In early February, Jeff Passan of ESPN reported that MLB and the Players’ Union are discussing a handful of drastic changes to the game that could be implemented as soon as 2019. The eight main proposals, according to Passan, are as follows (the ones we’re discussing in this Part 1 post are in bold):
- A three-batter minimum for pitchers
- A universal designated hitter
- A single trade deadline before the All-Star break
- A 20-second pitch clock
- The expansion of rosters to 26 men, with a 12-pitcher maximum
- Draft advantages for winning teams and penalties for losing teams
- A study to lower the mound
- A rule that would allow two-sport amateurs to sign major league contracts
Passan also mentioned one more in his article:
- Ending Spring Training games after 10 innings and using the All-Star Game to test potential extra inning rules
Furthermore, back in late January, Ronald Blum of the Associated Press reported two more proposals from the league. They are:
- Increasing the minimum Injured List stay back to 15 days
- Increasing the length of time optioned players must stay in the minors from 10 days to 15
These proposals have a few different goals, addressing pace of play, roster manipulation, and encouraging teams to win. Fans have been split on each of these proposals, many preferring the game stay the way it is today.
Let’s take a one-by-one look into each of these proposed rule changes and analyze how they might affect baseball and, most importantly, how they might impact the A’s. There’s too much for one post, so in Part 1 we’ll look at the ones that directly affect on-field play, and in Part 2 next week we’ll turn to off-field stuff (like roster size, draft, DL/options, etc.).
Three-Batter Minimum for Pitchers
Current Rule: None
Proposed Rule: Each pitcher to enter a game must face a minimum of three batters. The only exceptions made would be when the pitcher finishes an inning or is injured.
My Take: This rule is clearly aimed toward pace of play. This would eliminate many of the long, three-or-four pitcher late innings that have become more common in recent years.
However, this change would eliminate something else — the LOOGY (and, to a lesser extent, the ROOGY). Many pitchers have made a career out of being a platoon specialist used to get one same-handed batter out. With this rule, useful players like Oliver Perez and Tony Sipp would have a much more difficult time finding a spot on a roster.
But there’s a chance the short-stint reliever might already be dying. In 2018, only 12 relievers with at least 10 innings pitched faced an average of three batters or fewer per appearance. That number is down from 16 in 2012 and 13 in 2006.
I do believe something should be done to stop managers from emptying their bullpen in one inning for repeated single-batter match-ups. The process is tedious and slows the game to a crawl. But I think the three-batter minimum might be too drastic of a change.
Instead, perhaps we could meet in the middle with a two-batter minimum. Or even a tweak within the three-batter minimum that allows each team to use only one pitcher per inning for less than the three plate appearances required.
For the A’s: In 2018, Ryan Buchter faced three batters or fewer in 35 of his 54 appearances. He struggled against righties, allowing a .360 wOBA and only a 5.6% K-BB rate (compared to .222 and 23.9% against lefties). While his career splits aren’t quite as drastic, it’s pretty clear the A’s used Buchter as a traditional LOOGY. This rule change would make Buchter far less valuable, especially in Oakland’s righty-heavy bullpen.
It is much of the same for recent minor league addition Jerry Blevins. The Mets used Blevins for short stints in 42 of his 64 appearances last season. He actually pitched worse against lefties than righties (.341 wOBA vs .305), but his career splits are what one would expect (.260 wOBA against lefties, .320 vs righties). He would be affected in much of the same ways as Buchter.
Current Rule: The American League uses the designated hitter, allowing for one spot in the lineup to go to a batter that does not take the field. In the National League, the pitcher is required to bat for himself instead.
Proposed Rule: The National League would adopt the DH as well.
My Take: Finally. This change, in my opinion, is much overdue. As a younger fan, I am not as deeply rooted in the game’s traditions as some, and I see the designated hitter as wholeheartedly good for baseball.
First and foremost, this change would help keep pitchers healthy. Last season, New York Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka missed more than a month after straining both hamstrings while running the bases. In 2017, Milwaukee Brewers righty Jimmy Nelson was in the middle of a breakout year when he injured his throwing shoulder diving back into first base after a single. He still has yet to make it back to a big league mound. I could list countless more examples of pitchers injuring themselves doing something they’re not even good at in the first place.
That’s the other thing — pitchers can’t hit. In 2018, MLB pitchers slashed .115/.144/.148 with a .132 wOBA and a -25 wRC+. Yes, negative 25. And, sure, that makes it more fun when pitchers do have success at the plate. But even Madison Bumgarner — widley regarded as the best hitting non-Shohei Ohtani pitcher — has a career 47 wRC+. For context, Baltimore’s Chris Davis slashed .168/.243/.296 last season, good for a wRC+ of 46. So the league’s best hitting pitcher is slightly better than 2018’s worst qualifying hitter.
