A Few Thoughts on MLB’s Potential Rules Changes

Rob Manfred seems bound and determined to slay the imaginary pace-of-play monster laying waste to baseball, to the extent that he may enact changes without the approval of the players union. But since such moves could cement the certainty of a work stoppage after the 2021 season, he’s been reluctant to swing his sword unilaterally. Given how dogged he’s been in his pursuit of certain changes to the rules, though, a few tweaks here and there are inevitable.

Now it’s just a matter of how many changes are approved and how quickly they are incorporated, which could be a matter of strategy. There will be implications to the way the game is played, including how specialized players are deployed and how managers control their rosters. Fans will have to come to terms with changes as well, which is not always an easy task for purists.

Rather than continuing to set this up, let’s talk about what changes are being proposed and what they could mean to the game.

Designated hitter in the NL

I’ve maintained for quite some time that I’m agnostic to the DH. Seriously, I don’t care. The players are in favor of the change, MLB is in favor of the change, and it’s going to happen. As fun as it is to see Bartolo Colon up there taking his hacks or to celebrate a Jon Lester dinger, pitchers really suck as hitters.

Feel free to rant about it below at your leisure, but I have a hard time believing anyone is really going to be upset about the loss of the double-switch. That’s like lamenting drivers no longer needing to cede the right of way when a four-way stop is replaced by a roundabout. This is just one of those things that I accepted long ago would eventually come to the NL, and it looks like that time may have come.

Likelihood: Bet on it. Players want it and it can serve as sort of an olive branch for Manfred to force through some other changes.

A 20-second pitch clock

This is Manfred’s baby and seems to be the one rule he’d enforce on his own if all else fails. It’s possible the union would grant reluctant approval if given the universal DH and perhaps some other concessions, so a pitch clock could be a part of the game as soon as this season.

While I’m not a fan of someone like Pedro Baez taking five minutes between pitches, I’m also not sure an artificial limitation on a pitcher’s prep time is a great solution. It’s possible the timer could be lengthened or eliminated when runners are on base, so perhaps there are ways to make this less obtrusive.

And to be honest, this feels to me like one of those changes people would barely notice after a while. The big thing is how strict they’ll be when it comes to enforcing the rule, particularly right away. Veteran pitchers may have a hard time adjusting, but being too lenient creates a slippery slope in which the limit has no teeth.

Likelihood: Bet on this one too, Manfred really wants it.

A three-batter minimum for pitchers

Let’s call this the Tony La Russa Rule, since he was a well-known practitioner of the single-batter reliever and helped to make it de riguer. It’s become ever more commonplace, with Joe Maddon now acting as one of the standard bearers for the strategy. To wit, the Cubs led the NL in 2018 when it came to using pitchers to face a single batter.

According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan (first link), the union “did not strongly oppose” this change, though the preference is for it to be implemented in 2020. This would have a serious impact on LOOGYs, lefty one-out guys, who could see their usage limited to situations in which there are two outs in the inning.

Or, I don’t know, maybe managers would just have to get comfortable letting their lefty relievers face right-handed batters once in a while. This rule change would obviously not apply to injury situations or when a pitcher finishes an inning (as noted above), but therein lies an opportunity for a bit of gamesmanship.

Say a lefty pitcher enters to face a lefty batter and, upon retiring said batter, he feels a little twinge in his finger or shoulder or hamstring. The trainer and manager come out and determine the pitcher just can’t continue, then call upon a righty reliever to face the righty who’s up next. This is obviously a strategy that would be exposed quickly, but the loophole is there to be exploited.

So how about amending the rule to say that a reliever who exits the game due to injury prior to facing three batters must be replaced by a pitcher of the same handedness? That would close the loophole, though it also opens up a new can of worms in case the injury was legit and the team has no more like-handed pitchers left.

