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The Latest Changes To Major League Baseball Rules Are Misguided


As seems to happen every offseason lately, Major League Baseball recently announced a series of rules changes. Some will take effect for the 2019 season, others in 2020. Most are minor, but some will significantly impact the game for the worse. The new changes being pushed by Commissioner Rob Manfred will further solidify a corporate culture of rules-tinkering that introduces one of the worst elements from the NFL: uncertainty about how the game is played. This movement replaces baseball’s timeless, adaptable ways with the hidebound legalism that is already strangling the life out of football.

Minor Changes (For Now)

Some of baseball’s new rules are little different from the old. The total number of visits to the pitcher’s mound, currently six, will now be limited to five. That’s intended to speed up the game, and it might shave a minute from the total time. Breaks between innings will be reduced by five seconds, too; again, not too drastic and enough to reduce the dead time by a minute or so.

The biggest change in 2019, though, hints at something worse. From now on, teams will start the tenth inning of the All-Star Game (and each subsequent extra inning), with a runner on second base. If necessary, these runners could be players who were already removed from the game through substitution. This is something Manfred has proposed before and failed to enact.

The goal is to prevent an All-Star Game from dragging on forever, and that is understandable. Team owners who pay huge salaries to their players do not want them to exhaust themselves—or worse, injure themselves—in a twenty-inning exhibition game. But if it still feels wrong (and it does), it may be because the All-Star Game used to be a baseball game. It was an exhibition of baseball’s best playing the game they love; now they will be playing baseball lite.

Two Kinds of Players

More changes come in 2020. Increasing the roster from 25 to 26 seems mostly a concession to the union that will be unlikely to affect games all that much, but it impacts a bigger issue: who can pitch, how long they must pitch, and how many pitchers belong on a roster. That dovetails with the other big change: requiring a pitcher pitch to at least three batters before he can be removed from the game.

There is also a new rule that requires the pitchers on the roster to be capped at a certain number (the exact number is still under discussion). That ties in with 2020’s other change, which governs which players can be called “two-way” players, that is, which players are allowed to be considered both pitcher and non-pitcher

Taken together, these rules for the first time divide baseball players by rule into two classes. From the first baseball game played on an unknown field or town green, until the last pitch of this year’s World Series, one thing has been true: anyone on the roster could play any position. Other than the catcher and pitcher, they could be positioned anywhere on the field, too. Baseball’s positions long ago became standardized enough that they could be coded by number in the scorebook. But that standardization was a natural process, the collective wisdom of nearly two centuries of playing, from the sandlots to the retractable-roofed stadiums. Now, Manfred would replace that wisdom with another page in the rule book.

The pitcher limit has exceptions: a position player could pitch if the game went into extra innings, or it was a blowout (a six-run difference or greater,) or if the player was designated as a “two-way” player. Who gets to be a two-way player? Anyone who pitched at least 20 innings and played at least twenty games at other positions in this year or the previous year.

That last bit is a grandfather clause intended to preserve the two-way status of one man, Shohei Otani of the Los Angeles Angels, 2018’s American League Rookie of the Year. Like the exception that allowed 17 pitchers to throw the spitball after that pitch was banned in 1920, the Otani exception preserves the status quo while preventing any new players from following the same path.

While it looks like it would be possible for new players to gain exception, the odds of it happening are slim. What position player would be able to pitch twenty innings when the only time he could do so is in blowouts and extra innings? That’s not much time to sharpen one’s craft. If these rules had existed ten years ago, Otani himself would never have become a two-way player. All of the excitement about his arrival in America, the first true power-hitting pitcher since Babe Ruth, would not have happened.

These rules are different from Manfred’s usual focus on time management. Frequent use of a pitcher for just one batter is a recent innovation, so this looks conservative from a certain point of view. You could say it merely restores the use of relievers to the way it was a couple of decades ago. But it isn’t really conservative, it’s reactionary. Trends come and go in the game. Currently, managers love bringing in a specialist hurler to take down a tough hitter. Banning it is not about right and wrong, it’s about mandating the fashion that old-timers prefer.

Manfred Made The Game More Complicated

By tinkering with one or two rules, Manfred caused a cascade of complication in an already fairly complicated sport. That sort of bloat is the natural course of things when a system goes from informal to formal. Most managers already stuck to the same limits on pitchers on the active roster, give or take one or two relievers. And managers almost never used position players on the mound except in a blowout or in an extra-inning game when their bullpens were empty.

So what is lost by formalizing the informal? For one, it makes the game needlessly legalistic. Laws beget loopholes. When a pitcher gives up home runs to the first two batters he faces, then falls with a mysterious injury, will the umpires allow him to leave or call the manager out on the lie? We already see this at the end of football games when the need for clock stoppages cause a lot of injuries from which the player miraculously recovers in just one play. “Coincidences” like that will happen in baseball in 2020, and will cheapen the game just as they have cheapened the NFL.

But more than the tedious legalism, the real problem with these rules is the magical moments they take away. With unwritten rules, anything is possible, even if most things are unlikely. Had baseball always codified the rules on who is permitted to pitch, we would never have games like the one on September 8, 1965 between the California Angels and the Kansas City Athletics, when Bert Campaneris played all nine positions in a single game.

Under the rules set to take effect in 2020, this unique event could never have taken place. Campaneris would not have qualified as a two-way player—that one inning was the only time he pitched in his nineteen-year MLB career. The game was not a blowout: It ended 5-3 in favor of the Angels. And while it went to extras, Campy’s turn on the mound came in the eighth.

Baseball is a curious mix of staid and dynamic. The rules are mostly unchanged for a century, but the game is one of constant adjustments. Defensive shifts, launch angles, and frequent substitutions all seem new and different, but they are no threat to a game that calmly adjusted to changes far larger in the past. Codifying that which was once tradition leeches all of the serendipity from the national pastime. Manfred, the owners, and the players’ union should think twice before letting the tedium of rules and exceptions take the place of the fluid, ever-changing, yet still eternal game.