Let’s Change Some Rules!
You may have missed this last week (it didn’t get as much play as you might think). MLB and the independent Atlantic League have agreed to test some rule changes during the Atlantic League’s 2019 season. The commissioner’s office is trying to figure out two things here: how to reduce the amount of dead time (which is to say, the amount of time with absolutely nothing going on) and how to get more balls into play. Some of the proposed rule changes are minor tweaks, some are dramatic changes in the way the game is played. Here is a breakdown of each, along with my take and a ballpark guesstimate of the chance it becomes an actual MLB rule when the new CBA is negotiated.
Implement computerized ball/strike calls:
This proposed rule change is a bit more nuanced than it might sound at first. There would still be a home plate umpire, and he would still be responsible for calling any pitches that bounce, for calling foul tips, for allowing catcher’s challenges on check swings and other ball/strike duties. But make no mistake, the vast majority of balls and strikes would be called by the computer, similar to the Trackman system currently used to evaluate umpires. There would be several improvements to the game that would come from this, not the least of which would be standardization of the strike zone (as much as we all want to believe the umpires all pretty much call strikes the same, the reality is they don’t). Who would be hurt by this? Pitchers who rely on spotting everything on the edges; quite a few of their pitches that a good catcher can “steal” for them will suddenly become balls. Catchers, as well, who have come to rely on the “pitch framing” metric as a bargaining tool.
Odds of rule being implemented: Better than even, call it 3:1. Yes, catchers, pitchers and agents will be unhappy. But it checks off all the reasons baseball is experimenting, and we’ve already seen technology take over all the controversial plays, anyway.
Change from an 15-inch base to 18 inches:
Nobody I’ve talked to can quite figure out the reasoning behind this proposed change. My personal take is it will mess with the intricate timing of the infield more than perhaps the Lords of Baseball realize. Think about how many plays there are over the course of the season where the batter is out by perhaps an inch at first, or where a runner is thrown out at second by an eyelash. Maybe baseball is trying to get away from needing so many replays, but it seems to me there will be a lot more safe calls as a result. If anything, I might be able to live with a larger bag at second, now that runners are forced to slide through the bag and fielders are required to stay on it until they’ve thrown the ball, thereby giving middle infielders a bit more protection. But there’s no reason to change the base size at first or third.
Odds of rule being implemented: Since nobody knows what MLB is hoping to achieve, this is a difficult to gauge. Call it 50/50.
No mound visits except for injuries or pitching changes:
Look, I understand the casual fan doesn’t understand why a tubby 55 year old dude is jogging out to the mound to talk to the pitcher. I can see them being confused by having the catcher run out to talk to a pitcher, and then the shortstop, and then the first baseman, and so forth. You know what? That’s fine. But there are occasions where having a pitching coach pay a kid on the mound a visit is absolutely necessary (like, say, his mechanics are all messed up and he’s about to throw his arm out). There are legitimate reasons a catcher might have a word with the pitcher (like, changing signs). And yes, sometimes, it’s pure gamesmanship. But that’s baseball. I get MLB is trying to cut down on dead time. But pitching visits aren’t actually dead time, and only people who haven’t ever played the game think it is.
Odds of rule being implemented: Of all the proposed rule changes, this one is the second most certain to become a rule. Baseball has already limited teams to 6 mound visits per game. I also suspect this one will become a former rule quickly – probably in the amount of time it takes some kid to pop an elbow on the mound and his manager to blast the commissioner’s office.
All pitchers must face a minimum of 3 batters, or pitch to the end of an inning, before being replaced:
This one isn’t hard to understand. I’ve certainly railed against the number of pitching changes, LOOGY’s, ROOGY’s, 6th inning specialists, and so forth. But to me, this is going about things the wrong way. If you want to cut down on the number of pitching changes, a far simpler way without messing with basic strategy would be to limit the number of pitchers each team can have on their 25- and 40-man rosters. No more than 10 pitchers on the 25-man, and no more than 16 on the 40-man, roster means managers would have to be more judicious in making pitching changes. Starters would be forced to go deeper, and teams wouldn’t be able to utilize a AAA shuttle to stash relievers.
Odds of rule being implemented: I don’t rate this one as having a very good chance of getting in. Maybe a 1 in 5 chance, since I can’t think of any MLB stakeholder who is going to like it. The players won’t. The union won’t. Managers and GM’s won’t.
Two infielders must be on each side of second base at all times, and no infielder may position himself with either foot in the outfield at any time prior to a pitch being delivered:
The idea here is to get rid of some of more drastic infield shifts (and 4 and 5 man outfield alignments) we’ve seen managers employ recently. I’m not a fan of the idea of eliminating the shift entirely. After all, if the hitters were smart, they would start taking the ball the other way more often. But this is a rule change that’s been discussed a lot over the past couple of seasons, so I suppose we’ll see how it plays out in real life.
