Rules Change

By Larry Dierker

Baseball Rules Change

Even in Baseball…

Except for the liveliness of the ball, Major League Baseball remained virtually unchanged from 1901 – 1973.  That’s when the American League owners panicked over declining attendance and decided to experiment with a Designated Hitter.  From that year until this – 56 years to be exact — the infection of the DH has spread like nutgrass from the AL to the minor leagues, and to the smallest sandlot in rural America (not to mention foreign countries).

Miller Time

Marvin Miller started organizing big-league baseball players around 1968. He was thrilled with the DH; it guaranteed another high-salaried player on every AL roster.  It took the owners the better part of thirty years to catch up with him.  Miller and his successor, Don Fehr, won every bargaining session until they quit trying to rein in salaries and start looking for new revenue streams.

At this juncture, the sport is more electric than pastoral.  Ushers used to remind fans not to forget their scorecards; they don’t have to remind them not to forget their cell phones.

These days, a baseball fan who keeps score is a rarity, but fans who check messages on their phones are common.  And MLB has found ways to generate income from those phones that far exceeds program sales.  Baseball has become big business.

The consolidation of the individual teams into MLB in New York has generated all kinds of shared benefits — many of which are generated by technology.  Although granddads like me are chagrined by many of the changes, we seem to be aligned with Baseball Central in a desire to see the pace of the game quicken.

Setting the Pace

This year, there will be more new baseball rules designed to address that problem. Alas, all of them ignore the most voracious time-eater: the pace the players set by their actions on the field.

Batters step out of the batter’s box and regroup after every pitch, while pitchers deliberate and take deep breaths. With so much money on the line, I don’t blame them.

This year, mound visits without changing pitchers will be reduced from six to five.  This may save a few minutes in a few games.  Reducing the commercial breaks in nationally-televised games to two minutes will cut the length of a nine-inning game by seven minutes.  That change may reduce revenue. For that reason, it’s an unforced and significant concession — a signal that MLB considers pacing to be a critical issue.

Three-Batter Minimum

Another baseball proposal that will likely be added for 2020 would require managers to leave relief pitchers in the game for three batters, or until the inning is over.  This rule would shorten many games because it would put an end to the long innings at the end of the game where little action occurs. That, aside from pitchers running in and out of the bullpen, and warming up.

There is a consensus of older and younger fans about the deliberate nature of modern baseball.  This year’s modifications will have little impact on the strategy of the sport.  The relief pitcher rule would influence how managers use their bullpens, and will probably shorten a lot of baseball games in 2020.

Unfortunately, none of the rules speaks to the issue the way I would. “Get in the box and hit. And get on the rubber and pitch.”

Nudge, Nudge

Changing the players’ habits could make a really big difference.  These days, players habitually take their time.  I don’t really blame them.  But I would try to nudge them anyway.

The only person who can give them a nudge is the umpire. There has been talking about a pitch clock. Twenty seconds, or something like that. I’d really hate to see a deadline clock in the sport.

Many times, during the ebb and flow of baseball games, twenty seconds is unreasonable.  The umpires are aware of that.  More often, twenty seconds is more than adequate.

The versions of the pitch-clock rule I’ve heard have weak penalties for breaking the rule.  If I were making a million dollars or more, I wouldn’t care about a $500 baseball fine.  In my day that was called a “Babe Ruth” fine. Yet, that would translate into $500,000 in today’s game.  How long would it take an agent to get on the phone after that?

Empowering the Umpires

Forget the money for once.  What if the home-plate umpire could call a ball in the count if I tarried on the mound?  What if he could call a strike if a hitter spent too much time adjusting his batting gloves?  Too much time could be twenty seconds, or maybe thirty. If rainclouds were threatening completion of the fifth inning, it could be fifteen seconds.

Believe me, those penalties would get everyone’s attention.

After the pace got established, most baseball players would conform to it.  At least I think they would.  It’s mostly a matter of habit.  If a player fouled a ball off his foot, the umpire would give him extra time.  If a pitcher was laboring during a long inning on a hot day, he would likely get some leeway. 

The Trackman Cometh

This year, the independent Atlantic League will experiment with a Trackman strike zone.  I have been a proponent of that technology ever since I saw it on a telecast.  It may not be perfect but is more consistent than an umpire.

I think the umps do an amazing job of calling balls and strikes, considering the circumstances. There is no perfect way for them to see the whole zone with the catcher in front of them.  And the ball passes the front of home plate about 8 feet away, often speeding 90 miles/hr. or more, slanting this way or that, as it enters the zone.

Instant replay on calls has proven how good the umpires are.  Most of the contested plays are so close that stop-action shots are sometimes inconclusive.  Sure, they miss one by a mile once in a while – but not that often. Still, they know they may be proven wrong on almost every close play.  They are in charge of policing baseball games, and yet they are constantly second-guessed.

If the Trackman technology or the like is implemented, the umps will have even less power. I think loving the game, and liking power and authority, is what motivates young men to become umpires to begin with. Without power and authority, the endless hours on the road, starting with potholes in the boonies, is tougher for umpires than it is for players. Like players, not all of them make it.  The lawyers at MLB seem to be discouraging young men from even trying.

If I Were Dealing with the Dilemma

Between “getting it right” on the one hand, and “keeping it moving” on the other, I would encourage the umpires to set the pace, give real-time penalties, and support them. As it is and is trending, the umpires must feel eviscerated.  Maybe I’m wrong.  But I know they wouldn’t feel powerless if they could dictate the pace of the game.

And most baseball fans would want to save, not kill, the umpire.