No surprise the players said no thanks

The old exhausted gag about how you can tell lawyers and politicians lie applies to a bulk of major league baseball’s owners. When they asked the players to go for yet another expanded postseason at all, never mind without offering anything of substance in return, the only shock would have been if the players went for it.

CBS Sports’s Dayn Perry isolates it: “[A]n expanded postseason largely benefits the owners, not the players. According to the terms of the [collective bargaining agreement]—stunning use of italics forthcoming—all postseason television revenues go to the owners. The players, in turn, get a share of the gate revenues, which is a significantly smaller slice of the pie.”

It’ll be smaller, too, depending upon the continuing pandemic protocols that might yet be in place come the next postseason, even if the owners were willing to pay the players their full 162-game salaries on a 154-game schedule. The owners only think they’re being benevolent and caring about their players’ safety.

“If, however, player safety was truly the prevailing concern for MLB,” Perry writes, “then they would’ve proposed that schedule shift by itself and not appended to it a call for expanded playoffs, which benefits owners far more than players.”

Speaking of player safety, how concerned for player safety were the owners last year in allowing fans to attend League Championship Series and World Series games? Or when Justin Turner was allowed back onto the field to celebrate with his World Series-winning Dodgers after he’d just been informed he was COVID-19 positive?

And how concerned are they for pitchers’ safety if they’re refusing to show sense, keep the universal designated hitter permanent, and not use it as leverage to force more permanently-expanded postseasons that compromise competition while fattening their bank accounts?

I’ve argued on behalf of the universal DH until I’m bloated from it because a pitcher’s lineup spot is the least productive in baseball, and that’s not something that suddenly arrived with the advent of the DH in the American League in 1973. That argument was made as far back as 1891 by a National League owner. So knock it off with the lie that the DH is the American League’s continuing plot to dilute baseball.

Now, ponder this, as Perry and his CBS colleague Mike Axisa do: Last year’s pandemic-mandated short, irregular season meant pitchers having far shorter, smaller work loads. Even with a 154-game schedule they’ll be working their way back to full. “It shouldn’t be a labor issue either,” Axisa writes.

MLB should want to keep pitchers healthy — starting pitchers are the closest thing this sport has to a “main character”—and keep their best players on the field. A universal DH helps accomplish that. Reducing injury risk at a time when pitchers are coming off a bizarre year with small workloads is a no-brainer. The universal DH is good for everyone.

By the way, you can also stop lying about the “additional jobs” the universal DH would bring. It won’t, even if it means National League teams having places for DH-types who can still swing even if they’ve become or always were seditious fielders.

What it will do, as Axisa says, is turn fifteen bench seats into fifteen full-time jobs, including opening places for those DH-types. It’ll remove useless bats from having to check in at the plate in the number nine hole. It’ll put useful bats into the lineup at more regular intervals.

You can also give up the lie about the universal DH removing “strategy” from the game. With that dead lineup spot brought back to life, National League managers would have some very creative options available. Maybe they’d like a second cleanup hitter in that spot? An additional leadoff-type hitter?

Maybe they can also do what American League managers have done for years with the DH slot: give one of their regulars a extra day or two off from the field, asking him nothing more than swinging the bat a few times, and have those guys a little more fresh down the stretch of a pennant race and into the postseason.

There’s also no reason to make a bargaining chip out of the seven-inning doubleheader except owners’ avarice. In some ways making the seven-inning doubleheader permanent is more important than the universal DH for safety’s sake. We got a few because of the COVID-related postponements last year. In just a 154-game season we could be getting lots more.

“We saw teams play three doubleheaders in a single week at times last year,” Axisa says. “MLB has to assume something like that will happen again, in which case seven-inning doubleheaders are a necessity. You can’t ask players to run themselves into the ground like that.” Tell that to Joe and Jane Fan who still don’t get things like that.

Once upon a time teams were liable to play between 20-25 doubleheaders a season. (The single-season record is 44 such twin bills, played by the 1943 White Sox, in case you wondered.) If they’d thought of the seven-inning doubleheader back in the Good Old Days, the doubleheader never would have disappeared except for makeup games.

