Commentary: New normal in major league baseball isn’t all that bad

  • Fri Sep 4th, 2020 3:30pm
  • Sports

By Rick Anderson

A car pulled up to the curb as I was taking my daily walk around the neighborhood. Hoquiam native Ed Logue poked his head out the window for a socially distanced conversation about baseball.

Specifically, Ed wanted my reaction to a series of temporary rule changes designed to streamline games and enable major league baseball to make it through this truncated, pandemic-impacted season.

Ed’s belief was that some of these changes — particularly the ones intended to speed up games — should be made permanent.

If he was expecting an argument from me, he was disappointed. I might have to turn in my baseball traditionalist’s card after writing this, but a lot of what Ed said made sense.

Baseball’s fan base has eroded, particularly among the younger generation, largely because the game is perceived as too slow-moving.

It’s the pace of play, not necessarily the length of games, that’s the sticking point. An action-packed contest can be electrifying even if it lasts 3 1/2 hours. A much shorter game can seem excruciating, however, if it is filled with hitters stepping out of the batter’s box, pitchers backing off the mound and managers making frequent calls to the bullpen.

That’s why two controversial new rules — a three-batter pitching minimum and an extra-inning tiebreaker — have some merit.

The three-batter minimum rule, designed to limit the use of multiple relief pitchers within the same inning, actually was imposed prior to the pandemic. It requires pitchers to face at least three batters or work until the end of a half-inning before being removed.

Some managers, such as Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, enjoyed great success mixing and matching multiple relievers in the late innings to gain the right-left percentage advantage over hitters.

That tactic, however, has backfired elsewhere. Lloyd McClendon — on balance, a fairly decent manager for the Seattle Mariners — was so addicted to making two or three pitching changes within the same inning that he frequently ran out of adequate arms if the game went into extra frames.

The real problem with frequent calls to the bullpen is that it brings the pace of play to a standstill. The best equivalent in other sports is the incessant timeouts and foul-for-profit strategy in the last three minutes of college basketball games. The final three minutes of a tight NCAA Tournament contest can literally take 15 or 20 minutes to complete.

The extra-inning tiebreaker rule has been a staple of youth softball for years. It involves starting an extra inning with a runner on second base — a procedure intended to increase scoring opportunities.

In baseball, I’d prefer the tiebreaker be imposed in the 12th inning rather than the 10th as currently stipulated. But the intent of the rule, to reduce the possibility of 18 or 19-inning marathons, is sound.

A marathon game can be fun to watch on occasion. More often than not, however, such a contest ends before near-empty stadiums with position players pitching. Even in Seattle’s recent 10-inning win over the Los Angeles Angels, the 10th inning alone took about a half-hour to complete.

Oddly, conventional strategy differs in the softball and baseball versions of the tiebreaker.

Visiting softball coaches invariably employ short-game tactics such as bunting and stealing to scratch out a single run in an extra-inning game. Baseball managers tend to allow their batters to swing away in nearly all situations.

One reason is that good softball pitchers often can make a one-run lead stand up. With the Mariners’ rag-tag bullpen, however, even a five-run lead might not be sufficient.

Another factor is that many major-league baseball players are incapable of bunting.

I remember watching a Mariner game a few years ago when wild-swinging catcher Mike Zunino (now with Tampa Bay) was unable to sacrifice in a critical situation and wound up striking out.

“I don’t think he’s been asked to bunt very often,” Mariner television analyst Mike Blowers sympathetically observed.

Since Zunino’s lifetime batting average was exactly .200 on the day I’m writing this (he was hitting .133 with three times as many strikeouts as hits with Tampa Bay), perhaps such requests should be made more frequently and forcefully.

I also don’t mind seven-inning doubleheaders in major league games. In all other levels of baseball, at least one half of a twin bill is scheduled for seven innings.

One temporary rule that I wish would be rolled back is the expansion of the major league playoffs from 10 to 16 teams.

Some type of wild-card expansion probably was inevitable. But a 12-team playoff format, with some byes for top-seeded clubs, would be more than adequate.

As it stands now, a team with the best record in baseball will be starting postseason play essentially even with a sub-.500 club. That devalues the regular season.

I’m hoping that my opposition to expanded playoffs is sufficient to retain my membership in the Baseball Traditionalists Club. Even if I believe that the new normal in major league baseball isn’t all that bad.

Rick Anderson is the former sports editor at The Daily World.