The two biggest issues facing baseball as an entertainment option are too much dead time between pitches and too few balls in play.
If you don’t think those are problems you have no clue about what makes the entertainment world run these days. The fundamental equation is more action over less time. Baseball is trying to sell less action over more time.
Trying to address those problems is exposing the growing rift between owners and players. The root of that rift is the disruption analytics and the last CBA brought to the economics of the game. More players are playing Major League Baseball but their overall pay is shrinking. Players see teams either “tanking” or using the luxury tax threshold as a soft cap, veterans being devalued, and free agency losing its luster, all of which puts them in a rotten mood for compromise regarding pace of play initiatives.
“It’s the only business,” said one MLB executive, nodding to the union’s bargaining power, “where the employees tell you how to design the product.”
We have reached a third year of owners and players squabbling over what the product should look like. Owners want a pitch clock. Players came back with their own ideas. Getting on the same page is hard enough in the best of times. Now there are so many ideas flying around that the two sides will be hard pressed to agree on any one thing before Opening Day. But the worst option of all is doing nothing. Here are some of the ideas being discussed, and in keeping with what the entertainment world demands these days, one word to sum each idea’s value.
Pitch clock: Terrific
No proposal would have a more immediate, positive and impactful effect on baseball than a pitch clock. It’s worked in the minors, and more than two-thirds of major league players already have played under one there. The owners have proposed a 20-second pitch clock with nobody on base. Start with that, and then we can talk about reducing it to 18 or 15 seconds in subsequent years and adding a clock with runners on (if it’s even needed).
In the past decade baseball players have added an average of 2.4 seconds between pitches. (From one pitch every 21.7 seconds in 2008 to one every 24.1 seconds last year.) Here’s what that means: players have added 13 minutes, 38 seconds of nothingness to the average big league game in just 10 years. Thirteen and a half added minutes of players standing around!
Universal DH: Terrible
If you like the DH you like checkers. If you like NL style baseball you like chess. Baseball without the DH is a better, more strategic game. Why tick off half your fan base and tell them you can’t have chess any more and you must like checkers?
Most of the most memorable games have occurred under NL rules. Reds manager Sparky Anderson used 12 pitchers in the ninth spot in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. The Dodgers and Red Sox combined for 18 players in the ninth spots in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series. The pitcher’s spot is not just about a guy up there swinging a wet newspaper. It’s a built-in pressure point in a game. Why take it away?
The upside isn't as significant as you may think. Last year the AL hit .249. The NL hit .247. That’s a difference of one hit every 414 at-bats.
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Understand this: last year NL pitchers averaged 2.1 plate appearances per game. They hit less than ever because starters throw fewer innings than ever. You are throwing away a better, more strategic game and all of its history for two stinkin’ plate appearances a game.
Three-batter minimum: Terrible
Stop putting artificial limitations on strategy to “solve” problems that don’t exist. Again, the effect here is vastly overrated. There were 47 pitching changes in the 2018 World Series. Do you know how many of them would have been effected by this proposed rule? Three. That’s it. Three. Only three times did a pitcher face one or two batters before being replaced mid-inning.
Let’s take a wider look. There were a record 16,339 relief appearances last year. But only 1,871 of them involved a pitcher facing one or two batters before being replaced—that’s down from six years ago and that counts pitchers who were replaced after getting the third out of an inning, a scenario that is not effected by this proposed rule. (Limitations would apply only to mid-inning changes.)
Let’s conservatively say that 25% of those pitching changes were made after the end of an inning. You would be rewriting the strategy of the game to affect 9% of all pitching changes—about 1,400 pitching changes in the course of 2,430 games. That’s 0.58 pitching changes per game you are “eliminating”—not even one per game.
The union should be especially concerned about how biased this proposal is against lefthanded pitchers. Of the 10 pitchers with the most one- or two-batter appearances last year, all of them were lefthanded, led by Andrew Chafin of Arizona with 35. Of the 28 pitchers all-time with the most such specialty appearances, all of themare lefthanded, led by Mike Myers (478), who works for the players association.
You are kicking out of the game a very specific subset of pitchers. And again, you are imposing an artificial governor on strategy.
I get it. There are too many pitching changes in baseball. But the answer is not to tinker with strategy. The answer actually is in the addendum to a proposed rule about roster size: limit the number of pitchers to 12. Pitching changes have skyrocketed as teams added a 13th pitcher.
One top club executive supported the three-batter minimum but acknowledged he prefers capping pitchers on a roster. He'd set the number at 11. “It makes too much sense,” the executive said about capping roster space for pitchers. “Less interference, more creativity but a positive nudge in favor of a better game.”
26- and 28-man rosters: Decent*
Say this for the idea: it’s way better than the travesty we have now of 40-man rosters in September. The 26-man roster for the first five months can only happen with a cap on roster spots for pitchers. (That’s the *.) You simply cannot hand managers another pitcher to deploy, which is what the 26th man would become without a restriction.
As for 28-man rosters in September, I still don’t like the idea of playing the last 30 games under different rules than the first 132, but the roster expansion is minimal while still allowing young players an introduction to the big leagues.
Tiebreaker rule: Great
Put two runners on base to start the 11th inning. Don’t worry. Nobody—owners, players or fans—wants to see this in the regular season or postseason. And it has zero chance of being used then. But it’s a great idea for spring training, the All-Star Game and the World Baseball Classic, where the volume of innings becomes problematic.
A ban on shifts: Unnecessary
Neither side seems to be pushing hard for this. Unlike a pitch clock, shifts mess with the strategy of the game and affect only a small percentage of pitches. Shifts mostly harm lefthanded pull hitters who have average speed or worse, which allow infielders to play deeper and cover more ground. Major League lefthanded hitters batted .275 on balls in play when facing a shift last year—23 points worse than all hitters otherwise (.298).
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And please, stop telling hitters to “just hit the ball the other way.” Pitching is way too good these days for such a simplistic idea. And because it’s so good, rallies—the idea of stringing hits together—are endangered. And because rallies are endangered, the single has been devalued. Playing for a single makes less sense when it’s rare to string three hits together. The game is built now on swinging for extra-base hits because the stuff pitchers bring to the mound is so nasty.
Lowering the mound: Intriguing.
The pitch clock addresses the problem of time between pitches. The second problem, that too few balls are in play, is far more difficult to address. Moving the mound back would certainly get more balls play—the longer pitches are in the air the slower they become and the more time hitters have to read and react to them. But messing with 60 feet, six inches—which has been in place since 1889 and is the standard for all regulation fields, not just major league fields—is a monumental physical and psychic disruption. It’s not happening.
So, what if you lowered the mound, as was done in 1969? A lower mound would create a less steep plane for pitches and give pitchers less gravitational momentum, both of which you think might help hitters make more contact.
But this is much more complicated than you might think. Firstly, I’ve shown you how fastballs thrown by pitchers with less of a downward angle (low release point to high target) actually are more difficult to hit than those with a greater downward angle.
And then there is the matter of pitcher health. A 2013 study of youth pitchers by Connecticut Children’s Medical Center found “pitching from the mound causes increased stress on the shoulder and elbow of adolescent pitchers as compared with that from flat ground.” A 2007 study of 20 MLB and Division 1 college pitchers, which was funded by Major League Baseball, found throwing from a standard 10-inch mound placed greater stress on the shoulder than from flat ground.
But some pitching gurus, including Nolan Ryan, believe a steeper mound keeps pitchers healthier. When Mets manager Mickey Callaway was pitching coach in Cleveland, the Indians measured elbow stress by having their pitchers use wearable devices during throwing sessions. Callaway said they discovered that throwing on flat ground increased stress more than off a mound, which caused the club to cut back on such sessions. A study by the American Sports Medicine Institute published last month in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found “Lowering the mound may not affect a pitcher’s ball movement, but may slightly reduce shoulder and elbow kinetics, possibly reducing the risk of injury.”
The idea of lowering the mound requires extensive research to anticipate the consequences.
Earlier trade deadline: Counterproductive
The union wants to restore some vigor to free agency by forcing teams to build out their teams earlier. As teams operate now—and nobody has done this better than Billy Beane in Oakland—you build the framework of the team in the offseason and then build it up or tear it down in July when you are deep enough in the season to understand your postseason chances.
I’m not sure about an earlier trade deadline because you are losing the drama of the July and August deadlines—when baseball has much of the sports landscape to itself—and forcing teams to commit earlier might force teams to be more conservative.
One solution for keeping more teams trying to win and gaining more meaningful games in August and September (ergo, drama and attendance): add another wild card in each league. Last year in the AL, for instance, the Rays would have played in Oakland, with the winner facing the Yankees in New York, with the winner of that game facing Boston in the LDS. The Rays and Mariners were separated by one game for the last wild card. In the NL, the Cardinals would have played the Rockies, with the winner facing the Cubs, with the winner facing the Brewers.
The upsides: you start the postseason with four knockout games, 12 teams go to the postseason, and another four or five are in the mix, which encourages middle-of-the-road teams to spend a little more rather than to tank.