Now that we’ve had a chance to catch our breath, after a season that ended in triumph (and controversy) for the Dodgers, it’s time to evaluate some of the peculiarities of Pandemic Baseball. Of the rules and formats that are in place for 2020 – most of necessity – which should be and which should go?
Keep in mind, of course, that the baseball landscape for 2021 and beyond remains a blank page, although it is reasonable to suggest that the game will not return as it was for a long time. Given current trends with COVID-19 and predictions of future increases in infections, it is not inconceivable that next season will also begin with empty ball parks, or at least sparsely populated parks, depending on the individual jurisdiction’s health regulations.
This will further affect revenue, and the combination of this season’s revenue hit and next season’s estimates will in turn affect the way teams do business this winter. Upcoming collective bargaining negotiations between the management and the Players Association can also cast a shadow over everything – and these discussions will at least affect the rules, since making some of these innovations permanent will require players’ purchases.
So what should I do with the 2020 rulebook? Here are my feelings and who always welcome this room your answer.
The universal DH: As an opponent for, well, decades, I never thought the tenth man in the lineup would grow on me. But it did, and after a full (mini) season of watching it in National League matches, it can now be said: Double switches were overrated. And the strategy of when to remove a flagging starting pitcher becomes more of an issue when it is no longer linked to when his place comes up in the next round.
As we saw from time to time and especially in Game 6 of the World Series, there is even more room for error when it is a stand-alone decision.
The international extra round rule: When you first got past the weirdness of a sort of second-base ghost runner to start an extra inning – described a leading man hitting a two-run home run, as the Dodgers’ Edwin Rios did in Houston early on, his own special kind of weirdness – the benefits offset the disadvantages here. Less potential strain on pitching losses, games that do not last for five and six hours, and unexpected arguments about, yes, strategy. Did you bundle that runner? Are you playing for a big game? These debates proved to be an unintended advantage of the rule.
Yes, when you sit through a 16-inning game, you can say you were part of a special moment. But how many people actually do that? (And this rule does not apply in the mail season, so there is as much chance of an 18-inning classic in the World Series as before.)
Seven-inning games in double text: Again, a rule that seemed unnatural when it was thrown in at the last minute, proved to be an advantage, to the point where some of us wondered if we might not shorten all the matches to seven innings. (Nonsense!) Seriously, this was an emergency in light of the number of COVID-related postponements, and it probably won’t come into play when fans are allowed to return to stadiums and owners again operate on the principle that the only good double-headed is a split-recording double head.
Extended rosters: In connection with a 60-game plan with a three-week training camp 2.0 and boxes that are still working in shape, the 30-man opening day list eventually dropped to 28 served a purpose, so that the teams could carry 14 and 15 boxes. Under more normal circumstances, a 26-man list – which should have become the norm in 2020 before COVID distorted things – should be sufficient. The players’ association can speak on behalf of the extra jobs, but it will have more important matches to fight ahead.
Minimum three-batter: This was a pre-pandemic modification designed to reduce the number of pitching changes and shorten games. Instead, thanks to the 14- and 15-man staffs for pitching, the average playing time in the major leagues actually increased from 3: 05.31 in 2019 to 3: 07.46 in 2020, and of course, games in the post season took even longer. More to the point, this was an unnecessary change that tampered with the competitive balance of the game (there is still no limit to pinch hitters per bat, is there?), Was aimed at a specific player class (left-handed specialist), and did not what it should do anyway. Throw it out.
If the pace of the game is really an issue, there are some suggestions:
• Institute has a 20-second pitch clock for regular season matches and 25 seconds for postseason.
Define the strike zone in the rulebook so that the top of the zone is no longer near the navel, but at the letters as it was originally written. And call the strike loud consistently, and if that ultimately means going to an electronic strike zone to do so, then so be it. The more hitters that swing the bat, the more action there is, the less carping about the pace of the game.
On this line, it’s time to regulate what a coach in another sport referred to last month as “garbage defense.” (Thank you, Frank Vogel.) Our suggestion: Mandate two markers on each side of the second base, all placed on the infield mousse. There are also no more four-man fields. As former Angel boss Mike Scioscia pointed out in a KLAC / 570 radio interview late in the season, extreme shifts mainly serve to hide weak field fields with limited range.
The more open space there is, the more balls fall in. People who run bases and field people force acting to translate into action, and that keeps fans engaged. Games will not seems as if they are pulling. Maybe, over time, we will move away from the baseball brand with three true outcomes and back to the style of play that piqued our interest in the first place.
(And once that is resolved, we can address MLB’s failed streaming policy.)
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter