Major League Baseball is at it again. That is, kicking the tires on making more changes to the GOG (Grand Old Game). Changes to the game stimulate endless debate among the baseball purists, myself included in that group, and those that want changes in the game for a variety of reasons. Debate is always good as it means we truly care about baseball and we are still involved in the game as more than passive spectators.
To its credit, MLB is moving slowly with its proposed changes and has been, or will be, test driving the proposals at the minor league levels. One such test drive was the implementation of a 20-second pitch clock beginning in the Arizona Fall League in 2015. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the clock, but by all reports it has not been an impediment to minor league pitcher’s effectiveness, while marginally speeding up the game.
Perhaps the snail’s pace of change in MLB is mandated by the Major League Baseball Players Association which is one of the strongest unions in the United States. The MLBPA has been dedicated to advancing and protecting the interests of major league players for nearly 50 years.
On the other side of the equation, perhaps change comes slowly also because the Baseball Commissioner’s Office is trying to evaluate, in advance, the possible outcome of any proposal with the existing fan base, and the targeted fan base. It seems that Commissioner Rob Manfred has a two-pronged approach in trying to expedite his mandate as commissioner. Certainly, one of his primary objectives is to speed up the pace of the game which he feels will make the game more competitive in attracting new viewers to MLB baseball. While he might be dealing with conflicting goals, another predominant objective is to increase offense so there is more action on the field.
On Wednesday, February 8, I inadvertently found an article by Jeff Passan, MLB columnist for Yahoo Sports, in which he described some possible changes being proposed by Commissioner Rob Manfred.
Those changes include eliminating the four pitches thrown on an intentional walk and simply placing the runner on base without the pitches being thrown. Another suggested change was raising the strike zone as the zone has definitely crept down over the years having a detrimental effect on offense, resulting in more strikeouts and ground balls.
A third proposal is being borrowed from international baseball which has used a different extra-inning procedure for almost a decade now. Major League Baseball plans on testing a rule change in the lowest levels of the minor leagues this season that automatically would place a runner on second base at the start of extra innings. The rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Arizona League this summer will be part of an effort to understand its wide in-game consequences.
The objective of placing a runner on second base – which seems akin to playing T-ball – would be to reduce the number of extra innings played and to reduce the wear and tear on a 25-man roster. Joe Torre strongly supports the proposal and explained why he is not a fan of long extra-inning games.
“Let’s see what it looks like. It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch,” said Joe Torre, the longtime major league manager who’s now MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer and a strong proponent of the testing. “As much as it’s nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time. It’s baseball. I’m just trying to get back to that, where this is the game that people come to watch. It doesn’t mean you’re going to score. You’re just trying to play baseball.
“What really initiated it is sitting in the dugout in the 15th inning and realizing everybody is going to the plate trying to hit a home run and everyone is trying to end the game themselves,” Torre added. “I don’t know what inning is the right inning. Maybe the 11th or 12th inning. But there are a number of reasons.”
To begin a discussion of the proposed change I expect one has to buy into the contention that extra innings are a problem.
First, I would contend that any fan that bails out on a game after nine innings in the existing conditions will never be in for the long haul, and will continue do so with the plan to be tested. I don’t believe it will hold fans in that come to watch or tune in to nine innings of baseball. It certainly would not please me to watch my team lose when a player was placed on second base in the bottom of the tenth inning and scored on a broken bat hit just so the game can be shortened.
The number one objective in the game is to get to first base. There are a number of ways to do that, including the intentional walk, which will become even more prevalent by placing a runner on second base with no outs. An intentional walk would then put the double play in order. Guess who would be a great candidate to be issued that free pass? Now it might also bring the much-maligned bunt back into prominence forcing the third baseman to field a bunt and with one out putting a runner on third base.
Secondly, I wonder if MLB is overly burdened with extra-inning games? I expect Joe Torre feels a fifteen-inning game is a problem. I am not sure a few instances demand such a radical change in the game making it more like a shoot-out in hockey or soccer.
In 2016 there were 2,428 games played during the regular season. This was two shy of the usual 2,430 game schedule as two games were postponed and never made up. Out of the games played there were 185 extra-inning games. Seventy-six of the games went 10 innings or less. One hundred twenty-four went 11 innings or less. That means that only 61 even went into the twelfth inning. Sure, there were some much longer games, but is that a reason to implement such a wholesale change in the game denying those fans who go from inning to inning in overtime looking for the significant hit.
Thirdly, I can buy into the wear and tear argument with the 25-man roster, especially when the team has to travel following the game. However, these are superbly conditioned athletes, or should be, and are paid millions of dollars to play baseball. Perhaps MLB should increase the roster to 26 or 27 to more ably accommodate the infrequent 15-inning or longer game. Some of those games do become classics.
How is it that in the “Golden Age” of the fifties, doubleheaders were commonly scheduled in and players could stand up to eighteen innings in a day? Dodger legend Don Newcombe once started both games of a doubleheader, pitching a combined 16 innings.
If concern is for the players’ health or roster depletion during a game, would it not be possible to reduce the regular season schedule so players get more rest during an overly demanding schedule? Perhaps a 150-game schedule is in order and a 15-inning game would then not be such an issue.
If MLB wants to get into tiebreakers, as in other team sports, and not stay true to the uniqueness of the game, then perhaps they can go to the half-game as baseball already has half-games. That is, after 12 innings each team is awarded half of a game. I personally detest that idea but I prefer it to placing a runner on second base to start an inning.
Commissioner Manfred wants more action on the field. To stimulate more offensive action would be one way to perhaps reduce the number of extra-inning games. He seems open to considering banning the “shift” by not allowing the shortstop to set up on the right side of second base. That would remove the negative impact of the shift on run production. Maybe e-strikes and e-balls really do need to be encouraged as a definitely defined strike zone would lead to more hard hit balls in play having taken the guessing of the strike zone out of the mind of the hitters. Hence, more runs and probably less extra-inning games.
If MLB really believes extra-inning games are an issue, then maybe a “Tee” – as is used in the Arizona Fall League’s Bowman Hitting Challenge – is in order