Which baseball rules experiments should stay? – Press Enterprise
Now that we have had a chance to catch our collective breath, following a season that ended in triumph (and controversy) for the Dodgers, it’s time to evaluate some of the quirks of Pandemic Baseball. Of the rules and formats put in place for 2020 – most out of necessity – which should stay and which should go?
Keep in mind, of course, that the baseball landscape for 2021 and beyond remains a blank page, though it’s fair to suggest the game will not return to the way it was for a long time. It is not inconceivable, given current trends with COVID-19 and predictions of future surges in infections, that next season begins with empty ballparks as well, or at least sparsely filled parks depending on individual jurisdictions’ health regulations.
That will further affect revenue, and the combination of this season’s income hit and next season’s projections will in turn affect the way teams do business this winter. Also upcoming collective bargaining negotiations between management and the Players Association may cast a shadow over everything – and those discussions will at the very least impact the rules, since making some of these innovations permanent would require the players’ buy-in.
So, what to do with the 2020 rule book? Here are my feelings, and as always This Space welcomes your responses.
The universal DH: As a resister for, well, decades, I never thought the 10th man in the lineup would grow on me. But it did, and after a full (mini-)season of watching it in National League games, now it can be said: Double-switches were overrated. And the strategy of when to remove a flagging starting pitcher becomes more of an issue when it’s no longer tied to when his spot comes up in the next inning.
As we saw periodically and especially in Game 6 of the World Series, there’s even more room for error when it’s a stand-alone decision.
The international extra innings rule: Once you got past the strangeness of a ghost runner of sorts on second base to start an extra inning – describing a leadoff man hitting a two-run home run, as the Dodgers’ Edwin Rios did in Houston early on, was its own special kind of weird – the advantages outweighed the disadvantages here. Less potential strain on pitching staffs, games that don’t last five and six hours, and unexpected arguments over, yes, strategy. Do you bunt that runner over? Do you play for a big inning? Those debates turned out to be an unintended benefit of the rule.
Yes, when you sit through a 16-inning game, you can say you were part of a special moment. But how many people actually do? (And this rule doesn’t apply in the postseason, so there’s just as much chance of an 18-inning classic in the World Series as there was before.)
Seven-inning games in doubleheaders: Again, a rule that seemed unnatural when it was tossed in at the last minute turned out to be a benefit, to the point where some of us wondered if maybe we shouldn’t shorten all games to seven innings. (Kidding!) Seriously, this was an emergency measure in light of the number of COVID-related postponements, and it likely won’t come into play once fans are allowed back in stadiums and owners again operate on the principle that the only good doubleheader is a split-admission doubleheader.
Expanded rosters: For the purposes of a 60-game schedule with a three-week Training Camp 2.0 and pitchers still working their way into shape, the 30-man Opening Day roster ultimately knocked down to 28 served a purpose, allowing teams to carry 14 and 15 pitchers. Under more normal circumstances, a 26-man roster – which was to have become the norm in 2020 before COVID scrambled things – should be adequate. The Players Association may speak up in behalf of those extra jobs, but it will have more important battles to fight going forward.
The three-batter minimum: This was a pre-pandemic modification designed to reduce the number of pitching changes and shorten games. Instead, thanks to those 14- and 15-man pitching staffs, average time of game in the major leagues actually increased from 3:05.31 in 2019 to 3:07.46 in 2020, and of course games in the postseason took even longer. More to the point, this was an unnecessary change that tampered with the competitive balance of the game (there’s still no limit on pinch-hitters per at-bat, is there?), was targeted at a specific class of player (the left-handed specialist), and didn’t do what it was supposed to do anyway. Throw it out.
If pace of play is really an issue, here are some suggestions:
• Institute a 20-second pitch clock for regular season games and 25 seconds for postseason.
• Redefine the strike zone in the rule book, so the top of the zone is no longer in the vicinity of the navel but at the letters, as it was originally written. And call the high strike consistently, and if that means ultimately going to an electronic strike zone to do so, so be it. The more hitters swing the bat, the more action there is, the less carping about pace of play.
• Along those lines, it’s time to regulate what a coach in another sport referred to last month as “junk defenses.” (Thank you, Frank Vogel.) Our suggestion: Mandate two infielders on each side of second base, all of them positioned on the infield dirt. Also, no more four-man outfields. As former Angel manager Mike Scioscia pointed out on a KLAC/570 radio interview late in the season, extreme shifts mainly serve to hide weak fielders with limited range.
The more open space there is, the more balls fall in. People running the bases and fielders forced to make plays translates to action, and that keeps fans engaged. Games won’t seem like they’re dragging. Maybe, over time, we get away from the Three True Outcomes brand of baseball and back to the style of game that piqued our interest in the first place.
(And once that’s fixed, we can address MLB’s failed streaming policies.)
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter