About those coming rule changes . . .

Mike Hargrove

Mike Hargrove—the Human Rain Delay might lead the Show in unpitched strikeouts starting next year if he was playing major league ball now.

Hands up to everyone screaming blue murder about the rules changes coming to baseball in 2023. Now, listen up. They might actually be not as grave as you think. Might.

It’s probably a good thing that Mike (The Human Rain Delay) Hargrove (first baseman) and Pedro Baez (relief pitcher) don’t play now. The new pitch clock rule would have Hargrove leading the Show in batting strikeouts with about half of those coming without pitches being thrown, and Baez would likely lead the Show in pitching walks without throwing pitches.

Starting next year, pitchers get fifteen seconds to throw to the plate with the bases empty and twenty to throw with anyone on base. Hitters better be in the batter’s box ready to swing after eight seconds on that pitch clock.

They’ve used the pitch clock in the minors for a few years now and, well, if you don’t count the unconscionable contraction of the minors a couple of years ago nobody’s proclaimed the end of the world as we know it yet.

The bases are going to get a little bigger, too. The bases have changed since the game was first organised, unless you never knew they began as large stones, changed to wood posts, and then to pure sandbags before somebody thought to make them the filled canvas squares that were familiar to one and all until about three decades or so ago. Stop snarling, Boring Old Fart. Then, pick up a copy of Peter Morris’s A Game of Inches, and learn that baseball was never quite as static as you let yourself be led to believe.

Why enlarge the bases even a relatively small amount? (From fifteen-inch squares now to eighteen-inch squares starting next year.) MLB’s Competition Committee thinks they’ll cut down on baserunning injuries (to name one, future Hall of Famer Mike Trout missed about half a season one year after incurring a thumb injury sliding into base) and raise the prospect of basepath theft in the bargain.

“In Triple-A, the first season of larger bases didn’t make much of a change on its own—but in the lower levels, bigger bases combined with rules about pickoffs saw large increases in steals per nine innings,” noted ESPN’s Jesse Rogers. “Even combined with the disengagement rules, though, MLB doesn’t believe either change will lead to teams being unable to control the run game.”

The infamous defensive overshifts will be verboten, too. Starting next season, teams will be required to keep four infielders on the infield dirt, including one each on either side of second base. This won’t exactly eliminate pure defensive shifting—you can still position a shortstop almost behind second base itself or a second baseman almost directly behind the pad, and move your first and third basemen accordingly against pure pull hitters—but you won’t see those walls of infielders on one side or a shortstop in short right field or a second baseman in short left, for a couple of examples.

But how to enforce? “If the hitting team reaches base and runners advance on a ball hit under the violation, the game proceeds without penalties,” Rogers wrote. “If the play has any other consequence—an out, a sacrifice, etc.—the hitting team can decide either to accept the penalty—which would add one ball to the hitter’s count—or decline it, and the play would stand.”

I wish he hadn’t said “sacrifice.” I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: deliberate sacrifices waste outs, your most precious commodity when your guys are at the plate. You can look it up, too: in six known “bunt situations,” only once do you have an absolute better chance of scoring after than before that bunt (men on first and second, nobody out), only once  otherwise do you have an even scoring chance before and after (man on second, nobody out)], and all four others you have less chance to score after than before that bunt.

Unless you’ve got the next Brett Butler on your team (that half-pint center fielder dropped 337 bunts in his long career and 85 percent of them were for base hits), you should be fined heavily for wasting outs and scoring probabilities with bunts.

These three new rules won’t be as drastic as the continuation of the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning is and will remain. The players on the Competition Committee were outnumbered 6-4, but I’d love to know if they pushed to get rid of Manfred Man at all. It’s a ridiculous rule that probably did nothing to cut down the time of a game, which was of course the critical factor in devising the aforementioned new rules. (It’s also another of the extremely few reasons to waste an out with a bunt: you’re handed a man on second going in, you have an even chance of scoring after bunting him to third, go for it. Make Manfred Man look like anything but a pretty flamingo.)