Injuries are a given for any athlete, but pitchers are particularly susceptible and can be hampered by issues that might otherwise be seen as superficial. As such, I’m opposed to rules like this that mandate pitcher usage and force managers to stick with guys longer than they should rightfully have to. I’m also perfectly fine with someone making good use of a specialized skill, so I’m reluctant to approve the elimination of the LOOGY.

Likelihood: Maybe next year. If players acquiesce to the pitch clock, they’ll want a little more runway on this one. And if the commish gets his pitch clock, maybe this comes off the table.

Expand rosters to 26 (12-pitcher maximum), then 28 in September

This sort of follows the change above to mandate longer outings by relievers, since the thinking is that a team wouldn’t need as many pitchers. It also fits with a recent proposal by the league to return to a 15-day DL while extending to 15 days the amount of time an optioned player must spend in the minors. The idea is to limit the number and usage of relievers, which would theoretically improve offense.

The league would be creating 30 additional full-time positions with this move, but the players would give a little ground on the pitching front. I like the idea of expanding rosters, particularly if the DL is lengthened again, though setting a mandatory max of 12 pitchers seems artificial. I do like the limitation on September rosters, even though I never had an issue with pushing out to 40 players.

Likelihood: Pretty decent, largely because of the extra roster spot, though I would say this is another one that’s more a 2020 move.

A single trade deadline before All-Star break

The whole waiver-trade thing is kind of weird and requires an explanation every year, so let’s just get rid of it and move to a single deadline. The union hopes that consolidating the deadline and moving it to before the break will force teams to be more competitive. I’m not so sure. Teams may need a little more time to determine whether they’ll be buyers or sellers, so an earlier deadline might create less movement.

Then again, knowing they don’t have the extra runway and the fallback of the waiver process might spur more activity and turn more teams into buyers. That’d be good, I’m just not convinced of exactly how it’d really impact teams’ thinking.

Likelihood: It’s not a pace-of-play issue, so there’s not as much impetus to see it through. I don’t think this will happen soon.

Draft advantages for winning teams, penalties for losing teams

This is clearly in the players’ best interest because it’s a disincentive for tanking, which has become such a prevalent strategy that half the teams in baseball are out of the free agent market in any meaningful way. The draft is too big a crapshoot for teams to rely on it anyway, but penalizing organizations for failing to maintain competitiveness seems like a good way to counteract the strategy.

Unlike the other changes, this would impact all levels of an organization and probably isn’t the kind of thing you’d see agreed to outside the bounds of CBA negotiations. Rather than a change in the next couple seasons, this feels like a preview of one what players will be looking for the next time the two sides sit down at the table.

Likelihood: Not soon.

Study on mound height, potential to lower it in 2020

This may seem like an insignificant topic, but I ended up writing so much on it that I’m splitting it out into a separate piece.

Likelihood: This won’t come until after this season at the earliest, but I’m skeptical of it happening at all.

Allow two-sport amateurs to sign major league contracts

Uh, okay. This will impact such a small percentage of players it’s not even worth discussing in any great detail. The only reason this is front of mind at all is the recent Kyler Murray decision. I guess it could be a big deal if we continue to see Heisman winners who’re also top prospects, but let’s assume that’s not the case.

Likelihood: Who cares?

Additional changes

Among the other changes being discussed are ending tied spring training games after 10 innings and putting a runner on second in the 10th inning during spring games and the All-Star Game. Oh, there’s also the whole idea of banning or restricting the shift, which could actually offer the Cubs an incremental advantage.

If it feels as though baseball is just throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what’ll stick, that may be the plan. Proposing all kinds of new rules and procedures gets everyone up in arms, so when there are only one or two little tweaks people perceive it as not as bad. That also paves the way for other changes in the future. It’s the frog in the pot of water just sitting there as it slowly boils to death.

While it may feel as though Manfred is turning the heat up too fast, maybe he knows what he’s doing. Or maybe he’s using blunt force after all. I guess we’ll find out here soon enough.

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