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.

Welcome, Robby the Umpbot?

James Hoye’s game-ending strike call on a badly borderline pitch didn’t amuse Oakland manager Bob Melvin or batter Nick Punto in this 2014 debate. (Ironically, Hoye at last review was considered an ump friendlier to hitters than pitchers when calling balls and strikes.) Too many umps with too many individual strike zones may mean the robot ump coming to the Show soon enough once the bugs are un-bugged.

Now and then, it seems as though I can’t live life too long before I hear someone arguing that the Supreme Court often gets a little too big for its constitutional britches. Surely you’ve heard the argument, “The Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is,” countered customarily by those who demur with, “That’s what you think.”

Baseball has a comparable argument. The rule book isn’t quite the Constitution, of course, but if you think about aligning a baseball game to the Supreme Law of the Land the pitcher taking a sign from his catcher and winding up to throw to the plate could be the Preamble, and—unless the batter connects—the strike zone could be Article I. (It’s actually in Rule 2.0, but let’s not get technical.)

And there are those who love the game and all it stands for dearly who’ll tell you, “The strike zone is what the umpire says it is.” If you think the Constitution is grist for judicial tyranny arguments, just get yourself into a debate about the strike zone as grist for umpires as judicial tyrants—and the coming of robotic umpiring.

The so-called “traditionalist” doesn’t want anything or anyone other than umpires deciding the strike zone and calling balls and strikes. That’s the way it’s been done for a century and a half, right? I don’t want to automate those guys out of a job. Leave that to [the] auto industry. Keep automation out of baseball.

Never mind that automation didn’t come strictly to the auto industry. Never mind, too, that baseball’s welcomed automation since the advent of the electric-light scoreboard and the pitching machines that are still in use in spring training camps.

For the ump behind the plate, his job begins with construing MLB Rule 2.0’s definition of the strike zone properly: [T]hat area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap [determined by] the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

It doesn’t say, “The strike zone is whatever the umpire says it is.” Like the Supreme Court as defined in Article III of the Constitution, the umpire has pitch and play-calling perimeters. Like the Supreme Court, the umpire also has limits. Unfortunately, both retain the capability of disobeying those limits. The Supreme Court may actually be better behaved. May.

Enough baseball people thought about it enough that the automated strike zone is all but on the threshold of arriving in the Show. It’s going to be tried this season in the newly-constructed Low-A Southeast League, which you used to know as the Florida State League. It’s not exactly bug-free just yet, as The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark warns:

This is said to be an “improved” version of the [Automated Ball-Strike System] used in the Atlantic League and Fall League. But what baseball needs to study most closely is what definition of the strike zone needs to be plugged into the computer to produce a zone that resembles what current hitters and pitchers think of as a strike. When the Atlantic League used the rulebook strike zone in 2019, the robots called strikes on pitches that not a single human in the park thought was a strike. That has to change for this system to work in the big leagues.

So there is some thought that ultimately, baseball might need to shrink the top of the electronic zone significantly, bring the bottom of the zone up slightly and expand the corners microscopically. But those adjustments might also be used to produce more balls in play. So this is a highly significant work in progress.

They’ll have to work out lots of bugs first, of course. Things such as tracking pitch movement accurately and the technology’s timing algorithms. Things also including but not limited to making sure Robby the Umpbot doesn’t call “strike!” on big curve balls that bounce in front of the plate and up onto the absolute floor of the zone—assuming the next Vladimir Guerrero doesn’t swing on it anyway and loft a bloop single or rip a screaming line drive past the infield.

They’ll also have to find the way to program it to conform to the tiny subtleties in the batter’s box movements of the one man on the field who does have the greatest legal leeway to define the strike zone. It ain’t the men in black and gray, kiddies.

The strike zone rule allows the batter leeway to define the zone. There’s no official uniform batting stance. If there was, Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson would have been up you-know-what’s creek. There were times the Man of Steal at the plate looked almost like a catcher in a crouch behind it. It’s not on the umpires to say, in effect, “I don’t like your batting stance, so I’m just going to teach you a little lesson in the proper plate approach.”

(There are no official uniform pitching deliveries, either, in case you wondered. The pitchers who’d be up the same creek if there were would only begin with Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, with his approximately sixteen different windups and half as many leg kicks, including his famous Rockettes-like high kick.)

The ump who blows a strike call or a play call isn’t committing mischief even an eighth as grave as the Supreme Court blowing the Dred Scott decision. But think of the rallies compromised or ended, the stretch drive games, the championship series games killed, because of the umpire calling it not just wrong but flagrantly wrong.

The umps aren’t exactly strangers to debates over strike zones and their assumption of the right to define them. The original Major League Umpires Association imploded in large part over baseball government’s 1999 bid to hold them to account over them. MLB asked teams to chart the pitches and report individual umpire strike zones, the old union said, essentially, you our bosses have some pair evaluating the performance of we your employees.

“[J]ust another case of Big Brother watching over us,” snapped old MLUA chief Richie Phillips. Then Phillips turned up on the 14 June 1999 installment of Real Sports, the HBO sports program, and equated umpires with (wait for it!) federal judges: “And I don’t believe they should always be subject to the voter, just like federal judges are not subject to the voter.”

That one Sandy Alderson—now the Mets’ president of baseball operations, then the commissioner’s executive vice president of baseball operations—couldn’t resist: “Federal judges can be impeached. I got worried when I found out that players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching.”

Alderson might also have pondered that there was cause for alarm about pitchers more concerned who was calling their pitches than who’d be trying to hit them.

“The game is played by humans… why take away one of the most human elements of the game???” demands a member of an online baseball forum in which I take part. “That’s what makes it beautiful.” Is one of the most human elements of the game no longer supposed to be trying to get it right? Are the players the only ones required to get it right while the umpires are obliged to anything but?

If you don’t want to automate the umpires out of the home plate part of their jobs, insist that they do their jobs. We’re not trying to eliminate the colourful, fun umpires; God knows it makes the game a lot more fun when your Fernando Tatis, Jrs. and Mookie Bettses are matched by your Ron Lucianos and Dutch Rennerts.

Oops. Luciano left the game in 1979. (And, tragically, committed suicide a decade and a half later.) Rennert retired after the 1992 season. (He died three years ago.) In 1991, a survey of managers, general managers, coaches, and scouts rated Rennert—whose Statue of Liberty-high raised fist and kneeling thrust right calling a strike was topped only by a holler that could (and usually did) drown out a full house at Dodger Stadium—the third-best umpire in the Show.

Today’s umpires are about as much fun as a COVID diagnosis. Watching them blowing calls and then so ostentatiously behaving as though the rules are what they say are the rules on the spot isn’t entertaining. You’ll sooner name the starting lineup of the 1903 St. Louis Browns on Opening Day without clicking the link than you’ll name fans who pay royally for a day at the ballpark to see the home plate ump first.

Those who can’t accept a technological corrective to arbitrary self-aggrandising, potentially wrong game-changing behaviours should be pitied. Those who insist the “human element” alone justifies denying the corrective and keeping umpires above the actual rules of baseball play, even if it means games and maybe even championships turning or ending for the wrong reasons, should be condemned.