But will they really cut down on the times of games? From where I sit the jury’s going to have a long deliberation. And two things that would really cut down on the times of games don’t even seem to have been topics. You don’t need me to tell you that eliminating broadcast commercials a) between half-innings and b) during pitching changes in jams would probably do more to cut the times of games than any of the foregoing changes—especially if they’re married to thing two: eliminating the eight warmup pitches on the game mound for relievers coming in in the middle of those jams.

Go ahead and scream. All better? Now listen up. Again. (I’ve argued this before.) When you bring a pitcher into a jam, unless you’re bringing him in because your incumbent was injured, you shouldn’t even have to think about the new man warming up on the game mound.

He might have thrown anywhere from one to three or even four innings worth of pitches getting to where you could bring him in in the first place. Warm up? He’s coming in hotter than a Las Vegas summer. It takes less time for him to get from the bullpen to the game mound, most of the time, than it does to run those ridiculous “this call to the bullpen” commercials.

You brought him in to get you out of that jam. He’s nuclear hot already. Let him get right to work. Your reliever’s not going to have less men on base behind him or a less pesky hitter at the plate after he throws those eight useless warmups, is he? (Oops. Better not give Commissioner Rube Goldberg any more bright ideas!)

To improve or not to improve, that is the question

Field of Dreams Game

The Field of Dreams Game in Iowa got boffo ratings on Fox Sports . . . but Iowans who don’t subscribe to Fox still couldn’t watch on other TV/streaming outlets. Blackouts are just one thing baseball needs to fix.

“Congratulations,” ESPN’s Website begins, “you’ve been named acting commissioner of Major League Baseball for a single day.” That’s the way the site presented eight of its major baseball writers presenting eight individual propositions answering the question of what they’d change to improve the game on field and off.

I’ve got some thoughts of my own about the eight and maybe one or two more that weren’t discussed during that symposium published Tuesday morning. It’s not that I’m angling for Rob Manfred’s job, never mind how often it appears that a paramecium could do it better than he does.

But here goes, with the ESPN writer who addressed the matter in parentheses:

1) Shortening the season. (Jesse Rogers.) I’m on board . . . with a 154-game season. The 132-game season suggested almost in passing is too short. I get the impetus: football arrives, other sports’ seasons begin during baseball’s postseason. Unless you have skin in a team’s game it’s no fun to watch them out of the race playing games with no real meaning other than watching the prospects.

Now, make the shorter season mean something above and beyond the necessary considerations of player health: fix the postseason. Be done with the wild card system. Make it mean real championship play again. More after taking on . . .

2) Expansion and geographic re-alignment. (Bradford Doolittle.) Thirty-two teams isn’t necessarily a terrible idea. Neither is the thought of two leagues with eight-team divisions aligned according to their home regions.

But there’s no need to change the names of the National League and the American League as the writer suggests. (I’m all in favour of doing away with “traditions” whose legitimate usefulness disappeared well before the Edsel came and went, but this one’s not exactly begging for extinction.)

I’m not on board, either, with two four-team “pods” within each division or with allowing what the writer suggests further: six teams per league playoffs. That’s knocking on the door of the postseason mishmosh polluting the NBA and the NHL.

Now we can talk about being done with the wild card system. In two-league, four eight-team-division baseball, we can return to the original divisional era postseason format: the division champions meeting at once in a best-of-five League Championship Series, and the World Series remaining its seven-game self.

Voila! You’ve also solved one of the main reasons why even thinking people become exhausted with the thinking person’s sport—saturation. By the time we get to the World Series now, even the most stubbornly die-hard baseball fans have all but had it for the year. Shorter season, shorter postseason with real championship play? All aboard!

You also have a fine reason to do away with regular-season interleague play once and for all. Save it for the All-Star Game and the World Series. Regular-season interleague play’s become a “tradition” even the most stubborn modernist shouldn’t mourn.

