There are three proposed baseball rule changes making the rounds. All three are interesting. But are they interesting in the sense of presenting an elegant solution to a genuine problem, or are they interesting like that festering sore that just won’t heal? You will be relieved to learn that I have opinions, and am willing to share.
But seriously, this is right in my wheelhouse. The history of baseball rules–how they changed, and why–is very much my thing. It didn’t start as my thing. I kind of backed into it. When I started writing about early baseball I was interested in organizational structural questions: stuff like “Why was the National League formed?” The answer isn’t as straightforward as you would think, and most of the explanations you find floating around out there are some combination of uninformed nonsense and repetitions of 140 year old propaganda talking points. So I started writing articles about that kind of stuff. Some rules articles snuck in along the way. From my perspective, it is the same sort of question. What structural problems caused them to create the National League, and how well did this address those problems? What structural problems caused them to eliminate the high and low strike zones, and how well did this address those problems? To me, these are the same sorts of questions and I use the same strategies to answer them. But a funny thing happened. My organizational structural articles evoked polite nods. My rules articles evoked spontaneous displays of enthusiasm. I eventually took the hint, and am writing a book on the evolution of the rules. This mostly focuses on the second half of the 19th century, because that is when the big rules changes occurred, but the 20th and 21st centuries are within my purview.
With no further ado, the three proposals are (1) to raise the bottom of the strike zone; (2) to make intentional walks automatic, without actually throwing pitches (same link); and (3) to put a runner on second base at the beginning of every extra inning.
So what do I think of these? Starting with the good, I like the first proposal just fine. It would raise the bottom of the strike zone from “the hollow beneath the kneecap” to the top of the batter’s knee. This is all of one inch or so, but that is a really important inch. There is a long history of adjusting to higher or lower offense by fiddling with the precise details of the strike zone. The bottom of the zone was first defined as the level of the batter’s knees. This was changed for 1962 (supposedly–and perhaps actually–in response to Roger Maris having the poor taste to break Babe Ruth’s season home run record) to the bottom of the knee. This was one factor in the 1960s decline in offense, so the top of the zone was lowered in 1969 from the top of the shoulders to the armpits, then lowered again in 1988 to the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the pants. Then the bottom was expanded downward in 1996 to its present location in response to the steroid-era offensive surge.
There is some irony to this proposed change. The de facto and the de jure boundaries to the zone are two different things. The de facto zone is smaller, but this is changing. MLB has installed “PITCHf/x” in every major league park. This is like that box that the TV network puts up so the commentators can critique the umpire’s call, but unlike that box, PITCHf/x is accurate. Its purpose is as a training tool for plate umpires, so they can compare their calls with objective reality. Remarkably, MLB also lets researchers use the data. It turns out that the strike zone in the PITCHf/x is expanding. This is unsurprising, given that the de facto zone is smaller than the de jure zone. In other words, MLB implemented this training tool to get the umpires to call the zone more accurately, then discovered that it doesn’t like the result. Hence the proposed shrinking of the zone. But regardless of this history, the change itself is entirely reasonable: incremental, consistent with past changes, and best of all, virtually invisible to the fans. If lowered offense is a problem, this is a good way to fix it.
Next we move to the less happy intentional walk proposal. What problem is it supposed to fix? The proposal falls apart here even before it begins. There is some vague hand-waving about making games shorter. This is a recurring theme through the history of the rules, and is a legitimate problem could use some fixing. This, however, isn’t it. Intentional walks are rare, and they don’t actually take very long. The idea that cutting out a handful of pitches every few games will do anything about game length is risible.
Jayson Stark in that ESPN article I linked to flat out admits this. He concludes that “eliminating them would serve as much as a statement as it would a practical attempt to speed up the game.” OK: what statement is it making? “We don’t have a clue how to fix this, so we will mill about aimlessly? Recall that when Rob Manfred became Commissioner, he made noises about enacting a rule to abolish the shift. That idea went nowhere. I have a sneaking suspicion that the statement with this intentional walk idea is “I am the Commissioner, dammit!, and I want to make a new rule, no matter how pointless.” There is a balance between tradition and change. I am a traditionalist by natural inclination, but I understand that some changes are necessary. This is not, however, the same as making a change because we are bored and need a distraction. Give the man a cookie and download a new game app for his phone. Don’t mess with the rules just to mess with them.
Finally we come to the third proposed change, to start every extra inning with a runner on second. This one apparently is actually going to be enacted in the Gulf Coast League, which is at the lowest level of minor leagues. I am also surprised to read that it has been the rule in international baseball for a decade. Who knew?
Again, the length of games is the stated reason. Unlike the intentional walk idea, this one at least superficially makes sense. With a runner in scoring position, teams are more likely to get some runs over the plate, and the more runs scored the less likely the inning is to yet again end in a tie. Games go into extra innings somewhat less than 10% of the time, and last an average of two extra innings. Here is an excellent analysis, if you want the gory details.
OK, so let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. The typical nine inning game runs about three hours, or twenty minutes per inning. That average of two extra innings adds forty minutes to an extra innings game. Going with 10% of games going into extra innings, the status quo adds four minutes to the average game length. This isn’t nothing, but neither is it a huge amount. And of course putting that guy on second doesn’t lower the time for extra innings to nothing. Even if no game went over ten innings, that would still be two minutes added to the total average game time. The proposed change seems pretty radical for a small benefit.
This is just a guess, but I wonder if the real issue isn’t games that run ten or eleven innings, but those marathons that run into the early morning, where one side pulls guys from the bullpen and puts them in the outfield, while the other side pulls guys from the outfield and puts them on the mound. As a fan I love those games. Every extra inning is sudden death, with tension gradually building. If there is anything worse than losing in the seventeenth inning, it is losing in the eighteenth: death or glory! Then throw in the weirdness of seeing that utility outfielder strike out the side, and it is simply wondrous. But those games are absolutely brutal on the players. There is evidence that it takes a team weeks to recover from one of those. There is a legitimate argument to be made for working to prevent them.
If they want to institute a change to eliminate those marathons, I am fine with that. We can discuss the best way to go about this. And who knows? Maybe this proposal is the answer. But tossing out bullshit about shortening games is the baseball equivalent of “But what about the children?”–used to justify whatever it is you want to do, whether it makes sense or not. feh.
Notice how they don’t want to talk about the real solutions to the problem of game length. I would toss out that there are three real reasons why games are getting longer: pitchers and batters having contemplative moments rather than pitching and batting; increased pitching substitutions; and too damn many commercials between innings. The first one is harder to solve than you would think, though I’m not sure how hard they have really tried. The second one is impossible to solve without some radical restructuring of the game that the players’ union would never allow. The third one? That would be trivially easy to fix, but of course they won’t.