The game of baseball played most notably with Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs in America and in one Canadian city, and across city parks and NCAA fields for well over 150 years as a constant is changing. The call for change occurred years ago when the NFL and NBA began to control more television time, dollars, and attention spans. Many Americans still love baseball (the Los Angeles Dodgers drew four million fans in 2019), but clearly the MLB Commissioner’s office has heard the market rumblings and changes are here and coming.
Albeit the 2020-shortened season of sixty (60) games is one of many forced changes, but there are some changes of note that are worth highlighting. However, most of the rule changes made this season were contemplated previously, but because of the internal power struggle between the MLB club owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA, the union) the changes were never approved and implemented. Here are some of those changes and why they are important from a managerial and fan standpoint.
1. Designated hitter (DH) in both Leagues
This is a rule that has been debated since the 1970s when the American League implemented the idea to relieve pitchers from batting and to allow for more offense. It has lately turned into a safety issue for pitchers as they get injured trying to bunt or while running the bases. The latter has occurred as pitchers have become more of specialists without much focus on hitting. American League pitchers still must hit while playing in National League ballparks, which was introduced as result of interleague play in 1997.
For the 2020 season, all pitchers will have a designated hitter. This allows teams with deep lineups to add a hitter to increase offense. For teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League, this is an added bonus as a team and front office known to focus on roster talent depth. The rule essentially allows for the platoon player to have more at-bats. Economically, this will mean more jobs for players down the road should the rule be implemented permanently.
2. Three batter minimum for relief pitchers
The rule was implemented prior to the pandemic and is focused on speeding up the game of baseball for fans and television. The idea is that a manager bringing in a relief pitcher takes time especially where the pitcher is a specialist (only versus a lefty batter(s), etc.). The time to stop the game, call in the pitcher, and then warm-ups can be lengthy. A good idea, but it clearly changes the complexity of the game and reduces options for managers. Economically, this will mean less jobs for relief pitchers down the road as managers will call on select pitchers to pitch more innings. Practically, this means carrying one or two less pitchers on a 25-man roster. More specifically, the replaced relief pitcher is likely a designated hitter who can play every day. See point one.
3. Runner on second base to start extra innings
Similar to the aforementioned rule change, this rule is a strategic one that changes options and strategy for a manager. If a runner is on second base immediately to start an extra inning (10th inning and beyond) there is immediately pressure on the pitcher with the base runner behind him and pressure on the manager to put in the best relief core as one hit likely leads to a run and/or win. The proverbial pulling of the string on when to keep in and take out pitchers just got harder. In that sense this rule speeds up the game and quite possibly makes it more competitive.
On the other hand, for a game built on blue collar work ethic (no clock, no timeouts, no breaks, no freebees), this rule gives teams an immediate unearned advantage other than keeping the game tied past nine innings. It also makes a leadoff two-run home run a possibility. Keep in mind that the MLB’s idea for a twenty second pitch clock has been pushed to at least 2022, while roster changes and time between innings has expanded and shortened already to compliment a hand signal for four-pitch intentional walks, respectively. Should be they be implemented, split-screen commercials will also reduce time between innings to engage fans.
4. Increased suspensions for physical contact (e.g., no running at the pitcher or bench brawls)
With the on-going pandemic, as Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly realized, any show of aggression will be met with severe game suspensions. MLB wanted to send a message about retaliation for the 2017 Houston Astros cheating scandal, but also about safety during COVID-19 and physical activity/altercations (even the potential for one). You can read more about the Kelly incident here. Major League Baseball also put an end to high fives, spitting, and throwing the ball around the diamond between innings and after strikeouts to limit contact and spread. Facemasks have also been commonplace. Even minor league baseball teams have been turned ballparks into Airbnb’s and golf courses.
When a vaccine does arrive, it will interesting what rules stick, and which do not. In some sense, many aspects of life and business will be interesting as to what stays and what goes. Traditionalists will occur an assault on the game. Modernists will argue everything changes. Indeed, the question of our time.