All the above might also put to permanent bed the idea of tanking teams. Let’s see how anxious they are to tank when they realise you now have only two choices: finish the regular season with your butts parked in first place, or wait ’till next year.

3) The pitch clock. (David Schoenfield.) Make it 25 seconds and I’m in. (It’ll keep the batters in the box, too.) But continue to refuse eliminating the broadcast commercials for every pitching change (one more time: it takes less time for relief pitchers to come in from the bullpen than to run those spots), and I’m out.

You can’t have one without sacrificing the other. The overall good of the game is not the same thing as just making money for it.

Hey, want another way to speed up the game that wasn’t born to be played according to a time clock? How about eliminating the eight warmups on the mound when a pitcher comes into a game in the middle of a jam?

Think about it: He’s already thrown the possible equivalent of a four- or even five-inning assignment getting warmed up. He’s already hotter than hell when he comes in from the pen. Let him get right to work, he’s ready. You’ve just shaved another 30 seconds to a minute off the time of the game. Incredible, ain’t it?

4) Bring in the robo umps. (Jeff Passan.) Too much has been too much more than enough. I’m sick and tired of watching a game, seeing too many blown calls, and umpires with their individual “interpretations” of the strike zone. The umps need to be reminded—with a ball-peen hammer to their heads if need be—that, pace the late Ron Luciano, they are not God out there.

There’s only one man on the field who actually does get to make an individual strike zone—the batter, with his stance at the plate. There’s no uniform batting stance. But there is a rule book definition of the zone. If Robby the Umpbot’s going to get right what Evil Angel Hernandez, Country Joe West, and their ilk can’t or won’t, then finish ironing out the bugs and put Robby on the job at last.

“It is not easy,” Passan notes, “because umpires who get 95% of ball-strike calls correct are considered the best of the best, and umpires who get 85% right remain employed, and every single day there are manifold examples of balls that are called strikes and strikes that are called balls.”

Luddites who refuse to allow technological assistance on behalf of getting it right—especially when championship advance or consummation is squarely on the line—are hereby invited, with apologies to the late William F. Buckley, Jr., to send their complaints in stamped, self-addressed envelopes.

5) End streaming blackouts and loosen video rights restrictions. (Joon Lee.) Sound as a nut. Ancient history teaches how trepiditious owners then were when broadcasting came to baseball in the first place. Their fears were proven unfounded.

But the blackouts remain, wrongly. There’s no reason why Iowans who couldn’t afford to trek to and buy their way into the Field of Dreams field for last week’s Yankee-White Sox game there should have been denied the chance to watch live on MLB.tv or any other network.

There’s also no reason why Iowans still can’t watch the White Sox, the Cubs, the Twins, the Brewers, the Cardinals, or the Royals. Or even the Tigers. There’s no reason why people in Vegas can’t watch the Dodgers, the Angels, the Padres, or the Diamondbacks. It’s not like they can just jump in the car and make that quick-and-dirty four- to five-hour trip to the ballpark.

Let television and the Internet ring. Let any fan anywhere watch any game he or she damn well pleases. While we’re at it, Lee is right about this, too: Social media’s here to stay, for better or worse. Baseball should “make creating baseball-themed videos using game content as seamless as possible by loosening its reins on copyright violations — similar to the NBA, which treats user-generated content like free advertising for the sport.”

It also helps baseball solve knotty problems in the bargain. Or did baseball’s government forget how social media’s more deft denizens helped provide incontrovertible corroboration for what became Astrogate?

6) Allow trading of draft picks. (Kiley McDaniel.) Why the hell not? If you thought this year’s draft got more attention than prior baseball drafts, imagine the attention (and the concurrent revenue jolts) when you can see baseball teams dealing picks the way they do to a fare-thee-well in other team sports.

It’d also give scouting a badly needed booster shot and pump up even more interest and intrigue around the College World Series.

