Around the Horn

What will MLB look like in 2022?

The World Series is over and the bad guys defeated the worse guys four games to two in one of the more forgettable Fall Classics in history. It's now officially the offseason, one that figures to be significant for Your Seattle Mariners. But more on that in a future post.

Because it promises to be a significant offseason for everyone—the collective bargaining agreement between the commissioner's office and the players' union has now expired will expire on December 1st and a new one has yet to be agreed upon. In addition to the myriad under-the-hood sorts of issues to be haggled out (service time, arbitration rules, that sort of thing), two big-picture ideas—or threats, if you prefer—are on the table: the metastasization of the cancer that is the designated hitter rule to the National League and the further expansion of Major League Baseball's postseason field. Both of these propositions are, frankly, extraordinarily bad ideas and therefore Commissioner Rob Manfred of course loves them.

There are few if any minds in the universe that hold a middle-ground opinion on the DH. People either rightly detest the concept as a dumbing-down of our great game by removing thinking from in-game proceedings as well as a specialization creep that goes against the idea that everyone in the lineup is, for the time they are in the game, both an offensive and defensive player; or they are wrong and prefer that no thinking or juggling of trade-off decisions during a game ever come up because "who wants to see a pitcher strike out three times a game." Those people are sad and deserve our pity. (Except for Commissioner Manfred, who deserves to lose his job for being a feckless toady with no appreciation of the game that he's in charge of.)

However, since it is recognized that few if any minds hold a middle-ground opinion, there has been a suggestion of a compromise, and in the true tradition of a workable compromise, it would leave almost no one happy. This proposal has become known as the "double-hook" version of a DH rule. It's a small tweak: instead of a DH position in the lineup taking the place of any pitcher that enters the game at any time, it would be explicitly tied to the starting pitcher. For example, when Chris Flexen starts a game for the Mariners, he would not have to bat—his turn would be instead taken by the designated hitter, as it is now. But, if and when Flexen is taken out of the game in favor of a relief pitcher, the DH is also lifted. Or, if you for some reason wanted to pinch-hit or -run for your DH, you would also then be removing your starting pitcher. The two are a tandem unit; if one leaves, they both leave, after which the pitcher's spot is again occupied by the pitcher as God and the apocryphal spirit of Abner Doubleday intended.

As a staunch opponent of the DH, I dislike this compromise proposal. But I dislike the DH as we know it today more, so if I had to choose between "universal DH" and "double-hook rule," I'd take the double-hook. (I'd prefer, of course, that the DH be eliminated altogether, but that ship has likely sailed because Manfred already gave away for nothing the one bit of bargaining leverage he would have had to convince the union to go along with it—expanding rosters to 26 players. It had been thought in prior decades that one way to potentially rid the Majors of the heinous DH rule would be to trade a 26th roster spot to the union for it; losing a potentially high-paying gig on half the teams would be made up for by adding an additional spot on all the teams for the union's rank-and-file. The players' union isn't likely to now agree to losing 15 potential high-salaried gigs in exchange for 15 lower-paying ones without anything else thrown their way.) At least the double-hook would return some of the strategy that the DH takes away, even though it maintains the specialization creep that prevents most pitchers from ever putting the slightest effort into learning to swing the bat.

As for expanding playoffs, can't we agree we're at a solid place with that now? Under the six-division structure, each league has three division winners and a Wild Card team, which must defeat a second Wild Card team in a play-in game, filling out a tournament that lasts about a month including the World Series. That's about maxed out, I'd say. Manfred seems to think that more playoff teams will mean more interest from the fans and therefore more money in the form of added ticket sales and richer TV contracts. But...will it? Will it really?

Let's play this out. Suppose a new system is implemented that expands the field from five per league (three division winners and two Wild Card clubs) to eight, much like we had in 2020’s weird mini-season. Over the course of a full campaign, the theory goes, this means each league would have three additional teams filling their stadiums, as contention = bigger crowds; it also would mean an additional round of playoffs to sell TV providers, which undoubtedly seems like "new free money" to Manfred. However, what this will really do is merely redistribute existing interest. Maybe in the first year or two there would be a tick upward, but after it's no longer a novelty things change for the worse.

With eight playoff teams instead of five, the drama is not with the best teams. By the time August rolls around, the best teams will already be effectively assured of postseason berths. Maybe even by the All-Star break. The drama, then, is with the mediocre: which barely-.500 teams will survive the dog days to earn those sixth, seventh, and eighth berths? Say the Red Sox are really good one year. They're on a 110-win pace in late July and for them to miss the postseason it would take a Cleveland Spiders-like run of futility over two months, and even then they could squeak by. The Yankees are a few games worse, but all they have to do is finish second to assure their spot and even if they slip to third they'll still get in. The Guardians and Tigers are solidly in front in the Central and Seattle and Oakland are once again duking it out for Western supremacy. Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals, and Baltimore Orioles are all hanging in there in the middle of their respective divisions, jockeying with the Angels, Twins, Astros, and Blue Jays to claim those last two Wild Card berths, fighting tooth and nail to be just mediocre enough to get in.

Of course, die-hards like us will be into our teams even when they run away with the division, but the masses will tune out until "it matters." The second half of the season will generate all the buzz of a long spring training campaign for the good clubs, with fans secure in the knowledge that the next meaningful stretch won't be until the regular season is over. It'll be the under-.500 teams that grab headlines and churn their rosters in order to finish 79-83 and hope to ride a hot streak deep into the playoffs.

Meantime, the TV execs will have figured out that the long regular season isn't as meaningful to their audience as it used to be and justifiably decide they're overpaying for broadcast rights during the summer. The national networks might bid high for the postseason—which now lasts, what, six weeks?—but those regional broadcast deals that are so important to every team's bottom line will effectively shrink. And in-season national games will dwindle even more than they already have (who here is old enough to remember the Saturday NBC Game of the Week and Monday Night Baseball on ABC all season long?).

The rules for TV are changing anyway. Internet streaming and the impending demise of the cable TV model make further reliance on those old ways a fool's game. But whatever the delivery method for televised games, devaluing the main product, which lasts six months, in order to pump up a revenue grab for a brief period of an extra week or so of playoffs per year seems ... what's the word ... stupid.

Rob Manfred is, as we have known for a while now, all about what's stupid. So I am actually rather pessimistic about how the game will be structured next year. I hope for CBA negotiations to feature stubbornness that prevents tinkering beyond the status quo, so long as it stops short of a lockout or labor strike. But my more pragmatic hope is for the new CBA to be a brief one, in effect for a period of only a couple of years, so that any damage done by shortsighted greed and foolishness can be repaired in relatively short order.

Of course, the DH itself was to be a three-year experiment from 1973-75, so even those hopes may not be realistic.

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