Monday, September 12, 2022

About Those New MLB Rule Changes

By Jeff Kallman

Hands up to everyone screaming blue murder about the rules changes coming to baseball in 2023. Now, listen up. They might actually be not as grave as you think. Might.

It's probably a good thing that Mike (The Human Rain Delay) Hargrove (first baseman) and Pedro Baez (relief pitcher) don't play now. The new pitch clock rule would have Hargrove leading the Show in strikeouts with about half of those coming without pitches being thrown, and Baez would likely lead the Show in pitching walks.

Starting next year, pitchers get 15 seconds to throw to the plate with the bases empty and 20 to throw with anyone on base. Hitters better be in the batter's box ready to swing after 8 seconds on that pitch clock.

They've used the pitch clock in the minors for a few years now and, well, if you don't count the unconscionable contraction of the minors a couple of years ago nobody's proclaimed the end of the world as we know it yet.

The bases are going to get a little bigger, too. The bases have changed since the game was first organized, unless you never knew they began as large stones, changed to wood posts, and then to pure sandbags before somebody thought to make them the filled canvas squares that were familiar to one and all until about three decades or so ago. Stop snarling, Boring Old Fart. Then, pick up a copy of Peter Morris's A Game of Inches and learn that baseball was never quite as static as you let yourself be led to believe.

Why enlarge the bases even a relatively small amount? (From 15-inch squares now to 18-inch squares starting next year.) MLB's Competition Committee thinks they'll cut down on base-running injuries (to name one, future Hall of Famer Mike Trout missed about half a season one year after incurring a thumb injury sliding into base) and raise the prospect of basepath theft in the bargain.

"In Triple-A, the first season of larger bases didn't make much of a change on its own — but in the lower levels, bigger bases combined with rules about pickoffs saw large increases in steals per nine innings," noted ESPN's Jesse Rogers. "Even combined with the disengagement rules, though, MLB doesn't believe either change will lead to teams being unable to control the run game."

The infamous defensive overshifts will be verboten, too. Starting next season, teams will be required to keep four infielders on the infield dirt, including one each on either side of second base. This won't exactly eliminate pure defensive shifting — you can still position a shortstop almost behind second base itself or a second baseman almost directly behind the pad, and move your first and third basemen accordingly against pure pull hitters — but you won't see those walls of infielders on one side or a shortstop in short right field or a second baseman in short left, for a couple of examples.

But how to enforce? "If the hitting team reaches base and runners advance on a ball hit under the violation, the game proceeds without penalties," Rogers wrote. "If the play has any other consequence — an out, a sacrifice, etc. — the hitting team can decide either to accept the penalty — which would add one ball to the hitter's count — or decline it, and the play would stand."

I wish he hadn't said "sacrifice." I've said it before, I'll say it again: deliberate sacrifices waste outs, your most precious commodity when your guys are at the plate. You can look it up, too: in six known "bunt situations," only once do you have an absolute better chance of scoring after than before that bunt (men on first and second, nobody out), only once otherwise do you have an even scoring chance before and after (man on second, nobody out)], and all four others you have less chance to score after than before that bunt.

Unless you've got the next Brett Butler on your team (that half-pint center fielder dropped 337 bunts in his long career and 85 percent were for base hits), you should be fined heavily for wasting outs and scoring probabilities with bunts.

These three new rules won't be as drastic as the continuation of the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning is and will remain. The players on the Competition Committee were outnumbered 6-4, but I'd love to know if they pushed to get rid of Manfred Man at all. It's a ridiculous rule that probably did nothing to cut down the time of a game, which was of course the critical factor in devising the aforementioned new rules. (It's also another of the extremely few reasons to waste an out with a bunt: you're handed a man on second going in, you have an even chance of scoring after bunting him to third, go for it. Make Manfred Man look like anything but a pretty flamingo.)

But will they really cut down on the times of games? From where I sit the jury's going to have a long deliberation. And two things that would really cut down on the times of games don't even seem to have been topics. You don't need me to tell you that eliminating broadcast commercials a) between half-innings and b) during pitching changes in jams would probably do more to cut the times of games than any of the foregoing changes — especially if they're married to thing two: eliminating the eight warmup pitches on the game mound for relievers coming in in the middle of those jams.

Go ahead and scream. All better? Now listen up. Again. (I've argued this before.) When you bring a pitcher into a jam, unless you're bringing him in because your incumbent was injured, you shouldn't even have to think about the new man warming up on the game mound.

He might have thrown anywhere from one to three or even four innings worth of pitches getting to where you could bring him in in the first place. Warm up? He's coming in hotter than a Las Vegas summer. It takes less time for him to get from the bullpen to the game mound, most of the time, than it does to run those ridiculous "this call to the bullpen" commercials.

You brought him in to get you out of that jam. He's nuclear hot already. Let him get right to work. Your reliever's not going to have less men on base behind him or a less pesky hitter at the plate after he throws those eight useless warmups, is he? (Oops. Better not give Commissioner Rube Goldberg any more bright ideas!)

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