MLB Rule changes: what stays & what goes?

The 2020 Major League Baseball season has been like no other – 60 games, no fans in the seats, 16 teams in the playoffs, and several other rule changes.  Though the bulk of these rule changes are temporary, the powers that be could ultimately decide to keep some of these rules for future seasons.  As a result, I would like to share my views of which rules I would like to keep and which I would like to toss.  I am going to list these in order from “most strongly want to keep” to “most strongly want to toss”.  Thus, without further ado, here are my thoughts.

MLB makes it official: The three-batter minimum rule is here
Picture via Yahoo! Sports
  1. If a reliever enters a game mid-inning, he must pitch to at least three batters or the end of the half-inning – DEFINITELY KEEP

OK, I know that MLB actually introduced this rule pre-Covid, but, since it officially debuted on the field in 2020, I am addressing it anyway.  Simply put, I love this rule.  I am a baseball purist, and most purists hate this rule.  However, the purist in me believes that starting pitchers should pitch until they are no longer effective, and relievers should do the same.  I do not love that the game has evolved to a point in which the standard is for teams to use six relievers per game.  Thus, I believe that anything that can trim that number is a good thing.  Plus, I think that relief pitchers are the biggest reason why games are longer than they were in previous generations.  Pitching changes lengthen games, and relievers tend to pitch at a slower pace than starters.  After all, starters want to find a rhythm, which is hard to accomplish at a slow pace (unless you are Steve Trachsel); whereas relievers pitch to so few batters that deliberation outweighs any need to find rhythm.  The 2020 “three-batter rule” does not address this second issue, but at least it does address the first in allowing for fewer pitching change.  I like this rule, even if it means an angry mob of situational lefties will be knocking down my door.  Sorry, Jerry Blevins.

  1. A team plays less than 162 games – DEFINITELY KEEP

Yes, I cheated on this one by not saying “a team plays 60 games”.  60 games is ridiculous.  If this were a normal season, we would reach the 60-game mark around Memorial Day, yet here we are watching teams pop champagne for division titles.  It does not feel right, but this season has been an anomaly.  That said, I have always believed that 162-game seasons should have gone by the wayside when MLB expanded from 2 playoff teams per league to 4 in 1994/1995.  The whole point of playing 162 games was to ensure that there was a large enough sample size so that the cream could rise to the top.  Thus, from 1969 to 1993 in the 4-division era, the 162-game season yielded four teams who played in the NLCS and ALCS.  We knew that those four teams were championship-caliber teams because they finished atop the divisions after a grueling six months of play.  Of course, from 1961 to 1968, when there were no divisions, only two leagues whose regular-season champions equaled the pennant winners.  Then, the 162-game season made the most sense.

To the contrary, once MLB expanded to allow three division winners and a Wild Card per league (8 total playoff teams), the need for 162 games dissipated.  It did not take long into this structure for me to realize this.  The 1996 Cleveland Indians, the 1997 New York Yankees, the 1998 Houston Astros, the 2000 San Francisco Giants are all teams who dominated their leagues (finishing with the best or second-best record in their respective leagues) yet did not even reach the LCS.  Once we saw the 1997 Florida Marlins beat the far-superior division rival Atlanta Braves in the 1997 NLCS, it became clear that the whole need to play 162 games had gone by the wayside.  

I would have been happy to knock 18 games off the schedule to render 144-game seasons.  With 8 or more playoff teams (more on this later), 144 games is more than enough.  Look at how difficult it is for teams to find quality arms to cover 162 games worth of 9 innings.  Heck, look at how difficult it was for 60 games this year.  The argument against decreasing the number of games has always been that teams do not want to lose revenue, but there are plenty of empty stadiums in April and September in normal seasons anyway.  How profitable are those games for teams?  Let us eliminate some of them.

  1. There are no off-days in the Division Series nor LCS – I definitely want to keep.

With more frequent off-days during the playoffs than the regular season, teams can get away with exposing less of their pitching staffs in the playoffs than in the regular season.  However, with no off-days in these two playoff rounds, teams’ full rosters are exposed.  Given that teams’ full rosters are exposed in the regular season, I feel they should also be exposed in the playoffs.  I love this change.

  1. Doubleheaders have 7-inning games – I’D PREFER NOT TO KEEP.

I could be swayed here, but my gut says “no” to this rule.  Records, stats, and numbers matter more in baseball than in other sports.  Yes, numbers have been different between the steroid era, the great-pitcher era of the ‘60s, and all of the other eras in baseball; but numbers still matter.  Is Barry Bonds or Hank Aaron the true homerun champion?  Regardless of your choice, you know the two guys in the discussion.  Same goes for Bonds and McGwire in the regular season.  Everyone knows that Rickey Henderson is the all-time stolen-base leader; Nolan Ryan has strikeouts; and Pete Rose has hits.  In other sports, numbers do not matter as much, but baseball numbers matter.  I do not mind debating players from steroid era versus non-steroid era, but how would we handle someone pitching a 7-inning no-hitter or 7-inning shutout?  That feels like a bridge too far to me.  

