It happens every spring. The return of baseball? Yes, but also something else. An annual event becoming so common it can be anticipated as regularly as the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues. This year, once again, Major League Baseball paired the start of spring training with the release of new rules, tweaks, and other alterations to the rules of the age-old American pastime. It’s a new tradition that would be best abandoned.
Meddling with the timeless rules and practices to fix some temporary distortion is now the team owners’ favorite pursuit, replacing their former preferred form of amusement: service time manipulation. They and Commissioner Rob Manfred love nothing better than to tinker with the game according to the current moods. Forcing test runs of these alterations on the minor leagues — who can’t afford to say no — they will find what they want to find in the results. These changes are coming.
Some of the changes reported at MLB.com are minor and may even be useful. Baseball fans should not shun all innovation. Adopting “slightly larger bases with a less-slippery surface” is not going to unmoor us from our customs and traditions, especially since the size of home plate will be unaffected (although it may affect some of the closest plays).
Others, however, are likely only to diminish the time-tested balance of baseball. Changes to pickoffs combine a desire to increase steals — an exciting part of the game — and to speed the pace of play. The first part will be accomplished by requiring pitchers to fully step off the rubber before attempting a pickoff. This hurts left-handed pitchers especially, but as one more tweak to the already complicated rules about pitching and balks, it does not promise to change much.
The second part is the problem. The new rule, also being tested in low-A leagues, will “limit pitchers to just two ‘step offs’ or pickoff attempts per plate appearance. On the third attempt, if the runner is not thrown out, the move is ruled a balk and any runners are automatically awarded the next base.” Ah, what could delight fans more than another way of balk?
At least there’s some rationale behind this idea — too many pick-offs and step-offs do become tedious. But this limit will have trade-offs. After two attempts, runners will take much larger leads, daring pitchers to throw them out. Will steals go up? Will more runners be caught stealing?
We don’t know, but it will change things in a way that is not anticipated — that is the nature of all changes to a system with an existing equilibrium. Eventually, a new equilibrium will develop, but it may be so different from the old that comparisons will become impossible. Another connection to the past will be severed in a game that is more in touch with its history than any other.
But now we come to the biggest disruption: requiring all four infielders to be positioned within the infield dirt boundary when a pitch is thrown. It sounds common-sensical enough — infielders should play in the infield, right? But this new rule, scheduled for testing in double-A leagues in 2021, is part of an ill-considered trend from the commissioner’s office of trying to codify every behavior in baseball.
The aim of this new rule is, as Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com explains, “a higher batting average on balls in play. Under this new arrangement, for example, the scorching ground ball we so often see gobbled up by a second baseman positioned in shallow right is more likely to get through.” It is true, many fans are annoyed by the constant infield shifts that rob their favorite pull hitters of base hits — although most like it well enough when their team does it to the other guy.
Manfred has two contradictory desires: more offense and a shorter game. By outlawing one kind of shift, he looks to accomplish the first part here but cannot avoid the inevitable trade-off. The slightly increased offense will lengthen game times in Double-A and cause yet another adjustment in the continual push to legislate a utopian version of the game that exists only in the commissioner’s mind.
Perhaps he looked at the National Football League, America’s most popular sport, and thought what makes it such a hit with fans is the constant tinkering with rules. But baseball fans are no fonder of excessive legalism than anyone else. Most of us who also enjoy football find the tedious rulings by the referees and constant appeals and replays to be the worst part of an otherwise exciting sport.
Instead of looking to football’s bloated rulebook, Manfred should consider the words of one of his predecessors, Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, a man who loved the sport he over which presided for too short a time. Giamatti understood that baseball’s rules were precise, but few.
As he wrote in “Baseball and the American Character,” it was one of many ways the sport reflected the temperament of the people. “Indeed, the layout of the field shows baseball’s essential passion for and reliance on precise proportions and clearly defined limits, all the better to give shape to energy and an arena for expression.”
How fielders are arranged has always been within that “arena for expression.” Nine men take the field in a game, but only two — pitcher and catcher — have their positions restricted by the rules. There is no rule requiring three outfielders and four infielders. The combination evolved in the early game as teams and their managers realized it was usually the optimal arrangement. Variations are tried from time to time, but teams tend to return to the usual layout because it works, not because they must.
Even within that norm, shifting infielders is not new, although it has become more common in the past decade. Phillies slugger Cy Williams was among the first to be shifted against back in the 1920s. Cappy Gagnon writes for the Society for American Baseball Research that “National League managers recognized that the best defense was to play [Williams] extremely deep and around toward right field.” Later, a similar shift was employed against a more famous Williams: Hall of Famer Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox. Teams did the same against Willie McCovey, another Hall of Fame member, in the 1960s and ‘70s.
These defensive efforts did not ruin the fan experience, nor did they stop any great slugger from continuing to be one. As countless players and commentators have said over the years, baseball is a game of adjustments. Hitters can adjust for the shift by becoming more well-rounded in their craft. They can hit the ball the other way. They could even bunt.
McCovey did just that once, and the bunt discombobulated the defense so badly that he ended up on second base while the runner on first (Willie Mays) scored on the play. Broadcaster Jon Miller called it “the most outstanding thing I’ve ever seen in a baseball game.”
All of which is to say: the shift is nothing new and the ways to defeat it are equally old. Managers have been allowed to vary their defensive positioning to stymie hitters, and hitters are allowed to change the way they hit to stymie them right back. The balance is not one decreed by the rules, but a natural equilibrium developed freely after more than a century of experience.
Is it too much to ask that baseball’s commissioner love the game as it is? Codifying informal rules is Manfred’s way of directing the sport toward what he considers a proper result. A game where defensive positions are mandated will see fewer pull hitters deprived of a single on a low line drive to right. But it will also make for a world that cannot conceive of McCovey’s run batted in bunt double.
Excessive legalism rules out the unexpected. Baseball reflects an older version of America, one with a few rules and a lot of space to live. Manfred approaches his job with the fussy precision of a bureaucrat. What baseball deserves, however, is a poet.