Take me out to the (shorter) ball game

May 12, 2023
By Dale Kovar

Major League Baseball continues to modify its rules to keep the game we know as our national pastime fresh and interesting.

Since the designated hitter came to the American League, I had always appreciated the difference that the National League still made pitchers bat, even though it often resulted in killing potential rallies. Now that the DH is universal, it does make for a better game.

The covid year ushered in one big change that stuck: the runner placed at second base in exta innings games during the regular season. Although the terminology for it is messy, this was one of the best rules change implemented.

Sometimes it’s called a ghost runner, or zombie runner, but as we know from the playground, a ghost runner is one that you pretend is on base because there aren’t enough people playing. In MLB, the runner is real, so I prefer a term like “automatic runner.”

Anyway, whatever it’s called, the rule is terrific.

It creates constant scoring opportunities so that an extra innings game is usually decided relatively soon rather than dragging on potentially almost as long as the regulation game. Once we get to extra innings, there is drama in every half-inning, and the home/away strategy becomes even more evident.

Best of all, it preserves the format of the game while bringing it to an end. I’ve always hated when hockey or soccer games go into a shoot-out. That’s turning what was a competitive athletic event into a cheap skills contest. Baseball’s equivalent would be something like a home run derby off a teammate pitching.

This year’s MLB rules changes included larger bases, shift restrictions, and to speed up the pace of play, a pitch timer.

I was disappointed in the shift restriction, because if a team wants to play all its fielders on one side of the diamond, the batter should be skilled enough to try to counteract it. Not enough batters would drop a bunt down for a free hit when the third baseman played in the shortstop’s spot. That’s how you beat a shift: “hit it where they ain’t.”

With the new positioning limits, teams still are able to make some shift adjustments, like having a fielder to take away the up-the-middle single. Overall, it’s been okay.

Now we get to the pitch clock, which so far has reduced the time of a MLB game by about half an hour on average. The rule, through penalties, keeps both the batters and pitchers moving along, and has been very effective.

The best aspect of it is that MLB did it so the timing didn’t become the focal point of the game. The clocks are positioned so when viewing on tv, one doesn’t see it. Most of the coverage shows it counting down only at certain points when it is most important – again avoiding too much fixation on it.

Players do what they’re supposed to: pitch and hit, instead of standing around adjusting batting gloves or staring into the sky.

If anything, it was most noticeable in games I wasn’t watching but would check in on the score occasionally, and would find them to be much further along than expected.

(Time out: we can’t talk about a timer without mentioning how a shot clock will ruin high school basketball. It requires much more skill for a team to handle the ball, working it around a couple minutes to actually get a good shot, rather than being forced to throw up a prayer because the shot clock is running out. The shot clock also demands much less effort from the defense. But that’s another argument.)

So what’s next for MLB?

The most likely one is using technology to call balls and strikes, which probably isn’t too far off. It’s already used to track the spin rate, and tv is quick to show us where a pitch was relative to the strike zone.

Replays have been successful in overturning occasional mistakes by the umpires, so technology calling balls and strikes is the next logical step. Of course, a home plate umpire would still be necessary for foul tips, plays at the plate, monitoring the pitch timer, ejecting managers who get out of line, etc.

There are a couple other rule changes I really would like MLB to employ.

First is the 10-run mercy rule after seven innings that works so well at the amateur level. There’s little benefit to continue a lopsided game in the late stages.

Teams could preserve their bullpens without making a position player pitch. And the aspect of having the game end early would introduce an element of pride whether a team could avoid being 10-runned or not. If the home team is up by nine in the bottom of the seventh, there would be a bit of excitement to see if they can get it over with.

The other rule change I want is to remove the restriction of runners having to stay in the basepaths. I would go so extreme as to say that as long as the runner stays within the infield dirt and foul territory, he can go anywhere he wants providing he touches the bases in the proper order.

Currently, any major leaguer caught in a rundown is a dead duck because there’s no way out. But picture what a Javier Baez might do if he was free to run anywhere.

Especially if there are two runners, one of them could get into a spot where the defense is forced to decide who to go after while the other tries to advance. It may seem childish in one respect, but it would introduce another level of strategy and athleticism.

This year’s rules changes were aimed at making the game more entertaining. Wide open bathpaths would allow these tremendous athletes to really put on a show.

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