Major League Baseball’s Commissioner Rob Manfred wants his sport to be as “tight and compelling” as possible. So the MLB plans to test a number of changes in the low minors next season that might help generate more offense and speed up the game. Most controversial among them is the idea of putting a runner at second base at the start of every extra inning. Other changes include a proposal to raise and expand the strike zone and drop the four-pitch intentional walk. There has also been talk about shortening the season.
In The Federalist, Kyle Sammin offered a number of reasonable points in opposition to the potential man-on-second rule. Me? I don’t believe these ideas go nearly far enough in producing offense or speeding up the game. Rather than debate Manfred’s experiments, though, I’d like to offer two additional changes that would make the game far more compelling and exciting. One of them would eliminate the need to have anyone on base during extra innings.
Manfred could start by scrapping the antiquated notion that pitchers should hit. Because, well, pitchers can’t hit. Not really.
Few moments in professional sports are more tedious than watching a National League pitcher awkwardly lean in and lay down a bunt to move a runner over in a 1-0 game in the middle of August. By the way, in most games, this is the most thrilling outcome a fan can anticipate. One-ninth of all NL teams’ at-bats are sure outs; a black hole. Pitchers hit under .200 every year, a average matched by their putrid on-base percentages. And they’re getting worse. Pitchers’ wRC+ (weighted runs created plus; but feel free to use any stat and you’ll find pitchers reliably sucking) have been declining for a century, taking a pronounced dip of late.
Pitchers — all of them — hit the same number of home runs last year as shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. The Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, considered perhaps the finest hitting pitcher in the league, was the first major league hurler to hit two home runs in the past nine years (he ended up with three for the season, and .190 batting average and .277 on-base percentage.)
Most baseball fans would concede that sophisticated training methods, increased athleticism, and a more scientific approach to baseball in general has made hitting and pitching more challenging than ever before. It takes a remarkable amount of training, willpower, and natural ability to attain such a high level of competence at even one of these tasks, much less both.
Which is why hitters don’t have to pitch.
Baseball has no sacred obligation to force every fielder to hit. There is no other major sport where an athlete is asked to perform a task so completely out of his comfort zone. The NFL doesn’t make 300-pound linemen line up as a wide receivers. Goalies don’t score on breakaways. Relief pitchers, as baseball has become increasingly a sport of specialized players, rarely pick up a bat.
Moreover, expanding the role of the designated hitter would also help transform the sacrifice bunt from boring to rare but thrilling. As it is, the sacrifice bunt is a free out for the opposing team more than 95 percent of the time due a simple reason: one of the participants in the game is inept and there’s basically nothing else he can do. It slows momentum because everyone knows it is coming. It doesn’t even make sense mathematically.
A few years ago, a piece in MLB.com explored the actual numbers behind bunting:
Last season, according to Baseball Prospectus data, in the two most common situations for a sac bunt, your expectation for scoring a run was actually greater if you let the hitter swing away rather than give up an out via a bunt. With a runner at first and no outs, you had a 24.4 percent better chance of scoring a run than you did with a runner at second and one out. With runners at first and second and no outs, you had a 10.4 percent better chance of scoring a run than you did with runners at second and third and one out.
That stat would likely look a lot better if more of those hitters owned something north of a .156 average.
The other problem MLB faces is the length of games. In 1950, the average game lasted two hours and 23 minutes, while today’s is more than three hours. That doesn’t seem like a huge spike until you remember that baseball is played six days a week, and the extra time adds up to weeks of your life. Part of this problem, at least according to the commissioner, is MLB’s growing trend of extra-inning games, which is likely due, in part, to the decrease in scoring.
There are a number of options:
1) MLB fans can resign themselves to the fact that baseball is a long game.
2) MLB can concoct a rule that puts a runner on second in extra innings. This breaks the norms of the game, since it will be the only time a runner is awarded a base without earning it.
3) MLB can cap the games and allow ties in the standings, becoming more like soccer (unacceptable, obviously).
4) Home-run derby! After two innings of undecided extra-inning baseball, a home-run hitting contest to determine the winner would create excitement. A team would send out a pitcher and three hitters. Whichever team hits more homers before making a yet-to-be-determined number of outs wins. (I would scrap the idea for the playoffs, since every game holds high importance, instilling them entertainment value even if they’re four hours long.)
Numbers 3 and 4 will never happen. I’m skeptical number 2 will either. So if we have to live with number 1, we deserve more offense.
Traditionalists will argue that any change in the game will damage the authenticity and beauty of the sport. Well, the designated hitter, at least, is an old idea; a 43-year-old experiment that’s created countless exciting moments for fans and extended the careers of a number of great players. It’s been around longer than the Wild Card format, which fans don’t seem to mind at all. And unless you believe the Red Sox, Yankees, and Indians have a more tenuous claim to the revered rituals and history of baseball than the Colorado Rockies or the Arizona Diamondbacks do, it seems to be a rather hollow argument to make against the DH.
Baseball is a distinctively American game, more connected to its past than any other. This culture is important, and shouldn’t be tossed away for some cheap, short-term trick to entice fans. Yet, the MLB rulebook isn’t a sacred text handed down from the Almighty. Baseball has evolved — organically — all the time. The spitball was outlawed in 1920. The mounds were lowered in 1969. The DH was created in 1973. All of this helped hitters. There is nothing wrong with refreshing a game to make it more appealing and exciting for fans (and potential fans). We’ve done it many times before.
The author covered professional baseball for a number of outlets in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Though he does not often write in the third person, he offers this transparent appeal to authority in hopes of convincing you to take his home-run derby idea more seriously.