We’re a week into the Major League Baseball season (at least we are when I started writing this, with my writing prowess it could be the All-Star break before this actually gets published), and it’s time to revisit one of my favorite pieces of this blog – fixing something that really isn’t broken.
Baseball’s a phenomenal sport, and reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. It will never overtake the NFL – well, at least not until someone dies on the gridiron and the masses flee in droves – but it’s also never going to lose its ground to the NBA or NHL. That said, there are still some relatively simple fixes that will make a great game even greater. Without further ado:
A fair number of my suggestions will require an even number of teams in each League, so we should address the expansion/contraction of teams first. My personal opinion is that there are 2 too many teams in baseball, and the stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa Bay prove that out. If it were up to me, we’d contract the 2 teams that have never been to the World Series – the Seattle Mariners and the Washington Nationals – and move the Rays and A’s to those respective cities for the sake of franchise continuity (I’m a history geek like that).
But since we know that, barring a catastrophic financial situation – like, say, the bursting of the television rights fee bubble – no professional league is going to contract its teams, so let’s add teams in Montreal and Charlotte or Portland and call it good.
On Field Improvements
Universal Designated Hitter
Major League Baseball is the only sport on the planet (i.e., in the U.S., which is all that matters, amirite?) where half the league plays by one set of rules and the other half plays by another. With year-round interleague play (we’ll get to that in a minute), that means a team built to play with the designated hitter may have to play a season-ending series with the playoffs on the line with their DH on the bench. And anyone who’s ever seen Justin Verlander swing a bat knows that you’d much rather have Victor Martinez batting in a big situation.
So we’re changing the rules and either eliminating the DH or making it universal. And while we can all marvel at Madison Bumgarner’s home run hitting ability, we tend to ignore the fact that he’s a career .186 hitter, and he’s the best hitting pitcher. The simple fact is that watching a pitcher swing the bat is generally boring and painful (Bartolo Colon notwithstanding), and it leads to ridiculous managerial decisions where a guy throwing a shutout is pulled for a pinch hitter after 73 pitches because the offense can’t put up any runs. No, it’s time for the NL’s antiquated rules to go by the wayside and MLB to adopt the DH permanently. The fans will love it, the players will love it (more money for aging veterans to finish out their careers), and the owners…well, screw the owners.
I’ll get push back here – and I know this because I got plenty of push back from a buddy of mine when we were discussing it on Opening Day – but for a league that’s attempting to cut the length of their games so Millennials with attention spans measuring in nanoseconds can stay engaged, the pitch clock makes too much sense not to happen.
You can’t implement the pitch clock with men on base, because there are too many variables with that baserunner to force the pitcher to stick to a clock without disrupting his rhythm or making a stupid mistake. But when there’s no one on base, there’s no reason a pitcher (or a batter) needs more than 20 seconds to make the next pitch. Start the clock when the catcher receives the pitch, and if the umpire determines that the batter or pitcher is stalling, they’re punished with a ball or a strike against them.
In 2017, when anyone with a smartphone has access to PitchFX that shows exactly where every ball crosses the plate, there’s absolutely no reason for a human being to call balls and strikes. Talk to me all you want about the human element, but I don’t want the game determined because some umpire didn’t see where the ball went across the plate. The “human element” applies to the players; fair or not, the officiating of a game needs to be as close to perfect as possible.
With so few baseball calls being truly subjective – especially now that they’ve gotten rid of the neighborhood play on double plays – I’d argue that all officiating could be automated, but let’s start with baby steps.
Overhaul Instant Replay
Aside from Screech on Saved by the Bell, there’s not a person on Earth who has ever watched a game because of who’s officiating that game. And yet we give the teams challenges to question when an umpire might have made an incorrect call, instead of insisting that the calls just be right. So we’re going to remove the challenge system and put a fifth (or, in the case of postseason play, seventh) umpire in the broadcast booth, and if an umpire screws up, that extra umpire is going to correct him. We’re not going to continue to allow the umpires’ egos to determine whether or not a game gets called correctly.
Drastically Reduce Ejections
Some ejections are deserved – I’m looking at you Bryce Harper. But in a lot of cases a batter will question a call just a little bit more emphatically than the umpire likes (although not at all egregiously), and he’s gone. The problem is that it drastically reduces the flexibility of the manager, and if someone like Miguel Cabrera gets ejected and has to be replaced by Andrew Romine, the strategy for the remainder of the game is changed immensely. So unless someone is risking physical harm to another player or an umpire, or truly making an ass out of himself, we’re going to keep the Umpshow to a minimum.
