One thing that can be said for baseball’s commissioner, Rob Manfred – he’s not afraid to tinker with the game. Or to royally ire the dedicated long-term fans who’ve made the sport the billion dollar industry it is these days. The latest examples of that have come down in the last week. A slew of rule changes are coming to MLB over the next two seasons, and being looked at for further down the road.
In the majors, the big change this year is making the July 31 Trade Deadline the trade deadline. No more asterisks, buts or unlesses like we have had up until now. Less significant changes involve cutting the number of trips to the mound by a catcher or coach from 6 to 5 (excepting pitching changes or injuries), a change to the All Star Game voting to make it a two-time sort of thing and offering a million dollars to the winner of the Home Run Derby at the game. About five seconds will be shaved off the break-time between innings also, saving a whopping minute-plus per game! Next year though, things really begin to look a little different.
In 2020, major league rosters can expand for most of the season by one, to 26 players. However, come September, only two additions will be allowed, meaning 28 player teams rather than the max of 40 currently employed down the stretch. There will, however, be a limit (to be determined still) on how many of those 26 can be pitchers. And with Shohei Ohtani and now Cinci’s Michael Lorenzen wanting to pitch and play infield, there’ll be rules requiring teams to designate certain players as “two-way” for them to be allowed to do so. But wait, there’s more…
Pitchers will by and large have to face three batters or more in a game. Bye bye, one out “speciality” relievers. But that’s still not necessarily the end to the revisions. Because, Manfred has other changes in his head and found a guinea pig to try them out – the Independent Atlantic League. That pro league, akin to about an A-ball minor league, with teams in the northeast like the Long Island Ducks and New Britain Bees (plus, inexplicably the Sugarland Skeeters on the Texas Gulf Coast) will be trying out other rule changes at the request of MLB this year, including using bigger bases, no mound visits unless a pitcher is changed, banning the “shift” , moving the mound midway through the year and robot umpires to “assist” flesh-and-blood ones. MLB, who signed some contract with the indie league presumably to make it worth their while to participate, say the idea is to “create more balls in play, more defensive action and improve player safety.”
That’s a lot to take in. Some of these changes I like, others I’m unsure of and some…well, some are just dumb. Let’s look at them quickly.
This year, the big change is really only the July 31 trade deadline being that. As we know, in the past, there was a much-ballyhooed trade deadline on that date…and then lots of trades after it, before an August 31 deadline. And a few trades after that in September. As Cut 4 put it, until now “the rules governing trade waivers made the American tax code look like a children’s book.” If you’re reading this, you probably understand the rules more or less anyway, but let’s say in general, any trades could occur until the end of July. In August it was more complicated and involved putting players on waivers and hoping the team you want to deal with picks up that player and another team doesn’t do so and essentially “ixnay” it, and in September anything goes but players acquired then aren’t going to be able to play for you in the post-season. This new single deadline makes a lot more sense to casual observers, and should make the last few days of July even more eventful as teams really feel the pressure to tweak their roster for that playoff run. It will of course be bad luck for the team whose ace starter throws out his elbow on an August 1st start, but all in all, I don’t mind it. It may force teams to look forward and try to run with the best possible roster as much as they can rather than go with glaring weaknesses for half a year assuming if need be, they’ll fix the holes on the cheap late in the season.
Changes to the All Star Game vote have happened before and may happen again. I don’t see any need for them, but it doesn’t greatly upset me either. Likewise, the bonus money for the Home Run Derby makes me yawn, as the event does too. Too few players care about it, and with salaries being what they are, even a million bucks may not persuade high-profile players who don’t want to be there to take part. Manfred would do better to just retire the event, a relic of the age of steroids and player strikes, and find something better to replace it with.