I’ve also argued until my spleen couldn’t stand it that the postseason is already expanded too much as it is. The owners may be banking mucho millions but the competition is already diluted and the audiences who can’t buy tickets for postseason game packages are already saturated with postseason baseball. Is the common good of the game really the same thing as making money for it, after all?

You already have teams thinking they don’t have to go the extra distances to compete when they can settle for the thrills and chills of fighting to the last breath to finish in second place. You think baseball has tanking issues now? Wait till you see them if last fall’s postseason should become baseball’s permanent future. Three third-place teams and one fourth-place team got to the 2020 postseason. Where’s the anti-tanking incentive?

“Lower the bar for contention, which is what an expanded postseason does, and teams aren’t going to spend as much,” Perry says. “Even at the top end, the idea of having to claw through another round of the playoffs is a disincentive for teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs, and Mets to fortify rosters they already see as being playoff-worthy.”

. . . [T]he players aren’t likely to give away a strong bargaining piece like the expanded postseason unless it’s in exchange for something of similar import. From the players’ standpoint, they’d presumably like to address their shrinking share of league revenues, the occasional practice of service-time manipulation (i.e., when teams hold back a clearly ready prospect in order to delay his free agency or arbitration eligibility for a full year), tanking, the failure of the minimum salary to keep pace with revenue growth in the sport, and teams’ increasing treatment of the luxury tax threshold as a hard cap, among other matters. Addressing any of those things will be a heavy lift.

The novelties that need to disappear post haste, of course, are the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning and the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. The extra-inning tiebreaker should last only as long as the pan-damn-ic does. Once we’re dead last certain the coronavirus is either extinct or down to levels so manageable and medically fixable that we can dump the masks and the protocols, that rule should disappear.

But spare us any continuing nonsense about ensuring safety when the owners clearly use the universal DH and other things as leverage to try forcing the players to re-negotiate the current collective bargaining agreement before it’s time to re-negotiate. You can count on maybe half a hand which owners aren’t lying every time they move their lips.

Why should the players—who actually want the universal DH and probably would go for the seven-inning doubleheader—negotiate prematurely when they’re going to come up with the short end of a stick that’s already been shortened just so? Especially knowing that conceding the more permanent expanded postseason means further-diluted competition?

“MLB ownership isn’t going to let a crisis go to waste,” Perry says, “and that’s why they’re seeking to alter the structure of the 2021 season even though said structure should be considered a settled matter.” Line drive, base hit.

No, Commissioner, you KEEP the universal DH

Commissioner Rob Manfred, donning a mask to attend a World Series game in Globe Life Field.

If it isn’t broken, call the repairman. If it is broken, it’ll fix itself. So seems to be the thinking (using the term very liberally) of Commissioner Nero. Apparently, he’s in no hurry to keep the universal designated hitter, but he’s in a big hurry to keep permanent the over-expanded postseason.

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Steinberg, whose team is now playing in the World Series and is one of baseball’s most innovative, has it right about innovation actual and alleged when he likes to say, “Break a window, don’t burn down the house.” Rob Manfred seems to prefer burning down the house to save the broken window.

The DH would have “broken” the window in 1891 if then-Pirates owner William Chase Temple had his way. Yes, I’m going there again. The concept that drives today’s stubbornly ancient-school National League fans came originally out of a National League owner’s head.

Temple was fed up pitchers being unable to hit. Not “unwilling,” unable. So he proposed what we know as the DH. Temple’s contemporary and friend Albert Spalding wanted to see and raise. Spalding thought the pitcher’s lineup spot should have been erased entirely with eight-man lineups otherwise. Window-breaking? Spalding would have busted three for the price of one.

“Every patron of the game,” wrote Sporting Life about Temple and Spalding’s thoughts, “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.”

No need to review the history of the DH idea in detail. Suffice to say here that Temple brought it to a vote and lost in 1892. In 1906, Philadelphia Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack (whose pitchers hit a whole .201 that season) proposed it to see it go nowhere. The National League proposed it again in 1928 and the American League rejected it then. It took traction at last when the high minors adopted it in the 1960s and impressed Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley enough (as well it might considering his 1972 A’s pitchers hit a whopping .165) convinced his fellow AL owners to bring it in.