The owners will never go for it. The players will love it. Eliminate 8 games from the season to return to what was standard prior to expansion in 1961. If you want to placate the owners, increase the cost of everything by 5%. Well, everything except my beer.
Eliminate Interleague Play
Interleague play is over. It’s played out. It was never particularly interesting to start, and it ruined the truly novel approach that only MLB had – namely, that the two teams that met in the World Series had not met in the regular season. MLB loved the “natural” rivalries in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Florida, and a few other places, but they didn’t account for truly dreadful games like Padres-Mariners. And because the interleague games all took place on designated summer weekends when the weather was nice and the rivalry games were naturally more appealing to the local fans, MLB could proclaim that interleague games were more popular than your average American League or National League games. It’s worth pointing out that since they’ve gone to year-round interleague play, we haven’t seen proclamations about the popularity of the games, likely because that April Marlins-Orioles game is dragging down the average.
With 16 teams in each league, a 154-game schedule, and the elimination of interleague play, you can play 10 games against each team with 4 games left over. The remaining 4 games can be rotated among the teams on an annual basis, or you could add a series based upon where the teams finished the previous season (for example, the best team plays the second best team, third place plays fourth place, etc.). Either way, it’s better than 19 Royals-White Sox games a year.
There are 5 “major” holidays throughout the baseball season: Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. We’ll throw out Mother’s Day and Father’s Day since those are Sundays by rule and thus travel days. But every team is required to play doubleheaders on 2 of the remaining 3 holidays – one at home, and one on the road. If that holiday falls on a Sunday, the doubleheader will revert to the previous Saturday. The players hate doubleheaders, but we’ve just cut 8 games out of the schedule, so they’ll get used to it.
Beginning/End of Season
Every season begins on the first Monday in April. If you want to cater to ESPN and have them air a Sunday night game the night before, fine. But this year there were 3 Sunday games to start the season, and that’s just insane. One’s enough as a showcase for the game.
And since we’ve cut 8 games, plus 2 additional days of game play via the new doubleheader rule, there’s no excuse to be playing games in November.
Major League Baseball has deduced that playing 4 straight Division Series games on a Thursday will garner more television viewers than running 2 games simultaneously. This seems dubious to me, but I’ve tended to default to the position of, “Someone smarter than me is making that determination.” I mean, they have to be, right?
Still, it sucks for the fans with tickets. Because the playoff schedule isn’t set until a day or two before the games start, you could wind up buying a ticket to a noon playoff game that you can’t use because you can’t get off work. So either show the fans that there truly are more viewers for a Thursday noon game than there are for 2 games airing simultaneously, or cut out the weekday afternoon games.
Also, while I understand that games involving teams from New York and Chicago are going to garner more viewers than Oakland or Tampa Bay games will, it’s kind of crappy when all of the Oakland League Championship Series games get relegated to the 4pm games. So alternate the LCS games so that both teams get prime time treatment.
In 2015, the three best teams in all of baseball all played in the National League Central. The St. Louis Cardinals won the division with 100 wins, while the Cubs (97 wins) and Pirates (98) were subjected to a 1-game playoff to determine who moved on. The Pirates and Cubs were punished because they were geographically close to the Cardinals. And just to add insult to injury, because the team with the best regular season record automatically plays the winner of the Wild Card game in the Division Series, the Cardinals were punished by having to play the a 97-win team instead of the 92-win Dodgers or 90-win Mets. This is asinine. The best teams should be rewarded for having a superior regular season. So we’re eliminating divisions. Two Leagues, 16 teams each, with a balanced schedule.
Oh, and the Brewers and Astros are going back where they belong.
Playoff seeding is simple: the top 5 teams in each League make the playoffs. The top 3 teams get a bye to the Division Series while the 4th and 5th place teams play the Wild Card game to move on. There’s no reason to reward a team for being located in a geographically advantageous location.
I’ll admit that a lot of these rule changes seek to fix some of the quirks that make baseball “great”. Fans love to see pitchers hit dingers and the Wild Card situation I discussed isn’t particularly common. But the Giants can still refuse the DH to let Bumgarner hit (which they’ve already done in interleague games), and no one’s going to weep because we close a loophole to give an advantage to a better team.
And I’m not going to stop watching because these rule changes aren’t made (because, let’s face it, most of them won’t be), but we could definitely make the game better.