Plus, the biggest issue here (shocker) will be money.  In a world with fans in the stadium, the Yankees and Red Sox do not do single-admission doubleheaders.  They simply will not give up the gate receipts.  If you are charging admission to a single game, you cannot very well tell fans that they are paying for only 7 innings.  Thus, day-night doubleheaders would have to stay as 9-inning games.  Thus, are we going to have a league where all Yankees and Red Sox doubleheaders have 18 innings while most of the Royals’ and Athletics’ doubleheaders (typically single-admission) have 14 innings?  That does not work.  

Thursday's MLB: Doubleheaders will have 7-inning games in latest radical  rule change
Photo via Detroit News

However, the reason that I said I could be swayed is that I have learned a major lesson over the years.  The fewer innings of terrible pitching we have to watch in MLB, the better-off we all are as a society.  Seriously, as a Mets fan, I am subjected to 19 games apiece against Atlanta, Miami, Washington, and Philly; yet it is amazing how many times I still see some random guy with a 12.6 ERA or Tyler Clippard (that’s for you, Nick) come into pitch….and yes, sometimes the guy is pitching for the Mets too.  Fewer innings = fewer instances of this garbage.

  1. Extra innings start with a runner on second base – I ABSOLUTELY WANT TO TOSS THIS ONE.

The NHL does crap like this.  I love the NHL, but I hate shootouts and 3-on-3.  One of my arguments against those things was always, “MLB would never do something like this and gimmick up the biggest innings of the game.”  Oh well, Rob Manfred went full-on “Hold my beer” with this one.  I hate this rule.  A team scores a run, but no player truly receives credit for the run.  A pitcher can enter a game and pitch a 1-2-3 inning with 3 groundouts and still take the loss.  A team can win a game with a leadoff walk-off two-run homer.  Watching these extra innings, I feel like I am jetlagged, eating stale potato chips, and watching baseball in the SD setting on an HD TV.  Everything just feels off to me.  Get rid of this rule.

  1. Playoffs are expanded from the usual 10-team format – I ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY DO NOT WANT THIS!!!!

Whether the league is playing 144 games (as I would prefer) or 162 games, this rule change cannot stay.  It is crazy to play baseball for 6 months and allow 14 or 16 (depending upon the format) teams to make the playoffs.  To most people, the NHL and NBA regular seasons are jokes because 16 teams make the playoffs.  In the NBA, everyone knows the 3 or 4 teams who can win a championship.  Thus, those teams rest many players during the regular season, because it is all about the playoffs.  As for everyone else, most of their fans would rather their teams tank than end up with the chance to get demolished in Round 1 of the NBA Playoffs.

MLB would have the opposite problem though of the NBA.  Any MLB team can win a series against any other MLB team.  We already see that #1 seeds in the ALDS and NLDS win only slightly more than 50% of the time.  Right now though, those top seeds are losing to teams who have usually won 90ish games.  I don’t love that, but it is better than what will happen when #1 seeds would now have to face either #8 seeds or #7 seeds (some have suggested a format with four Wild Cards in which they “play it down” to one team who then faces the #1 seed in the Division Series).  With 15 teams in each league, those #8 and #7 seeds would have roughly .500 records yet would probably beat #1 seeds in roughly 40% of Division Series.  That is ridiculous.

MLB playoffs: Matchups set for all 8 wild card series
Image via USA Today

I would rather decrease the number of playoff teams to four per league, return to one Wild Card per league, increase the Division Series to Best-of-7, and give the #1 seed 5 home games (all but Games 3 and 4) in the Division Series.  This way, the league receives extra revenue from the Best-of-7 factor to more than offset the loss of the two Wild Card games; the probability of the #1 seed losing in the first round decreases with the bigger sample size (7 games vs. 5); and teams have motivation to win their division over winning the Wild Card.

Realistically though, I do not expect MLB to decrease the number of playoff teams, but I hope that MLB does not expand the number.  As it is, more World Series than not over the past 25 years have featured at least one team who did not feel like it was truly the best team in its respective league.  Let us not water down the World Series product any further.

With that said, I am looking forward to the prospect of being able to return to Citi Field in 2021, regardless of whether or not MLB listens to me!

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