Next year, we see things happen. I quite like the addition of the 26th man on the roster and imagine the players’ union will too. It probably is put in as a way of throwing them a “bone”, since some of the changes in the works and perhaps ahead aren’t going to be popular. An extra man means more union members. It also makes room for more strategy like late-inning pinch hitters or defensive changes, so a more exciting game. Limiting the number of pitchers may be a good thing, although we don’t yet have a number…10? 12? 15? I’ve long felt most teams carry a man or two too many in the bullpen and could do better with an extra infielder or third catcher at the expense of some reliever who’s only supposed to face 25 batters all year, and this will probably give them more reason to do that. As will the three-batter minimum (*) … asterisk being that if an inning ends, a pitcher doesn’t have to come out the next inning. So, if a starter for instance, goes 6 2/3 and there’s a tough lefty hitter coming up, the team can still go to their “LOOGY” – Lefty Only One Guy out pitcher, and bring in someone new for the eighth. But in general, its going to make the bullpen arms do a little bit more, and cut down on the lengthy, mid-inning pitching changes which do get tiresome, even to fans like myself who aren’t crying over the length of the game.
These changes I think are generally alright and won’t alter the basic nature of the sport. Now, they may not enhance it hugely either , but baseball will still look like baseball as we know it. I’m OK with that, although a part of me isn’t ok with Manfred’s readiness to do away with anything and everything, tradition and history be damned.
Then though, there are the Atlantic changes being studied. A cow of another color altogether are those.
I’m not sure why they figure bases are too small as they are, but that is the least of the issues. I’m sure we’ve all seen, in years gone by, pitchers in a jam stall by having one mound visit after another slowing the pace of the game to that of a drowsy turtle. But with limits on them already in place, I don’t know that eliminating them altogether is beneficial to the players or the game. A pitching coach sees something a bit off in the pitcher’s delivery can’t go out there to tell him to shift it a bit? The hurler gets a bit confused over a catcher’s signs can’t signal for him to come out for a quick clarifiction? Are we all so ADD now that we can’t wait the extra 20 seconds without changing channels?
Then there’s a ban on shifts, or the attempt to do that at least. The rule says two infielders will have to be on either side of second base, or else the pitch will be a Ball, and “dead.” Presumably, outfielders could still shift over as needed, although presumably if that happens Manfred will adjust the rules about that as well! I don’t really have a big problem with “shifts” and my answer for hitters who do is “learn to hit better.” Use more of the field and shfts will become worthless against you. Why limit teams abilities to play the best defense possible?
Robo-umps? The news release doesn’t say if the robotic umpire can over-ride the real one, or if a player can call for a review of ball/strike calls using it. Either way, one can’t see it being overly helpful, or accepted lying down by umpires. If the robot can be deferred to, we’ll have more video replays and more of the delays to the game that Manfred seems hellbound to eliminate. And we seem likely to see the real umpires take action and perhaps go on strike, feeling disrespected. Yes, we see a few bad calls. That’s part of the human nature of baseball. Replays on home runs or out calls at a base seem enough … let’s trust the umpires ability to call a strike, and deal with the few that keep getting it wrong on an individual basis, not phase all of them out in favor of machines.
Last but not least – and probably not “last” given the number of changes being invoked – is the move of the mound two feet back mid-season! They say pitchers are getting too strong and overpowering hitters, so having them toss the ball an extra two feet should give the batters a better chance. My response is “why” and “why?” We still have hitters who clip along over .300, those who smash homers left and right… why tilt the balance in their favor? And why only do so in July? That seems a formula for injury, not making player safety better. Pitchers are creatures of habit and routine, and suddenly they’ll be asked to totally change that routine when they’re in a good rhythm, midway through the year. We’ll see not only a whole lot more wild pitches and walks (and probably fewer hits therefore) as pitchers try to compensate for standing in a different spot than they ever had before in their careers, but I’m going to guess more arm injuries as hurlers try to compensate by cranking up their fastball even more in August to make it as effective from 62′ as it was earlier from 60′. Problems waiting to happen by the bucket. Which, like suddenly adding a couple of spices to the Colonel’s secret recipe for his chicken, is a recipe for disaster.
In short Rob Manfred, you aren’t going to win over new, attention-lacking tweens and milennials who think basketball is too slow and whocan’t sit to watch a 30-minute sitcom to our sport by shaving off five seconds here, ten seconds there. You may, however, manage to drive us away – the loyal fans who grew up adoring the sport, wearing the caps, memorizing the players’ stats, paying to go to the games. Away from something we barely recognize anymore. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!