Some argue against the DH, in favor of the NL’s more “strategic” style of play. But I would argue that National League baseball is often less strategic. Often, the eighth hitter in a NL lineup will come up with runners on and two outs. In that situation, it is almost automatic to walk the batter and instead face the pitcher, who will likely fail to drive in a run. Is avoiding a professional hitter just to throw three easy fastballs past a pitcher really strategic or entertaining?
The past couple offseasons have been horribly slow, and have often seen veteran hitters linger on the market far too long. Above average hitters like C.J. Cron and Justin Bour have been non-tendered due to their defensive shortcomings. The universal DH would create 15 new jobs for these types of players. It would also make NL teams more comfortable offering star hitters like Bryce Harper a long-term deal, knowing that if his skills decline near the end of the contract he could slide into the DH spot.
The universal DH is universally good for baseball. At this point, it is an inevitability. Make it happen, MLB.
For the A’s: As strongly as I support the universal DH, it could wind up hurting the A’s in a big way.
The A’s have reportedly been in talks with Khris Davis on an extension. The slugger is set to hit free agency following the 2019 season. As Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reported in December, if a deal can’t be hammered out, the A’s would be likely to offer Davis a Qualifying Offer next offseason. That one-year offer would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $18.5 million, and based on the track record of players similar to Davis in recent free agency, he would be wise to accept.
But the calculus of the decision changes drastically for Davis with the universal DH. As of now, free agency would see Davis’ market immediately limited to the 15 American League teams, and then to even fewer once removing the teams that already have established designated hitters. But the universal DH means more suitors for Davis, and could lead to a potential bidding war — one which the A’s would likely not win.
On the other hand, there is a scenario in which this could help the A’s. There is a possibility that, in either 2019 or 2020, the rule is implemented with Davis already under contract. If the team were to struggle and fall out of contention, a universal DH would make the trade market for Khrush much more competitive and could lead to a larger prospect return.
But that scenario is unlikely. Chances are, a universal DH would hurt the A’s in their attempts to retain their best power hitter. I wouldn’t be surprised if this helps encourage the team to lock him up sooner rather than later.
Current Rule: There is no official pitch clock, but there is a timer enforcing the length of between-inning breaks and pitcher warm-ups.
Proposed Rule: A clock will force pitchers to deliver each pitch within 20 seconds. Failure to do so will result in an automatic ball.
My Take: Pace of play might be an issue. But this isn’t the way to fix it.
I was able to see this rule enforced in an Arizona Fall League game last October. Unsurprisingly, it was far from effective. Managers, players and fans were confused. In the amount of time it took for the umpire to explain the call, the pitcher probably could have thrown two pitches. While this is nothing more than anecdotal evidence, I wouldn’t be surprised if a pitch clock did little to improve pace of play.
As a dedicated baseball fan, I can’t really speak for the casual fan, whom most pace of play initiatives are directed toward. But personally, the build-up of watching Blake Treinen pause on the mound during a crucial at-bat can be one of the most entertaining parts of a game. A pitch clock would ruin this part of the game, even if only enforced with the bases empty.
Studies have shown that a pitch clock could lead to higher injury risk for pitchers due to increased arm fatigue. A pace of play improvement of a few seconds or minutes per game is not worth any amount of injuries.
There are also many other ways to improve pace of play without a pitch clock. In 2015, a rule requiring batters to keep one foot in the batter’s box at all times was implemented. This was supposed to cut down on batters wandering around home plate after every pitch, but this rule has rarely been enforced. Actually doing so would speed up games considerably.
MLB could also leave it up to the umpire’s discretion. The NBA’s delay of game rules are somewhat subjective, and MLB could follow suit. If a pitcher was being egregiously slow on the mound, an umpire could offer a warning. Failure to pick up the pace could result in an automatic ball or a similar penalty.
The pitch clock is not only ineffective, but could be dangerous. For that reason, I can’t support it.
For the A’s: Pace is a metric measured by FanGraphs that uses PITCHf/x data to calculate the time between pitches for both hitters and pitchers. In 2018, the league average Pace was 24.1 seconds. The A’s had the third-highest Pace in all of baseball at 25.4 seconds.
Oakland’s five worst offenders from 2018 have all since departed - Cory Gearrin, Jeurys Familia, Daniel Coulombe, Santiago Casilla and Emilio Pagan. The A’s fastest pitcher was Jake Smolinski (lol), but using a somewhat cherrypicked minimum of 20 innings pitched, their five fastest were Brett Anderson, Sean Manaea, Daniel Gossett, Paul Blackburn and Kendall Graveman. It is likely a coincidence that all five suffered significant injuries in 2018, but still interesting to note.
