mlb rule changes: more disregard and contempt for baseball's core fans

I stopped following this baseball season a while back. The 2019 Red Sox are not very good, and I'm perfectly happy to enjoy my first summer on beautiful Vancouver Island without them.

But it's not just the lackluster Red Sox that are keeping me away.

I'm disgusted and deeply saddened by the rule changes that MLB instituted in 2017, and even more by those coming in the 2020 season. These changes damage the very foundation of the sport. And, worst of all, they are completely unnecessary.

Baseball America says the changes will "fundamentally alter the way teams construct their rosters, as well as change the roles players may be groomed for in player development". (I've listed most of the changes below, excluding how players are compensated for the All Star Game.)

Games are too long! Games are too long! (If we keep repeating it, we will make it so!)

Supposedly baseball games are too long. Supposedly baseball games are too slow. "Young people" aren't interested in baseball.

We hear these claims repeated -- ad nauseam. We've also heard that Barack Obama is a socialist, Canadians are governed by death panels, and no one reads anymore. (For the record: false, false, false.) Just because every baseball announcer gripes about games being too long, and the "too long" mantra has become accepted wisdom, doesn't make it true.

But whether or not these claims are true, changing the rules to limit and constrain strategy could never be the correct response.

Finding ways to quicken the pace of games isn't a bad thing, as long as it doesn't mess with the basics of the sport. But if the goal of these changes is to bring in younger fans, it's a useless response that is guaranteed to fail.

MLB flails around trying to appeal to some mythical demographic, imagining if they jump higher or spin faster, they can drive Millennials to baseball -- a project that can only fail. In the process, MLB alienates the people who most love and support the game.

Length of games and pace of games are two different things, of course. No one like when a reliever comes in and what should be an exciting game grinds to a tedious crawl. Make the pitchers pitch, make the batters step in, within a certain amount of time. That will help pick up the pace without altering the fundamentals of the sport.

But games are too long? Watch a different sport.

Baseball games are as long as they need to be. They are played until one team wins. Don't like that? Prefer a game that is played against a clock? There are plenty to choose from.

Games are too long? The most obvious solution stares us in the face after the third out of every inning: show fewer ads! But of course that can't happen. MLB is shaving off a bit of time between innings -- but that doesn't mean fewer ads. It means more onscreen ads during play. Ads during at-bats, and ads on two-thirds of your screen, with the game reduced to a small box. This is unconscionable.

Of course games were shorter in the mythical Good Old Days. But -- this should be obvious, but isn't -- we can only compare like with like. There are more commercial breaks, and the breaks are longer now. So we're comparing apples and grapefruits. This is reminiscent of that 21st Century stat "hits in the post-season". Wow, Derek Jeter has more postseason hits than Babe Ruth! Jeter must be the greatest player ever! (PS: Jeter played in an era with three levels of postseason play. Ruth's era had only the World Series.) (But don't let facts get in the way of your sycophancy.)

The automatic intentional walk. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

We're already living with one useless and destructive change that supposedly speeds up the game: the automatic intentional walk. Did those four pitched balls really take up so much time? Does MLB really think this will make a difference to Millennials who don't watch baseball? "You know, I used to find baseball really slow and boring, but now that fans don't have to suffer through four pitches during an intentional walk, I think I'll drop $50 on a ticket!"

Or maybe it's "I didn't grow up watching baseball and no one I know talks about it or cares about it, but man, that automatic intentional walk rule, that's the shit! I can't find a decent job that will let me move out of my parents' home, so I'll buy a streaming package that lets me watch every game! Whoo-hoo!

What really happens when the ump raises four fingers and the pitcher doesn't throw those four pitches? Fans -- actual fans, who already watch the game -- are denied an opportunity. Because while the pitcher is throwing those four balls, something might happen. Sometimes it does. Grant Brisbee calls it "the Church of Youneverknow".
But there's one thing that everyone shares, from the traditionalists to the nerds to the casual fans, and it goes something like this: Baseball is fascinated with the idea of the hyper-rare, the 1-in-1,000, the 1-in-10,000, the 1-in-a-million. It's why the purists insist that you watch every awful at-bat from every pitcher, just to feel rewarded when one of them gets a hit. It's why there are still people who know the name Bill Wambsganss. It's why we remember the squirrels on the field, the mitts thrown to first with baseballs in them, and the hitters who swing at a pitchout to protect a hit-and-run.