Odds of rule being implemented: I think this proposed change, more than any others, depends entirely on how the test plays out. If .240 hitters suddenly turn into .300 hitters, baseball is going to race to put it in. If, as the current data suggests, it only yields one more hit a week league wide, then this will die before ever seeing the light of day.
Reduce the amount of time between half innings and pitching changes by 20 seconds:
About the only people who will complain about reducing the amount of time between half innings will be beer advertisers and hot dog vendors. Reducing the amount of time during a pitching change could pose some problems for pitchers, though – especially if they aren’t given ample time to warm up in the bullpen first, which is a very real possibility without the benefit of mound visits.
Odds of rule being implemented: This one is a virtual lock.
Move the pitcher’s rubber from 60 feet, 6 inches to 62 feet, 6 inches from home plate:
I think this is the rule that got everyone’s attention and has also been almost universally panned. We get it, ok? Pitchers are throwing harder than ever and their breaking pitches are also nastier than ever. The idea here is to allow the hitter more reaction time, thereby increasing the chance they’ll put the ball in play. But of all the ways to accomplish that goal, this is probably the dumbest and whichever nerd in the commissioner’s office came up with this needs to be fired and never let anywhere near a baseball field again. It would mean every pitcher would need to learn how to pitch all over again, because every angle on every pitch would be completely changed – or never be a strike again. Look, you want to even the deck between pitchers and hitters? Lower the strike zone, or lower the mound, or increase the size of the ball. Or even some combination of all three. But not this.
Odds of rule being implemented: What’s a number smaller than zero? Because that’s what the odds are. I think this is being tossed out there as a bargaining chip by MLB, something they know will never happen that hopefully will get some small concession back from the players in the CBA negotiations.
The Problems with Baseball Are Really Just One Problem
Two issues have dominated this offseason. First, and the one most fans are paying attention to, is the number of quality players that remain unsigned. Second is the commissioner office’s attempt to address professional baseball’s slowing pace of play, most startlingly by adding a clock to a game that’s never had one. What everyone is missing is that both those problems are children of one problem that nobody is talking about: zombie franchises.
What is a zombie franchise? A zombie franchise is an organization that seems forever stuck in baseball purgatory. Never quite good enough to contend for a championship, these teams become the homes of what were once called “AAAA” players, but are today usually referred to as “replacement level players.” They’re identified by keeping their major league payroll low, the quality of play only slightly better than a good AAA team and for shipping out their decent players in the continual rebuild. The people who own these teams are not to be blamed for this; after all, like any business they need to turn a profit. The players union isn’t responsible for the situation, either – after all, it’s sole reason for being is to protect the jobs of those men lucky enough to call themselves professional baseball players.
But zombie franchises slow the pace of play down by fielding inferior teams. Seriously, try to watch a game between, say. the Reds and Marlins. You’ll need massive doses of caffeine just to make it to the third inning. Most of the pitchers on these teams would either be toiling in the minor leagues or out of pro ball entirely. The same goes for many of the position players. Either they simply lack the talent to compete with their peers, lack the seasoning that comes with proper time in the minor leagues or were once capable major league players just playing out the string. The result is pitchers who cannot throw quality strikes and hitters who can’t hit quality pitches (or lay off bad ones), fielders who make ridiculous mental errors and teams in general that need tons of in-game coaching just to play nine innings. No wonder the games are not only taking longer, the amount of time between each play is taking longer. Now throw in a lot of time where nothing is happening (after all, what is less exciting than a two out, bases empty 6 pitch walk?), and the commissioner is right to be concerned.
This is also affecting the current free agent and trade markets. Players who were king dogs on their old teams are discovering that they just aren’t good enough to justify the type of money they were led to believe they deserve. Mike Moustakas is a nice player. Lefty bat, some home run power, solid if unspectacular defender. Same goes for his former teammate, Eric Hosmer. JD Martinez? Good hitter, lousy defender, slow as molasses runner. They are all universally regarded as good, but complimentary, players. If your team is only going to win 70 games without them, none of those guys is going to to suddenly turn you into a pennant contender. For a pennant contender, they play positions that aren’t needed. But these guys have heard for two or three years now that they’re “franchise players” in the media, from their agents, from their former teams. So it’s understandable that a Martinez is looking for 6 years at $25 million each. It has to be hard for him to hear from teams now that he isn’t that good.
The same goes for the free agent pitchers. The reason teams loaded up on middle relievers at the beginning of free agency is simple: the starting pitching market isn’t very good. The top two available, Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, are good pitchers but hardly great. Neither would be called an “ace” on a contender. Arrieta has been around for 8 years. In that time, he’s posted two very good seasons (the last three seasons ago), two slightly better than average years – and four seasons that wavered between bad and horrendous. As for Darvish, he can strike guys out. But when he isn’t striking out hitters, they’re hitting him and hitting him HARD (see his postseason history). Again, both guys aren’t bad, but neither is worth 7 years and $200 million.
