Bryant: MLB’s 2020 rules changes signal future of the game

  • Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
  • Author of “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron”
  • Author of “Juicing the Game”

During the post-strike 1990s, when Major League Baseball owners and players took a cease-fire from fighting just long enough for the commissioner’s office to wage war with its umpires, a conspicuous graphic began appearing on baseball broadcasts nationwide: a square box in front of the catcher outlining the strike zone.

Networks said it helped viewers better identify whether a pitched ball was a strike. The commissioner’s office viewed the addition as a positive, fan-friendly, in-game enhancement. Soon, the graphic would be backed by MLB partnering with a little-known digital media company called QuesTec, which would position cameras in ballparks and collect ball-strike data.

The umpires were incensed. Already engaged in hostilities with MLB, the umpires’ union headed by Richie Phillips believed the graphic further pitted the public against umpires. The job was already thankless; fans had no professional respect for the difficulty of the job, evidenced by the running joke that five fans could be picked at random and umpire a game with similar results, a joke often repeated by salty managers and players. The umpires did not believe MLB’s position that the strike-zone box was a harmless infographic, but felt its presence was unethical, and that baseball would first use it against them to evaluate their job performance then ultimately create sensor-based technology that one day would replace them.

The rest, as they say, is history: In a spectacular misreading of the landscape, Phillips in 1999 tried to force baseball’s hand by threatening a mass resignation of baseball’s umpires. Sandy Alderson, then the newly installed executive vice president of baseball operations, famously responded by calling the move “either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted.” Phillips led 57 of the game’s 68 umpires to quit en masse, and Alderson readily accepted the resignations. Phillips went down with the ship, losing his job along with several umpires, some of whom were rehired after rounds of lawsuits with the National Labor Relations Board, but many of whom would never again work in baseball.

Most importantly, the umpires’ greatest fear ultimately proved correct: MLB was using the TV strike zone graphic box and the QuesTec technology as an evaluation tool, even though neither the accuracy of the graphics nor the statistical method of data collection were agreed upon through collective bargaining. And 20 years later, casual and hardcore fans alike refer to that infographic as their guide, and robot umpiring feels imminent.

A little TV graphic was the future, and the umpires gave baseball the opportunity to remake an element of the industry it believed had run its course. This season, amid the chaotic weeks during pandemic baseball, similar trial balloons are being sent up from the commissioner’s office signaling how it envisions the future of the game. Taken as emergency measures to complete a truncated season, baseball in 2020 with its scattershot rules might seem like an isolated event. But the 2020 season might very well be the revolutionary year in which the sport shifted permanently, using the pandemic and its extra-innings ghost runners on second, seven-inning doubleheaders, bizarre tilt toward interleague play and expanded playoffs as a preview of the game’s future. The coronavirus pandemic has provided the perfect cover for MLB to radically reinvent itself in ways it previously never thought it could. Everything the leaders of the sport believe is holding it back is being addressed during the pandemic. This is not a coincidence.

IT’S TRUE: BASEBALL HATES TRADITION

“I don’t mean to sound immodest,” Bud Selig told me in his Milwaukee office one day in 2008, “but there are going to be a lot of people who are going to miss me when I’m no longer in this chair. More than you may think.” The commissioner, who prided himself on being a traditionalist, was sending a message: Forces inside the game’s higher ranks believed the sport had outlived its traditions, and the future lie in killing its past. The American League and National League no longer had use in a modern world. They were no longer two separate companies that intersected during spring training, the All-Star Game and World Series, like in the old days. Selig had officially consolidated the leagues under the umbrella of Major League Baseball in 1999, when he dissolved the American League and National League president positions. After Alderson trounced the umpires, the American and National leagues no longer employed separate umpires, marking another step (interleague play had begun in 1997) toward dissolving yet another boundary between the two leagues. If the AL and NL were to now live under one umbrella, it thus made no sense for teams in such close proximity, Philadelphia and Baltimore, for example, to be 99 miles apart but virtually never play each other.

Selig and his generation resisted, but 2007 and 2008 were important years. Baseball had marked 10 years of interleague play and had expanded it to an NFL-style model where each division rotated playing one another, opening the door to radical realignment: dump the leagues and join the present.

Proponents supported an abolishment of the century-old American League and National League format in favor of the Eastern/Western conference models found in the other sports. The arguments in favor were touted with enthusiasm: The game would be more modern, in line with the NBA and NHL. Travel would be much better, as the Texas Rangers were the only team in the AL West that did not play on Pacific Standard Time, and a rivalry with the Houston Astros was a natural. The same was true, rivalry-wise, of the New York Yankees and New York Mets and the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants — new rivalries for a new generation of fans. With five teams, California could have its own division.

The arguments against: Baseball traditions and rivalries would be obliterated, as would its record books, which were often delineated by league. Never forget that baseball resisted change so hilariously and desperately that in the original NL West from 1969 to 1992, half the teams in the division were not on Mountain or Pacific Time. Atlanta and Cincinnati played in the Eastern time zone, Houston in the Central. Selig was not in favor.

The plan was a non-starter, anyway. Baseball wasn’t ready, and it hadn’t dealt with the immovable obstacle: the designated hitter. It wasn’t possible to realign when the two leagues had been playing under two sets of rules since 1973. When Houston moved to the AL in 2013, baseball now had 15 teams in each league, forcing an interleague series to be played every day during the season. The 2016 season was emblematic of the disaster, when Detroit was fighting for a playoff spot on the final weekend of the season but played at Atlanta, which meant in the games the Tigers needed most, they had no DH and couldn’t put their best team on the field. Detroit lost two of three and missed the playoffs.

