CHICAGO — As another season of high strikeout rates and lower batting averages settles in, Major League Baseball has begun its experiment with a cornucopia of rules changes in the minor leagues.
Limiting shifting, moving the mound back, 15-second pitch clocks, larger bases and electronic strike zones — aka robo umps — are just a few examples of changes in store this summer at a minor league ballpark probably not anywhere near you.
The idea is to make the game more exciting through higher contact rates, greater athleticism and more baserunning with less downtime between the action.
Former Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein, hired as an MLB adviser to find solutions to the game’s most pressing issues, has become baseball’s version of environmental activist Greta Thunberg, seeking solutions to problems that pose grave danger if left uncorrected. Many of his disciples are praising the experimental changes, including his Cubs successor, Jed Hoyer.
“I love baseball,” Hoyer said last month. “But I don’t believe that the rules are written on stone tablets.”
These days the rules seem to be written in invisible ink. We now have “ghost” runners, seven-inning games for doubleheaders and baserunners called out on slides at second for lifting their leg off base for a nanosecond or two.
You can’t stop change. But we can provide our own solutions to help improve a product we love. Therefore, here are 10 things we’d like to see written in stone.
1. Eliminate the dead zones.
Dead zone is not an official MLB term, it’s what Chicago public transportation riders endure when the “L” is either stopped or at a snail-like crawl.
Baseball is full of dead zones, and a prominent one begins the moment the batter is introduced to his personally picked walk-up song to the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand.
The batter waits until the final note is played, then steps in the box and take a few more hacks before getting into his stance. The pitcher, also not wanting to be rushed, goes into deep breathing techniques he learned from the mental skills coach. Finally relaxed and properly focused, he gets the sign and starts his windup.
Baseball might be a thinking person’s game, but overthinking can grind it to a halt. Make hitters get into the box. Make pitchers throw the ball. Repeat. For advice on how to accomplish this, just ask Mark Buehrle.
2. Institute the Designated PPP.
A growing trend has been the use of position players as late-inning pitchers when the game is hopelessly lost. The manager doesn’t want to waste his corps of relievers who have been trained to throw only one or two innings and knows everyone gets a kick out of watching a position player try to pitch.
The Cubs used three position players in a loss to the Atlanta Braves, which is two too many. Blowouts have been a part of baseball since the game began, and with seven-pitcher bullpens the norm, no team should be so bereft that it couldn’t use one reliever to finish a game.
But because that won’t happen, the least MLB can do is force teams to designate a “PPP” (Position Player/Pitcher) on every roster. The PPP is the only one eligible to throw in blowouts, so use him wisely.
3. Install permanent plate umpires.
Umpires are rotated every game. That means the ones best at calling balls and strikes could be manning first, second or third base on any given day.
If making the strike zone more consistent is one of MLB’s goals, the best of the best in that field should be awarded the jobs for an entire season, with one per crew. Umpires are all rated on their zone accuracy based on technology, so it wouldn’t be difficult to choose the most qualified. And after the season, the bottom 10% go back to calling the bases with the best minor league umps replacing them behind the plate.
Instead we’ll just get the robo umps, or the end of baseball as we know it.
4. Ban reference cards.
Imagine Willie Mays pulling out an index card to see how to play Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series, or Bob Gibson pulling out a reference card to remember the proper pitch sequencing when facing Ernie Banks. When looking at cheat sheets is as prevalent as spitting, the data revolution has gone too far.
Umpire Joe West confiscated a reference card a Philadelphia pitcher used during a Cubs-Phillies game in 2018. MLB ruled the cards were legal as long as checking one did not delay the game.
Then-Phillies manager Gabe Kapler called it a “great” ruling for players.
“I think it takes a lot of mental focus, takes a lot of bandwidth to get out the best hitters in baseball,” he said. “And when you can just take a little of that off your mind and put it on a card, I think that’s helpful for pitchers and good for baseball.”
Players somehow managed to remember instructions without that “bandwidth” for more than a century. Signs were either relayed by hand or other gestures or a coach simply yelling “Move over” at an outfielder.
Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon said that day in ‘18 that he believed in “information” but added: “I still like the idea of players looking in the dugout. I like that connection between on the field and the dugout and your coach.” Let the coaches coach.
5. Automated check-swing technology.
No more looking at the first- or third-base ump for a ruling on a check swing that’s at least 90 feet away. Built-in sensors at the plate will beep if the bat passes a certain point that constitutes a swing.
Tennis uses an automated line-calling system instead of relying on judges to make the calls. Sounds simple enough to implement.
6. End the nickname deficit.
Mysterious Walker pitched in more than 60 games over five seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Naps, Brooklyn Superbas, Pittsburgh Rebels and Brooklyn Tip-Tops between 1910-1915, going 7-23 with a 4.00 ERA.
What was so mysterious about Frederick Mitchell Walker that earned him that nickname? It remains a mystery to this day.
But we do know colorful nicknames used to be plentiful in baseball, from the “Splendid Splinter” to “Oil Can” to “Wild Thing” and “The Big Hurt.” Outside of “The Yermínator,” what other memorable nicknames have you heard lately? It’s up to the millennials and Generation Z to come up with better nicknames for modern-age athletes. The baby boomers are tired, OK?
7. Create an Entertainer of the Year Award.
MLB loves creating new awards, but somehow it has ignored the category of most entertaining player. Bat flipping, fake selfie-taking during home run trips, mound antics and creative dugout celebrations would be considered when selecting a winner of the Rickey Henderson Entertainer of the Year Award.
Pablo Sandoval, Tim Anderson, Fernando Tatís Jr. and Trevor Bauer all would have an equal shot at winning a Rickey in 2021.
8. Leave a little dirt on it.
A speck on the ball from a pitch that grazed the dirt merits a new one from the plate umpire. A catcher no longer even has to ask. He just holds the ball up without turning around, and the umpire hands him a new one.
But is this really necessary? Is a ball that has come in contact with the ground for a split second really unusable?
The time-proven instructions parents traditionally have provided children following a minor injury was to “put a little dirt on it.” The same principle applies with a wayward slider.
9. Allow only three shifts per game.
If managers were limited by the number of times they could shift, they might save them for the ends of games, allowing more hitters a fighting chance early on. At least it would involve more strategy.
10. Elect the commissioner.
If we can vote on reality TV show contestants with ease, why can’t we make the office of MLB Commissioner an elected position with a four-year term? Rob Manfred would be free to run again, of course, but so would any former player, manager, general manager, executive, sportswriter or broadcaster.
Epstein could be the front-runner if he declared his candidacy for 2022, but you can’t discount Bob Costas, Curt Schilling, Keith Olbermann, Buck Showalter, Vin Scully, Roger Angell, Mike Veeck or any number of other potential candidates. The campaigning alone would be worth it.