Around the Horn

Mucking about with the rules (again)

Rob Manfred cannot leave well enough alone.

Looking to cement his reputation as Most Hated Commissioner of Baseball Ever—which is really saying something—Manfred and his staff have implemented a number of rule changes in the minor leagues this year. The minors are being used as testing grounds; if the Commissioner's Office likes how these changes play out down there, then any or all might be on their way to a Major League ballpark near you. Thought up by a committee created to find new ways to change baseball because reasons, the innovations minor-leaguers will contend with at the various levels of the organizational ladder are as follows:

  • Extra Inches: At the highest minor-league level, Triple-A, the bases will be bigger. Long standardized at 15 inches square, bases in Class-AAA will now be 18 inches square. Additionally, they will be made of or coated with (unclear which) material to make them less smooth/slick than standard bases have been.
  • No Shifts for You: In Double-A leagues, infielders will be prohibited from playing further back than the infield dirt. "The defensive team must have four players on the infield, each of whom must have both feet completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt." Further, in the second half of the season, this may be extended to mandate that two fielders be on either side of second base.
  • Balk This: High-A leagues will have a stricter balk rule, wherein the pitcher is required to step off the pitching rubber before making any throw to a base.
  • Stepping Out: In Low-A leagues, pitchers stepping off the rubber may only do so twice during any plate appearance with a runner or runners aboard, whether the step-off includes a pickoff attempt or not. If a pitcher disengages from the pitching slab a third time, he must make a pickoff throw and it must be successful, else it will be treated as a balk. After reevaluation at the season's halfway mark, this may be adjusted to allow just one step-off instead of two.
  • Robot Umps: In the Low-A Southeast league (formerly the Florida State League), an automated strike zone will be used. Previously tested in the independent Atlantic League and in the Arizona Fall League, the "Automatic Ball-Strike System" (ABS) will determine a call and an operator or a transmitter will relay it via earpiece to the home-plate umpire. In a change from the Atlantic/AFL-used ABS, the strike zone will be flat, only using the front plane of home plate, rather than three-dimensional, thus eliminating any "backdoor" strikes that break over the rear corners of the plate.
  • Countdowns: In the Low-A West league (formerly the California League), pitch clocks will be in place. Pitch clocks are already in use at all minor-league levels, but this version will be shorter, with pitchers having just 15 seconds to deliver a pitch after first engaging the pitching rubber.

 My take on these changes individually run a pretty wide range from "Eh, no big deal" to "This is an outrage!" But in looking at the actual rationale for them, I just have to shake my head. Manfred's office states this: "Consistent with the preferences of our fans, the rule changes being tested are designed to increase action on the basepaths, create more balls in play, improve the pace and length of games, and reduce player injuries."

Firstly, which fans? I look on that "consistent" verbiage with suspicion. Manfred hasn't indicated he gives a tinker's damn about fans so far, why start now? His focus is always on revenue, and though ultimately that does redound to fans, he only looks at the surface level of a club's bottom line as an agent of club owners.

As for the rest of that statement, these adjustments likely will change things on the basepaths. With the pitcher severely restricted in what he can do to hold a runner at first base, baserunners will probably do more to goad him into a balk or attempt more stolen bases, but to what degree? I'm a big fan of the stolen base, I welcome a return to a more 1980s-style environment that saw the league steals leaders top 90 per year. I just don't know if these step-off rules are a good way to bring it about. The shift away from such strategies came with a shift toward powerball, with teams prioritizing the home run over other ways to score, and if you want to do something to incentivize bringing back steals and small-ball tactics, you need to somehow disincentivize swinging for the fences, and none of these changes do that.

What about creating "more balls in play"? How? What about this will result in batters making more contact with the ball? The automated strike zone? What's the theory there? I don't see it.

Improving the pace and length of games depends entirely on what an individual thinks is an improvement. This is a subjective metric. If we assume it to mean "reduce the length of games," then OK, the step-off rules might do that. Or not. They might result in more runs scoring instead, which might make any time "gains" a wash. No way to know without several years' worth of experiment data. If we instead focus on the "pace" part of that sentence, it makes a little more sense; a pitcher preoccupied with a fast baserunner at first does slow the action down some. But that's only a problem if you're not really engaged with the game. The reason fans in the stands boo a pitcher who throws to first a lot isn't because they disapprove of any pace-of-play bunk, it's completely tribal—quit trying to get our guy out! He's our guy! We want him to score! OK, maybe some are booing the idea that a pitcher might be stalling, but so what? If he's stalling that means he's in trouble, which means things worth paying attention to are happening. And aggressive pitch clocks...eh, I don't like the concept because all it's trying to do is solve a problem that doesn't really exist. What's the goal, to shave off a minute or two from a game? Hooray, your time of game is now 2:54 instead of 2:56. What a victory.

Reducing player injuries is a fine goal, and the larger bases in Triple-A might help in that regard, especially on pitcher-covering-first situations. What is possibly more important, though, is the physical makeup of the bases themselves, and depending how the materials are changed that could be significant. Modern bases are hard rubber and not particularly spongy. Old-style bags were actual bags of sand that had give to them when a runner slid in and weren't slippery in a drizzle. The extra three inches of area could help fielders avoid getting stepped on or colliding with a runner at first, but a spongier base that absorbed more of a runner's momentum and had a better gripping surface would not only help prevent awkwardly slipping on a base in the rain, but have a real effect on those awful replay challenges in which a runner gets called out because he came up off the base for a nanosecond while a tag was still on him. That'd cut down on wasted minutes. Sadly, I don't think shock absorbtion was part of Manfred's mandate.

The automated strike zone is probably going to be a reality at all levels before we know it, and though there's something to be said in favor of that kind of consistency, I don't like it. I actually appreciate that home-plate umps vary a bit in their ball-and-strike calls. That a player has to factor in the day's umpire to their game plan. It can get out of hand; extremely large or small zones should be curtailed, for sure, but small differences? Part of the game. That said, the ABS is actually addressing a real issue, and if Manfred feels that the way to deal with bad umpiring is to use instrumentation rather than train human beings, well, I guess George Lucas would approve, anyway.

The worst of these changes, though, the most egregious F-You to the game, is the defensive positioning rule. Aside from the pitcher and catcher, there has never been any restriction on where a team can position its defensive players. Why should that change now? Because batters are pull-happy? It makes sense to shift your defense if the batter pulls the ball 90% of the time. You want to change that tactic? Then teach hitters to use the whole field. All this rule does is further incentivize the problem you're trying to combat. It will encourage pull-happy hitters to keep it up because defenses will be prohibited from doing their best to get them out. You have seven defenders besides pitcher and catcher. Put them anywhere you want. The batter still has a lot of field to work with and it's on him to get a hit.

Former Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein said, “What we learn in the minor leagues this year will be essential in helping all parties chart the right path forward for baseball.” Well, we'll see about that. I remain dubious about "all parties" being involved whenever Rob Manfred is in charge of anything and I will be pleasantly surprised if the Commissioner's Office decides that any of these experiments are failures.

Clearly, Commissioner Manfred wants (a) more offense, (b) shorter games, and (c) less attention required to appreciate baseball. (a) and (b) might be incompatible with each other and (c) is just an indictment of Manfred as uninterested in his own sport. 

We need a new commissioner that actually likes baseball. Can we reanimate Bart Giamatti? 

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