I can’t pretend to know exactly how this rule change would affect the A’s. It would likely vary from pitcher to pitcher depending on a number of factors. But the increased injury risk could be visible across the league.
Current Rule: The front edge of the pitcher’s rubber is 60 feet, 6 inches from the rear point of home plate, and the mount itself is 10 inches tall.
Proposed Rule: A study to investigate the potential impact of lowering the mound.
My Take: The goal of this change is to lower velocity and increase offense. It’s hard to have an opinion on the study itself, and I’m not good enough at physics to speculate on the potential results of such a change.
So in this case, my opinion is based on nothing more than my experience as a former (very bad) pitcher. The mounds I pitched on over the years were very inconsistent with regards to height and angle. This inconsistency amplified my far-from-perfect mechanics and made pitching much more difficult.
I won’t pretend to know how professional pitchers with much cleaner mechanics would adjust. But I wouldn’t be surprised if lowering the mound had a notable impact on command or led to an increase in injuries. If anything, moving the mound back a few inches toward second base might increase offense in a less noticeable way for pitchers. I would hope the proposed study would investigate the potential impact of moving the mound as well.
For the A’s: Assuming the change would reduce velocity, the effect would likely be different for each pitcher. Flamethrowers like Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino support their heat with elite movement and at least average control, so would likely remain above average pitchers. Veterans like Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria don’t rely heavily on velocity, and likely would remain successful as well.
The real impact would likely be on pitchers with poor command and movement that are relatively reliant on their fastball. Last season, Liam Hendrik’s success in the opener role was partially due to an increase in fastball velocity and usage. His movement and control aren’t bad, but they aren’t great either. A mound change could negatively affect players like him.
Current Rule: If a Spring Training game is tied after the ninth inning, the teams’ managers can convene and decide when to end the game. The All-Star Game follows the rules of a normal baseball game.
Proposed Rule: Spring Training games tied after ten innings would be ended. The All-Star Game would be used to test the potential rule placing a runner on second base to start each inning after the tenth.
My Take: The final pace of play proposal deals with extra inning contests. Most Spring Training games end after a maximum of ten innings anyway, so that change would be fairly inconsequential.
The All-Star Game change concerns me, largely because I do not want to see the runner-on-second rule in Major League games. It makes some sense in the minors, as a way to preserve young arms and shorten games. But in the majors, it would remove some of the best moments baseball has to offer.
As much as I love baseball, I can admit that games like the 18-inning World Series Game 3 last season are a bit much. But those games are few and far between. This rule would alter almost every extra inning game drastically. With a man on second to start the inning, many teams would bunt the runner to third and try to score him with a sacrifice fly. I can’t think of a more boring way for an extra inning game to end.
In the NHL, the game is completely changed when it goes into overtime. Four men take the ice for each team instead of six, and if the game remains tied it goes into a shootout. However, the difference is that the NHL uses a points system for their standings. Rather than counting wins and losses like most sports, the NHL awards two points for any win, one point for an overtime loss and zero points for a regulation loss. This is at least consolation for teams that lose a game very different from the one they began.
But in baseball, this points system doesn’t exist. A team constructed to win a baseball game the way it is played in the first ten innings could find itself losing a very different game structured around small ball, with nothing to show for it.
This change would make the game far less enjoyable for fans and would encourage skills (such as bunting) that the game has already moved past. One of the best things about a baseball game is that you never know what you’re going to get, and killing extra innings with this rule would weaken that trait.
For the A’s: It has been decades since the A’s have openly embraced small ball, and it shows in the statistics. While they ranked 10th in baseball in sacrifice flies last season, they placed 29th in sacrifice bunts with only six, one more than the Toronto Blue Jays.
Chances are, as constructed, the A’s would not fare very well in this new style of extra innings.
It’s important to keep in mind that these proposals are all just that: proposals. There’s a chance some of these are implemented as is, while the league and the union come to a compromise on others. Some will never even make it to the field in any form.
That being said, I do think a handful of these have a decent chance. The universal DH in particular is inevitable; I doubt it comes into effect in 2019, but should come to fruition by the time the 2021 CBA is complete.
Not all change is bad, and not all change is permanent. Most changes to the game come with consequences that nobody could see coming before they were implemented. But the league will always keep trying to tweak the game and make it more enjoyable for the fans and profitable for those in the industry.
We should have more clarity on potential changes by the time Spring Training games begin. Until then, these are nothing more than ideas.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this conversation next week!