7) Pay minor leaguers a living wage. (Alden Gonzalez.) There should be no argument here. It’s one thing to insist players need to make their bones and put in their development time, but it’s something else to continue insisting they should do it while starving to death in roach motels. Especially with the pan-damn-ic exacerbating minor leaguers’ housing issues.

The romance of the long bus trips and the cheap sandwiches is long gone. We don’t have to make what’s left of the minor leagues life on the Riviera to acknowledge reality and compel baseball’s government to break the synonymity between dues-paying development and depraved deprivation.

8) Rethink the commissioner’s role. (Tim Keown.) The commissioner shouldn’t be just the owners’ manservant. On the other hand, neither should he or she (and if Kim Ng can do a grand job in her first year as the Marlins’ general manager—she did boffo business at the trade deadline—who says a woman can’t oversee the entire game?) be anyone’s man- or maidservant?

To do that, of course, would require a shift in the choosing: There’s no reason on earth why the commissioner shouldn’t be chosen from a vote of the owners, the players (through their team representatives), and the umpires. They’ve all got the skin in the game; the commissioner should be the steward of the entire game, not just its owners and administrators.

And who should be the next commissioner? Keown says it better than I could: a man or woman “whose relationship to the game goes deeper than financial concerns, someone who stands for something other than sponsorships and real-estate deals for billionaire owners. Someone who understands there are constituents–in the game’s operations departments, in the clubhouses, in the stands–who actually like the game for what it is, and not for how much can be extracted from it.”

It sounds a lot like A. Bartlett Giamatti, no? Well, we can’t bring Giamatti back from the Elysian Fields, but if we can’t find a man or woman who comes close enough to that spirit, then we’re as hopeless as this year’s Diamondbacks, Orioles, and Pirates.

I’ve got a ninth proposition. Sorry, but you knew I wasn’t going to let this one pass:

9) Make the designated hitter universal, once and for all, no looking back. The pitchers’ 2021 slash line as of this morning is .107/.147/.138. Since the last decade of the dead ball era, they’ve hit .154 overall. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: they’ve made Mario Mendoza and Willy Miranda resemble Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

One more time, from the now-retired Thomas Boswell: “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.”

It’s also not. fun. to see them drop sacrifice bunts that waste precious outs to work with, give the other guys a little extra breathing room, with no guarantee that the guy who was just pushed along one base is going to come home. (Prove Keith Law wrong, too: “I have yet to meet the fan who bought a ticket to a major league game,” he’s written, “because she really wanted to see guys drop some sac bunts.”)

Not when you’re sending about 99.9 percent pool-noodle bats to the plate to kill rallies when their counterparts can pitch around good number-eight bats to strike their asses out for the side under normal circumstances.

And forget the idiot who commented in The Athletic‘s comment section that the most “exciting” thing in baseball in the five years was Bartolo Colon’s home run in San Diego five years ago. (Clearly, the idiot slept through a few postseasons, 2016’s and 2019’s in particular.)

It was unlikely. It was once in a lifetime, literally: Colon ordinarily couldn’t hit with a telephone pole. It took him from the beginning of the second Clinton Administration to just before Donald Trump’s consecration as the 2016 Republican presidential nominee to hit it. It was a laugh and a half, watching Colon run the bases at the speed of snail resembling a beach ball with legs.

And it was no more a mic-drop reason to keep sending pitchers to the plate than it is to drop Nolan Ryan’s or Warren Spahn’s outlying names whenever you mourn the loss of the complete game that began dying before the end of the Berlin Airlift. (Think back to the so-called Good Old Days when you read those words “arm fatigue,” “shoulder fatigue,” or “dead arm.” Those were code words for injuries, often as not injuries that shortened and ended far more careers than the “purists” have the will or the common sense to acknowledge.)

A few of baseball’s best pitchers—especially Jacob deGrom and Jack Flaherty this year—have missed major season time due to injuries that began with those incurred while they were at the plate where they don’t really belong. Was it really worth it to see them at the plate when their teams ended up losing them for long enough to matter in the pennant races?

Please tell me you’re not answering yes to that.