What if we changed the rules?

BY foxsports • February 10, 2015

Lately, there'€™s been a lot of talk about changing the rules of baseball. If this keeps up, they might even have to rewrite the part of the song where everyone yells out how many strikes until you'€™re out at the old ball game. Everyone'€™s got an idea that will accomplish the twin goals of making the game go faster and making the numbers on the scoreboard go higher.

Most of the proposals take the form of finding something different that'€™s been happening lately, blaming it for the reduction in scoring or the increase in game time and then proposing that it not be allowed any more. And then assuming that once the proposal goes into effect, baseball will return to the happy days of ... well, everyone has their favorite happy year. Often though, there'€™s not a lot of analysis beyond that.

Baseball is a really complex system, a complexity that most fans don'€™t give it proper credit for. It'€™s not as easy as just pressing one button and fixing everything. So, let'€™s take a look at some common proposals that have been floated and think a little deeper. What would be the realistic consequences? How would teams try to work around the new rule? Would it really do what it says on the label?

Proposal 1: Relievers must face three batters upon entering the game, rather than one.

The idea here is that because teams have gone to carrying at least seven relievers (sometimes eight), it'€™s too easy to have a pitcher come in to face one (usually left-handed) batter, and then bring in someone else directly after him. The manager uses three pitchers to get three outs and most of the inning is spent standing around watching relievers jog in from the bullpen and throw warmup pitches.

How big a problem is it? In 2014, there were 2,378 relief appearances in which the pitcher faced one or two batters. Since a season is 2,430 games long, that'€™s just short of once per game. It most often was the case that these short-stint performances were also mid-inning relief appearances (85 percent of them). But, even though it takes roughly 2-3 minutes to switch pitchers in the middle of an inning, this isn'€™t something that was happening that often. Or was it?

In 2014, 55 percent of games had at least one of these mid-inning one-or two-batter only changes, and 21 percent of them had more than one. There were 30 (!!!) games in 2014 that featured four of these switches, and one game between the Twins and Indians on Sept. 19 where there were seven. So, this isn'€™t the cause of all games getting longer, but it is the cause in some games.  Specifically, these are cliffhanger games. Nearly 80 percent of the time, when such a pitcher entered, the game was within three runs and almost half the time (45 percent) the game was within one run. One-out guys are (not surprisingly) a feature of games that hang very much in the balance, and there'€™s a certain case to be made that it'€™s nice to have a little drawn out suspense and anticipation in these games.

If the rule were implemented: Of course the biggest reason that teams bring in a one-out guy is to gain the platoon advantage. In 2014, both lefties and righties lost about 20 points worth of on-base percentage when facing a same-handed pitcher compared to an opposite-handed one. Righties lost about 25 points of slugging, while lefties lost about 40. The thought behind the three-batter minimum rule is that it would reduce the number of times that a manager could play the platoon game. In theory, it would make a guy like Jeremy Affeldt, a left-handed reliever who has shown the ability to get both lefties and righties out, a more valuable guy to have around.

The counter-move: But suppose you are a manager in the late innings and are considering which reliever to use. The other team has three hitters coming up in the middle of the order who hit left-right-left. In the old days of the one-batter guy, you might use three pitchers for those three batters. But being a reasonable person, you play the percentages and opt to bring in your lefty, because you can guarantee that he'€™ll face at least two lefties. But what about that righty? Hello, intentional walk! It won'€™t work every time, but there will be a spike in IBBs. Everyone loves those.

It wouldn'€™t be all bad. One of the reasons that the game has shifted to having octopus bullpens (with eight arms) is that managers know that they can grab a platoon advantage at will by using a reliever, so they might as well load up on the personnel who can help them do that. Now, suppose you are a manager who sees that your opponent has brought a right-hander into the game to face his 7-8-9 hitters. Any time in the next three batters, you can bring a lefty bat off the bench and grab that platoon advantage and there’s not much that the other team can do about it. Since it'€™s your 7-8-9s, you won'€™t be too sad to see them go. Teams would likely shift away from the octopus bullpen because they don'€™t need cover for a guy who only goes one-third of an inning all the time. There'€™s incentive to instead stash extra platoon bats on the bench. It'€™s a return to the days of the platoon!

Verdict: The rule probably would cut down on managers bringing in relievers to gain the platoon advantage by a little bit. And there would be more of an incentive to staff a more platoon friendly roster. Strangely, this secondary roster construction effect might do more to improve offense overall. And the move would probably save a few minutes on the game. Not bad, but probably not as grand as people think.

Proposal 2: Limit the number of (or eliminate) mid-inning pitching changes in general

I've seen proposals for eliminating the mid-inning change altogether or perhaps allowing for one per team. Let'€™s assume that a team can only have one per game.

How big a problem is it? Some of what I wrote above still applies. But there were 14,453 relief appearances made in 2014, and roughly a third (4,837) were in the middle of the inning. That averages out to roughly one per team per game, but that'€™s misleading. More than a quarter (26 percent of the time) in 2014, a team made more than one mid-inning switch. In fact, had this rule been in effect in 2014, there would have been 1,709 "€œillegal"€ mid-inning substitutions. Assuming that each mid-inning switch takes 2 1/2 minutes, the average game length would have been cut down by about a minute and 45 seconds.

If the rule were implemented: In theory, it would make the game shorter and have a lot of the same benefits as the proposal above. In fact, it would be particularly hard for managers to play the platoon game because once a reliever has been brought in, the other manager knows he'€™s likely to be in all inning. Now, relievers must be ready to go full innings and to be ready to face both left-handed and right-handed batters. While that does describe some pitchers now, over time, there would probably be a shift to relievers who are converted starters. In fact, the ideal reliever would move away from the guy who can throw 15 good pitches to one who could soak up an inning or two and throw 30-40 decent pitches. Jeremy Affeldt, how you doing over there?