Part of the problem for these guys is they get so many opportunities against zombie franchises, which lets them pad their stats. Darvish got to pitch 22 times against a zombie franchise in 2017, going 8-7 with a 3.49 ERA, and 83 OPS+ allowed, while averaging almost 7 innings per start – good (although not exceptional) stats. He made 9 starts against actual contenders, going 2-5 with a 4.86 ERA and 131 OPS+ allowed. Not surprisingly, he was generally gone before the 6th inning in those games. As for Moustakas, he batted .283/.317/.537 in 347 at bats against zombie franchises, while hitting .248/.291/.489 in 251 at bats against contenders.
If I’m a GM, I’m looking a lot more closely at those numbers against contenders than against the zombie teams. Why? Well, as we saw in the postseason, Darvish is much closer to the 4.86 ERA pitcher in terms of talent than the 3.49 ERA. Moustakas is closer to the .780 OPS talent than a .850 talent. And that’s how I’m going to pay them.
So how does baseball solve this problem? It seems the best way would be to contract the size of the leagues, probably by four teams. We’ve seen for almost two decades now that teams in Florida just do not work. The Marlins and Rays have never drawn fans. Oakland hasn’t been able to for over 30 years. How can baseball honestly say having teams, especially bad teams, in those cities is doing anyone any good? Other teams ownership groups probably need to be looked at closely, those for the New York Mets, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Diego and Baltimore. Teams that have not indicated an interest in actually trying to contend for a title, despite being in markets that historically have supported their teams.
This would obviously get tons of pushback. For starters, the players would hate it, because going from 30 to 26 teams would mean 100 fewer jobs for their number. The owners would hate it, because it’s essentially telling people who have been successful in their other endeavors that they’ve failed in the most public of forums.
But, there might be an easier way to address this problem – one that appeases the players and let’s some owners realize nobody’s ego can be greater than the health of the game. Baseball has a de facto salary cap, the “competitive balance tax.” The payroll level at which the tax applies was negotiated in the most recent collective bargaining agreement (for this year, it’s $197 million. Next year, $206 million). The reason this is acting in the same fashion as a hard salary cap is that every dollar over that limit is taxed at increasing amounts, depending on how many years a team has been over the limit – up to 50%. Now, this hurts players who might be targets of the teams that traditionally spend large amounts – the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox – because those teams not only don’t think that Todd Frazier or Eduardo Nunez is worth $13 million a year, they especially don’t think paying a Frazier, et al., a 50% premium adds any value to their team.
What the players should have done was bargained for a payroll floor. I think it could be established along the same lines as the competitive balance tax. Require every team to have a payroll that is at least 50% of the tax threshold (for this year, that would be $98.5 million) and for every dollar they are below that lower limit, fine them a sliding scale amount based on how many consecutive years they’ve been below that level. Do it over a three year period: 20% of the difference in the first year, 50% for year two and 100% for years three and on. Now here’s the thing: those “for the good of the game” clauses the commissioner is threatening to use to install a clock are the same ones he can use to install a payroll floor.
Why is this important? This season alone, 10 teams are currently projected to have payrolls below $98.5 million. Only one – Minnesota is expected to be a contender, and they’re less than $2 million below the proposed payroll floor. The other 9 teams are not only pretenders, they’re not even pretending that they’re anything other than pretenders. If you think otherwise, ask yourself who’s a better player, Mike Moustakas or Maikel Franco. Ask yourself if you would rather have Jake Arrieta or Tim Adelman anchoring your rotation. While we’ve established that guys like Moustakas and Arrieta are not the franchise cornerstones worthy of their contract demands, they are infinitely better than some of the players who do have jobs.
So, some of the marginal players currently employed for no reason other than they’re really cheap would be forced out of the game, or back into the minor leagues. Fans in cities that are lamenting their teams dumping quality players because they make too much would have some hope. Pace and quality of play improves, simply by having better players on the field. And the insanity of trying to turn baseball into basketball with wooden clubs ends.
For ownership, it would force a reckoning. Any fanbase can understand a season or two of mediocrity in the event a total rebuild is needed. They’ve looked around baseball and seen the Astros, Cubs, Yankees, Rockies and Diamondbacks do just that and field high-quality teams. What no fanbase should expect is that the owners of their team will continually put subpar talent on the field in the name of controlling costs. Quite frankly, in an industry that shares profits and raked in over $9 billion, there is no excuse for any ownership group not to be able to make a profit with a $98.5 million payroll.
If they can’t – they don’t deserve to own a team.