It's why baseball fans will take up arms if you try to take the freaks and the flukes away from them. Call it the Church of Youneverknow, and it holds that nothing is more sacred in baseball than the slightest possibility of a fluke occurrence. And this faction is currently angry because the rules of baseball are changing, and intentional walks are going away.
All the impending rule changes do this. Minimum number of batters a pitcher can face, limits on the number of mound visits, the active roster changes, minimum days on the injury list -- they all reduce strategic options. Paul Muschick calls it "legislating the strategy of the game," an apt description. Less strategy equals less interest.

I couldn't care less about the useless relic called the All-Star Game, but beginning an inning with a runner on second base is a ridiculous and truly horrible idea. This If the ASG is used as a wedge to bring this ridiculous rule into major-league play, the game will be in serious trouble -- trouble caused by MLB itself. [A commenter reminded me that this is already happening in the minor leagues -- another sign this is coming to the major leagues.]

MLB disrespects fans every day

These rule changes are more examples of MLB's contempt for its most loyal fans. That contempt begins with broadcasts. We're all so used to it now that we may have forgotten: games used to be shown for free on regular TV. Local fans could just turn on their TVs and watch the game. Forcing people to subscribe to expensive cable TV packages and then blacking out the games in the local market are the true measure of baseball's concern for real fans. Everything is organized for telco and MLB profit, without a thought for fan access.

We see baseball's disregard for fans in ways large and small.

Games shown only on Facebook. (And what a surprise, the tech doesn't work properly.)

Allowing ads to be shown during play.

Allowing ads to be shown during at-bats!

Resale contracts that squeeze regular fans for top-dollar prices.

At the ballpark, blasting music between innings so fans can't talk to each other without shouting.

The impending rule-changes are part of this same pattern. They are are all about marketing. MLB has turned our sport into a focus group.

What's really ruining the sport?

I'm so tired of all the hand-wringing about baseball. Remember the season we were supposed to care that African American youth weren't playing the game? Before that, there were too many home runs. (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, while MLB tolerates steroid use because it brings in fans dollars... then blames the players' union.) Now we're supposed to care that there are too many strikeouts! I can scarcely think of something stupider to complain about. And of course, games are too slow, games are too long.

Meanwhile, the things that are ruining the experience of watching baseball -- the endless parade of corporate logos, every moment of the game being sponsored, ads during at-bats, split-screen ads, ads blasting in between innings at the ballpark -- are allowed to expand, because... you know why. It's the same reason MLB turned a blind eye to steroid use for so long. There is something ruining our beautiful sport, but it's not the length of games. Don't make me say The C Word.

We're Number Three! We're Number Three!

Once upon a time in North America, there were three professional sports that commanded national attention: baseball, horse racing (then simply called "racing" because that's the only kind there was), and boxing. Now two of those sports are marginal, and two different sports occupy the top spots.

If baseball ranks third in popularity, after football and basketball, why should fans care? How does it hurt us?

It doesn't.

The only people who should care if baseball has a smaller audience than football and basketball are the billionaires who pay the millionaires. If baseball is less popular, and the owners make less money, and player salaries decrease...? You'll have to explain to me why fans should care about this. Most fans would consider it an improvement.

Baseball is not for everybody. No sport is. No anything is.

Slightly shorter and faster-paced games are not going to affect a major cultural shift. Rule changes are not going to turn generations of young people into baseball fans.

Those who don't care about baseball will continue not to care.

Those who do will either grit their teeth and bear it, or give up.

In my lifetime (now approaching the 60-year mark), the only significant change in the rules of the game has been the designated hitter rule, which began in 1973. I have vague memories of people arguing about the DH, but I didn't grow up in a sports-watching household, and by the time I got into baseball on my own, the DH was all I knew.

Millions of baseball fans have come of age watching the game with a designated hitter. Maybe one day beginning the 10th inning with a runner standing on second base will seem normal. I won't know, because I won't be watching anymore.

* * * * *

Some of the changes insituted in 2017

- The no-pitch intentional walk

- Managers must decide whether or not to challenge (and invoke review) within 30 seconds

- One less inning for Crew Chiefs to invoke replay review, when managers have used all their challenges.

Changes instituted in 2019

- Single trade deadline that is final

- Inning breaks reduced by five seconds in local games and 25 seconds in national games.

- Reduction in number of allowable mound visits

-  If an All Star Game goes into extra innings, those innings will begin with a runner standing on second base.

Some of the changes that will be implemented in 2020

- Active roster limit will increase

- 40-man September roster will be eliminated

- Number of pitchers on active roster capped

- Position players may not pitch (with exceptions)

- Pitchers will face a minimum number of batters -- essentially the end of the LOOGY.

- Minimum number of days on the injury list increased from 10 to 15

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