The counter-move: It would all work, except for one little problem. The rule would have to include a provision for "€œexcept if there'€™s an injury."€ And at that point, we'€™d probably see an upswing in sudden leg injuries by right-handers as a lefty walks up to the plate. The league might try a counter-move where a pitcher who is removed in such a way has to go on the disabled list (how hurt are you?), but there'€™s another trick that a pitcher might try. Mr. Umpire, now would be a good time for me to question your eyesight, your mother'€™s occupation, and your hygiene. Or just start arguing balls and strikes. The rule would have to include a provision for an ejected pitcher as well. So pitchers would probably start making it a point to try to get ejected when the situation called for it. Umpires might ignore them, but we'€™d be faced with the odd situation of a pitcher acting rather rudely to the umpire with the umpire not able to throw him out of the game.

Verdict: In theory, this would work, but in practice, it would be hard to enforce without a few extra rules. While it probably would increase offense over time, it likely wouldn’t shorten the game by that much, especially if some of this gamesmanship started to appear.

Proposal 3: The pitch clock

Well, we already have a proof of concept on this one. The pitch clock was used in the Arizona Fall League this past autumn and will be tried in the minors this year. There'€™s plenty of debate on how the clock would affect the aesthetics of the game, but given the fact that last season among pitchers who had more than 50 innings pitched, only 16 of them had an average gap between pitches of fewer than 20 seconds, a pitch clock would probably do a lot to speed the game up.

How big a problem is it? Well, let'€™s start with a graph. This is the number of seconds per pitch, based on overall game pitch count and total length of game. The numbers I quoted above are only pitch-to-pitch numbers. These numbers are higher because they include things like between inning breaks, but we have data that go back further on these numbers to get a better idea of the historical trend.

We'€™ve seen a roughly three-second increase per pitch in the past five years! What'€™s strange is that from 1993 to 2003, baseball had managed to get that ratio down by about two seconds. It probably all goes a long way to explain this:

That'€™s average game time by year. In theory, if baseball could get things back to the way it was a mere five years ago, it could have games that are 15 minutes shorter.

If the rule were implemented: This one is harder to figure out. It probably would actually get pitchers to hurry up and like most other innovations which were going to completely destroy the game, it wouldn'€™t actually destroy the game. (Remember instant replay?) You have to admit though, the "€œ5, 4, 3, 2, 1"€ as the pitch clock wound down would get old really quickly.

There probably would be a period of adjustment. Pitchers and catchers would need to run through their signs more quickly in some cases. While there are some pitchers who like to catch it and throw it, there are some who prefer instead to deep think each pitch. It'€™ll be interesting to see if that group starts making more mistakes. Perhaps mistakes in the middle of the plate. After all, we are looking for ways to increase offense in the game.

The counter-move: Rob Arthur made the case rather convincingly that the dilly-dallying that pitchers do has much more to do with pitchers trying to be alpha males and establish their veteran privilege. We don'€™t often talk about baseball in these terms, but it is important to remember that baseball is a game played by teams of young men. And when some (not all, but certainly some) young men get into groups, they will find a way to try to establish some sort of male hierarchy. Taking a couple extra seconds to glare at the hitter is a reasonably harmless way to do it, especially when one considers another way that it'€™s done, which is through beanball wars. I think we need to give players some credit that they will find alternate ways to waste time and that game won'€™t be shortened by as much as we think they will, but the pitch clock would at least solve the problem a bit.

Verdict: Like a lot of things, it seems so foreign now that it'€™s five years before it goes into effect, but in 10 years, I'€™ll probably look back on it and wonder why I thought it was such a big deal. The pitch clock will probably have the intended effect, but at first, it will probably make for a sloppier game. Maybe people will like that.

Proposal 4: Now batting for the Giants, the designated hitter ...

Let'€™s skip the debate on whether this one violates the sanctity of the game. I'€™ve heard this proposal floated as a way to boost offense, mostly because of this graph:

Scoring is always a little higher in games where the DH is used, and people tend to assume that if the DH rule were instituted in the Naitonal League that the bottom line would simply move up to join the top line.

If the rule were implemented: The important thing to remember here is that while creating the DH in the National League would allow for 15 extra hitters who didn'€™t have to worry about playing defense, those 15 hitters would probably be already in the league. First shots at the new DH spots would likely go to hitters who are currently either splitting DH duties or who are being hidden as best as they can be, usually in left field or at first base. That wouldn'€™t represent new offense coming into the game. Instead, the bump up in offense would come from the AAA and fringe left fielders and first basemen who replaced those new DHs. To give you some idea, the 31st-best first baseman in baseball in 2014 (Yonder Alonso, according to Baseball Prospectus' WARP) hit .240/.285/.397. That'€™s a fair sight prettier than the .122/.153/.152 that pitchers as a whole hit in 2014, but less than the .247/.317/.419 of the average DH.

The counter-move: The impact might not be felt at first, but if suddenly the DH were allowed in the NL, there would be more teams that might take a flyer on drafting a guy with a big bat and no clue with the glove. Right now, that guy has only 15 potential suitors. And soon there would be more classic DHs who were still around. That would put upward pressure on levels of offense.

Verdict: But oh the purists!

***

All told, you probably could shorten the game a bit with some of these strategies. It wouldn'€™t cut the game down to two hours, but getting back to the days of 2:45 games seems reasonable. It wasn'€™t that long ago that they were a regular thing. But in baseball, there are always going to be unintended consequences. So, the next time you'€™re tempted to advocate for some major change, remember to think all the way through. Teams will always make some sort of counter-move, and sometimes that changes the game in a way that you don'€™t want it to.


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