National League owners had long been against the DH, for two reasons: tradition and money. In the late 1990s, the DH became one of the priciest positions in baseball with big-salary players such as Rafael Palmeiro pulling down the kind of huge money NL owners were unwilling to pay.

The coronavirus pandemic has now created an opportunity: a truncated season allowed the sport to experiment. The NL agreed to the DH. Also, it would give baseball an opportunity to more smoothly integrate interleague into the daily schedule — so the games didn’t feel like interleague games as much as they did just regular-season games. Of the Chicago Cubs’ 60-game season, 20 are scheduled against American League teams. Twenty-one of the White Sox’s 60 games are versus the National League.

The universal DH paved the way for radical realignment. The pandemic normalized interleague, with a third of a team’s games played against teams from the opposite league. Without a major announcement, the dissolving of the old league distinctions is already underway. The entire sport, for the first time in nearly 50 years, is now playing under a uniform set of rules, a major obstacle overcome.

PAY ATTENTION

Within the past five years, baseball executives found themselves obsessed by a single phrase: attention span. Overall attendance has dropped for four straight years. The last time the game added fans over the previous year was 2015; the last time it enjoyed consecutive attendance increases was 2011 and 2012, and the last time it saw at least four consecutive years of gains were 2004 to 2007. America’s screen addiction has convinced the people who run the sport that the easy, pastoral pace of baseball is in special danger.

To the unbothered, fans don’t come to the ballpark to speed date. They come to see baseball. When Rob Manfred took over as commissioner in 2015, however, length of game was a specific point of emphasis. When that seemed intractable, what with the Yankees and Red Sox and Astros taking pitches for sport, and the owners unwilling to ease up on the commercial breaks, the sport focused on pace of play: too much dead time for a generation of screen swipers. The incremental changes — automatic intentional walks and mound visit reductions — proved insufficient, leading baseball to get more radical. The league forced pitchers to face at least three batters as a way to undo the Tony La Russa legacy of incessant matchup-based pitching changes that made the final three innings take nearly as much time to play as the first six. A nine-inning game has averaged three hours every year since and including 2016; in 2019, the last full season, the average time was 3 hours, 8 minutes. The last time a baseball game averaged less than 2 hours, 40 minutes was 1984 (2:39). In 2003 and 2005, the 2:49 average time was its lowest since 1988.

The pandemic has allowed a theory that existed only in private to be expressed in public: Baseball itself is the problem. Thus the introduction of the seven-inning doubleheader was not impulsive but part of a growing orthodoxy; the sport that prided itself on not having a clock is now convinced the game is too long for the distracted 21st-century viewer — and for itself.

Through Aug. 25, 60 seven-inning games had been played, and 91.6% were completed in less than three hours; 53% in less than 2 hours, 40 minutes; and 20% have taken less than 2 hours, 22 minutes. As of Aug. 25, the Cardinals had played 19 games, and six of which — or 31% — were seven innings. If it sounds like chaos, it is — and might make a certain point: Of the Cardinals’ six twin bills, the game length of five was 2:33 or less.

If baseball’s objective was to reduce the length of games, the seven-inning option has succeeded.

JOURNEY TO TOMORROW

Two years ago, baseball floated the idea of taking a college football-style approach to extra innings, adding a free runner on second base to ignite quicker runs the way college football overtimes give each team the ball on the opposing 25-yard line with a chance to score. While the purists howled, the owners mollified their fears with a public assurance that the idea was just a thought for the minor leagues. But suddenly, under the cover of COVID-19, it is here.

In some ways, the evolution makes sense. If baseball is content with using relief pitchers to start games, it can no longer accommodate a 15-inning game without using position players on the mound.

Protected by the pandemic, it has chosen to play seven-inning doubleheaders, which means some teams will play multiple games decided by fewer than nine innings while others will not.

Meanwhile, for the past nine years, baseball has fought itself over another tradition: the value of a 162-game season. Baseball is the stingiest of the major sports to qualify for the postseason. Only 33% of the league — 10 teams of 30 — make the playoffs, as opposed to 53% of the NBA (16 of 30 teams) and 52% of the NHL (16 of 31 teams), 37% of the NFL (12 of 32 teams), and 66% of WNBA teams (eight of 12 beginning in 2016). And to preserve the regular season, for the past decade it has penalized its playoff expansion by forcing wild-card teams after 162 games to have their postseason begin with one winner-take-all elimination game.

The sport has responded by using COVID-19 to send up another trial balloon that has been discussed privately for years but stonewalled by its traditions: a shorter season with more playoff teams.

One manager told me his motto is, “Don’t mess with strategy.” He is comfortable with radical realignment, seven-inning games (but only for Sunday doubleheaders), a 154-game season and expanded playoffs. He is in favor of a runner on second in extra innings — but starting in the 12th inning, not the 10th. Another AL GM told me seven-inning games for single regular-season games is unacceptable, but seven-inning doubleheaders are appropriate. Another believed baseball needn’t incorporate any strategy-altering measures until it first experiments with a 20-second clock — the sanction being an automatic ball when a pitcher violates it and automatic strike for a batter violation. He also favors the “Super Bowl of baseball” — a neutral-site World Series.

In a sense, baseball’s year of chaos has already been a success for one reason: It has created important discussion, which means now the question is simply one of negotiation; not if baseball will change, but by how much — and when.

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