Friday, February 23, 2018

Twelve Steps to Improve Baseball

By Jeff Kallman

Swing a cat by the tail and you won't miss hitting a baseball fan who has dozens of theories about how to improve baseball. You have even less chance of missing a writer who has a few. So would you like to improve baseball for the better? Here's a rough outline for you from one writer:

1) Get rid of the television and radio commercial breaks for pitching changes. A relief pitcher can get in from the bullpen to the game mound a lot quicker than it takes the commercials for "this call to the bullpen" to play. And while we're on the subject of relief pitching...

2) Get rid of the eight warmups on the game mound. This is still a challenge for Joe and Jane Fan, but relief pitchers ought to be plenty warmed up by the time they get in a game. Depending on their managers' prudence and brains, and not necessarily in that order, a reliever has probably thrown the equivalent of three good innings' worth of pitches before he was brought in. He needs eight more warmups about as much as our weekends need Donald Trump's tweetstorms. The sole exception to the rule should remain the reliever brought in because the incumbent was injured and forced to leave the game — let him continue to take all the time he needs to heat up.

3) Use a pitch clock — but make it 30 seconds. Twenty seconds, the former recommendation (I think), is a little too quick. Thirty should be just about right. Pedro Baez should be made to wear a belt that delivers a full-body electric shock if he doesn't throw within thirty seconds of getting the ball back from the catcher.

4) Once and for all, get rid of the goddam wild cards. There's just too much laughable about the thrills and chills of watching exciting stretch drives to determine who gets to finish ... in second place. This means, too, that we're going to have to...

5) Rewire the postseason tiers. Hah! You thought you'd escape me making the argument again? Well, I won't shaddap about it until it happens or I go to the Elysian Fields, whichever comes first: a) The league division winners with the best regular-season record gets a round-one bye. b) The remaining two division winners play a best-of-three, and the winner meets the bye team. c) The League Championship Series is returned to a best-of-five. d) The World Series's primacy as a best-of-seven is restored. Wouldn't it be great not to be oversaturated by postseason play by the time the World Series comes around?

6) Be done with regular-season interleague play. We've tried it for two decades. It isn't as much fun as the geniuses who came up with it thought. Not even Yankees versus Mets, not even Cubs versus White Sox, not even Dodgers versus Angels, and surely not Giants versus Athletics even if the A's suddenly become a dangerous team again. But if you absolutely must keep it, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated has a great idea: flip the league rules. Use the DH in the National League park and play under National League rules in the American League park.

7) Make the umpires accountable. There are still too many arbiters who think they're laws unto themselves. Reality check: no fan has ever paid money to attend a baseball game in order to see an umpire. (With the possible exception, God rest his soul, of Ron Luciano.) The commissioner's office needs to secure umpire oversight and enforce it.

Yes, a similar idea led to the implosion of the former umpires' union and the creation of the current one. But when we can still talk about umpires' "individual" strike zones, there's still something amiss. What Sandy Alderson (then working baseball government) once feared before the old union destroyed itself over the accountability issue — "I got worried when I found out that players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching" — is probably still true for too many. Teams should not be more concerned about whether Joe West or Angel Hernandez or C.J. Bucknor are behind the plate than whether Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, or Justin Verlander are on the mound.

While we're at it, how about public accountability? When a player misbehaves on the field we learn of his punishment almost quicker than it's handed down. But when an umpire is caught being naughty, we never know just how he was held to account. Who does baseball think the umpires are, the Supreme Court?

And who cares if a player is outraged enough about a blown call or an ump's misbehavior to criticize the ump in subsequent interviews? The lowest citizen of the United States can rip the president of the United States a new one if he or she thinks the president does or says wrong, and the president can't do a damn thing legally. Where did baseball government get off fining someone like Ian Kinsler last year for telling Hernandez to his face and then to the press he thought Hernandez did a horrible job? Ray of hope: when the umps wore white wristbands protesting Kinsler's remarks, baseball government told them try it again and see how much lighter you are in the bank accounts. Maybe there's hope. However small.

8) Reaching base isn't supposed to hurt. But it did cost Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, to name two, a third of a season last year. (In Trout's case, the absence from that thumb injury might have cost him an MVP; in Harper's, it might have taken a little off his swing when the Nationals needed him most.) The bases now are about as soft as a bag of marble and slicker than an oily driveway. You'd think that after enough on-the-bases injuries to a group of players who could win you a pennant if they played together that either the commissioner or the players' association would raise hackles about it.

9) So what was the replay result? If you're watching on television or listening on the radio, you know the why as well as the what in a replay ruling. If you're in the ballpark, you haven't got a clue unless you have a radio in your ear. Let the umps announce the why of a replay call. It's been working on penalty flag calls in the NFL for decades. That may be the only thing baseball should think about borrowing from football.

10) The All-Star Game doesn't count for a damn thing — so stop changing pitchers during innings. Verducci is right about this one, too: "You're an all-star and you can't get through an inning? Or the manager wants to play "match-up" in a game that doesn't count? Really?"

11) Change the All-Star Game voting, once and for all. When they're not trying to stuff ballot boxes for the home team, fans have a funny habit of voting for all-stars a) as lifetime achievement awards, or b) whether or not they can actually play in the game. (Trout last year was the latest example: he was on the disabled list with that thumb injury, and he got voted to the starting lineup anyway.) The All-Star Game is supposed to show the best in the game, not the most popular or the future Hall of Famers regardless of whether they can play like Hall of Famers anymore.

(As FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine noted last year, Cal Ripken, Jr. made too many all-star teams and Keith Hernandez made not as many as he deserved to make — one when he deserved to make seven more, in fact. And Derek Jeter was once voted to a starting lineup when he was both on the disabled list and not playing anywhere close to all-star performance.)

Let the fans vote for the full rosters, but then let the game's two managers and their coaches pick the starting lineups. While we're at it, let the fans vote only once. Even on the Internet. Unless you really want to take a chance that the guy who isn't even the best player on his own team might become an All-Star starter, for whatever nebulous reason. (Which almost happened in 2015, when Kansas City fans tried to stuff the ballot boxes despite the real chance of Omar Infante — who was on record believing that Houston's Jose Altuve deserved the honor — making the starting lineup.)

12) Lose the scoreboard video arcades! The last time I sat in a major league ballpark I couldn't help noticing as many fans paying equal attention to the videos on the scoreboards as they paid to the field. Ballparks aren't supposed to be video games. You want to watch video, stay home and watch the game on television. You want to watch a baseball game, start agitating for the removal of everything on the scoreboard that doesn't have anything to do with the score, or the play scoring, or the pitches and pitch counts. You should be in Angel Stadium, or Dodger Stadium, or Yankee Stadium, or Fenway Park, or Petco Park, or Wrigley Field, or Camden Yards — not in GameWorks.

That's a 12-step program with which baseball could get on board to everybody's benefit. And I'm not even running for commissioner.

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