump crew to the country’s minors for re-training after a few too many complaints about a few too many individual strike zones, the American Show needs to pay attention. And the Hernandezes, Joe Wests, and C.B. Bucknors ought to be made to watch their behinds.

MLB’s return will mean empty stadiums to begin with gradual re-openings, not to mention one-time mixed-league divisions based on geography to a great extent and special considerations for keeping players, coaches, managers, umpires, and grounds crews safe. It may sound like a pain in the sliding pants, but it may also beat the living hell out of the alternative, which we’ve had restlessly enough for over a month and counting.

And, like anything else, desperate times call for desperate or at least temporarily ameliorative measures. The only thing we have to fear is that the least appealing of them might become permanent and the most appealing and truly necessary among them might become memories after the season ends.