Looking for ways to make the pandemic-shortened irregular 2020 season as painless as possible, Manfred decided this would be an experimental season. The universal DH was one of the experiments. Would you like to know how it went? The batting slash line for major league pitchers all 2010s long is .130/.161/.165. The batting slash line for 2020 designated hitters is .231/.316/.408.

It gets better. Want to know whose DHs did the best this season? The Atlanta Braves. In the National League. With a .316/.411/.589 slash line. And, a 1.000 OPS. Hitting more home runs than everyone else (17) except the Minnesota Twins (19). Getting more base hits period (73) than everybody else’s DHs. With the highest DH batting average on balls in play (.403) by 44 points. Did I mention Braves DHs knocked in the most runs (55) of any team’s DHs?

Want to know how many National League teams’ DHs finished in the top ten for collective OPS around the 2020 Show? Six. (The Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Mets, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Diego Padres, and the St. Louis Cardinals.) The top ten in DH on-base percentage is even-up between NL and AL teams (five each) with the Braves at the top. Braves’ DHs led a pack of five NL teams in the top ten for batting average at that lineup slot. They also led all teams’ DHs with 37 walks.

I’m going here, too: my Real Batting Average metric. RBA = total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches. Look how the National League’s DHs measured up against the American League’s:

2020 Real Batting Average – DHs

National League 3724 1338 366 25 26 54 .486
American League 3768 1347 377 17 26 46 .481

The National League DHs batted five points higher in RBA than the American League despite batting 44 fewer times. (They took a lot more for their teams, too, if you noticed the hit-by-pitches.)

Do you still miss those .128-hitting pitchers with their .178 RBAs? Are you ready to listen to Thomas Boswell this time, if not a) almost two years ago; or, b) when I cited him again in June?

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.

If you want to yell your head off at Commissioner Nero, there are better reasons. Bawl him out from San Diego to Boston and back about that ridiculous three-batter relief pitching minimum and, even more, against that free cookie on second base to start each extra half inning.

Rant your heads off against a permanently-expanded postseason. Sure it might have been mad, perverted fun to see the 29-31 Houston Astros meet the likewise 29-31 Milwaukee Brewers in the World Series this month. Only because it would have made a further chump out of Commissioner Nero seeing regular (well, irregular) season losers playing for that piece of metal.

Bellow like Falstaff that the real issue with postseason baseball’s ratings declines are and have long enough been saturation. Bad enough the era of the second wild card made for potentially-exhausting maximum 43 postseason games a year. Slightly worse was this year’s sixteen-team postseason making for a potential maximum 65 games (if each series went the distance) and an actuality of 52 postseason games so far.

Even fans such as myself who think there’s no such thing as too much baseball get wrung out by that. The good news is that, this time, championship won’t be diluted. The two best teams in 2020 baseball—when all was said and done about COVID-19 infections, disruptions and scheduling contortions—are going at it in the World Series. That’s now. Does Nero really want to risk a future full of losers playing for the Promised Land?

Or would wiser heads who aren’t sound asleep while Nero burns the house down in order to put a trash can fire out willing to suggest what I’ve suggested until I’m bluer in the face than the Rays’ jerseys. Dump the bloody wild cards. Give the winningest division champs a round-one bye and let the other division winners play a best-of-three. Let that winner meet the bye winner in a best-of-five League Championship Series. Leave the World Series best-of-seven and return it to its proper primacy.

As Groucho Marx once said, it’s so damn simple a child of five could do it. And, sit back, watch the tanking teams run out of excuses to tank because you either win or be gone, watch all those “competitive” teams realise they can’t settle anymore for stirring the blood and delivering the thrills, chills, and spills fighting to the last breath to see who finishes . . . in second place.

Now, somebody send for a child of five. (Thanks again, Groucho.) Then, send him or her to Nero with instructions to keep the universal DH. Which did you one of the biggest favours baseball was able to do for you this otherwise pandemically-putrid year. Even if you didn’t know it and didn’t want to hear about it.