More rule tinkering!

The Mariners were rained out again today in Baltimore—meaning we'll suffer through another lame 7-inning doubleheader tomorrow, weather permitting—but there is news on the greater baseball front. Or maybe "news" isn't the right word; it's more of a continuation of an ongoing machete attack to baseball.

The news is, of course, even more experimentation with the rules. The independent Atlantic League, which has served as the initial testing ground for Commissioner Rob Manfred's rampage through the rulebook for a while now, will feature two more innovations this year. One, which won't take effect until the latter portion of the season, will be to move the pitcher's mound back 12 inches, resulting in a new distance between the pitching rubber and home plate of 61 feet, 6 inches (the distance has been 60'6" since 1893). The other, in place immediately, regards the designated hitter in what they're calling the "double-hook" rule: The designated hitter will be yoked to the starting pitcher, and if one is removed form the game the other also has to come out.

Moving the pitcher back a foot is intended to cut down on strikeouts; batters will have a fraction of a second longer to connect with the pitch. Some see this as "compensating" for increased velocity in pitching over the last ten years or so. MLB studies conclude that the average fastball velocity has risen 2.6 miles per hour since 2010. The commissioner's office also cited a study from the American Sports Medicine Institute that notes there were "no significant differences in key measures of rotational motion (kinetics) or acceleration (kinematics)" in pitching from distances of 60'6", 62'6", and 63'8" and thus, MLB feels, a move to 61'6" poses no additional risk to pitchers.

This seems like a minimal adjustment, but as with anything, the law of unintended consequences will have its say. There won't be enough data from the small portion of this season to properly evaluate the effect of the extra foot, so this figures to be a multi-year experiment. Of course, as with most if not all Manfred-era changes, this is an attempt to solve a "problem" that ignores the root of the issue; strikeouts happen in massive numbers now and yes, high-octane fastballs are a factor, but you can look back in Major League history to find the biggest reason: swinging for the downs. More batters than ever take a home run approach to their at-bats on a regular basis, and as we've known for ages, home-run hitters are prone to strikeouts. We have entire teams full of Rob Deers these days. Another reason, at least in the big leagues, is fast-tracking prospects to the Majors. Players find themselves in The Show without the same kind of development time as those of earlier generations, dropped right into the deep end to face the Trevor Bauers of the world without enough minor-league experience. Another twelve inches of distance isn't going to change the homer-happy mentality or make young hitters more mature.

The "double-hook" is basically a compromise position on the designated hitter rule. Traditionalists have two issues with the DH—one being the very basic tenet that anyone on the field defensively should be in the lineup offensively and vice-versa, the other that not having the pitcher in the lineup removes strategic elements and a need for a more robust bench complement from the game. The compromise here ignores the first issue but tries to address the second. Under this tweak, the DH still bats in place of the pitcher, but only the starting pitcher. Your starting pitcher might be, say, Gerrit Cole, and DH Giancarlo Stanton would bat in place of Cole and Cole only. When Cole comes out of the game, so does Stanton. After that, the relief pitcher occupies that spot in the lineup.

 Now, the DH is itself a solution to a non-problem. The premise is that pitchers are poor batters (which is largely but not universally true) and that fans don't want to watch poor batters try to hit, therefore pitchers should be exempt from batting. The counter arguments are a) that pitchers are bad hitters because they spend no time on it and if they want to be better hitters they could, you know, try; b) having a poor batter in the lineup is a tradeoff intrinsic to the game, if a team wants to utilize a player on the half-innings that they're in the field, then it has to include him in the lineup and if you don't want that guy's ugly bat in the game, then you don't get his arm/glove in the game either—suck it up and deal; and c) the fact that a team has a poor bat in the lineup means that substitution strategy comes into play frequently, necessitating a selection of batters off the bench and increasing the value of defensive versatility for in-game maneuvering.

Introduced in 1973 as a three-year experiment in the American League, after a trial run in five minor leagues from 1969-1972, the DH was a gimmick intended to help the AL match the greater attendance of the rival National League. AL attendance increased a little over 6% in ’73 from 1972 and AL owners voted to make the experiment permanent after just the one season (it should be noted that NL attendance went up 7.4% from ’72 to ’73 without the DH). The National League held a vote in 1980 on adopting the rule and refused it, choosing to leave well enough alone. Nowadays, of course the leagues are no longer separate entities from a business standpoint but still operate under the different set of rules. The DH has its adherents and champions as well as its opponents and mortal enemies, and it is the rare fan indeed that holds some middle-ground opinion on the subject.

Hence the compromise experiment of the "double-hook." You bring back the strategic elements and still prevent your starting pitcher from having any at-bats. It seeks to appease both sides of the debate and will likely satisfy very few. The concept of a designated hitter should, of course, be retired, shot into the sun and utterly destroyed forever, but that's not likely to happen anytime soon. It's far more likely that the rule will metastasize to the National League, spreading the cancer to nearly every league in every level of organized baseball worldwide (except the Central League of NPB), as the MLB Players' Association likes having an extra spot on teams for a potentially highly-paid everyday hitter that can allow some guys a few more years in their careers.

Will the "double-hook" ever make its way to the Majors? Hard to say, but the three-batter minimum rule began in the Atlantic League and it's here. So did limits on mound visits. Larger bases, robotic strike zones, and restrictions on defensive positioning? All tried in the Atlantic League before making their way into the minor leagues. This is the Manfred era, and the guy cannot resist mucking about. Until he's gone, we can count on his compulsion for "what does this button do" behavior to keep on keeping on like a supercharged battery mascot.

The "double hook"

The Atlantic League is experimenting with a compromise position on the DH. What say you?


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