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


M@ said...

Excellent piece, Laura. I haven't watched much baseball in the last few years so I didn't even know about the intentional walk rule. How annoying.

You're absolutely right that the C-word ruins everything. Soccer is just as bad, because it generates so much money.

I have always liked, though, the way soccer leagues are organized in Europe. The top league has its 12 teams, and at the end of the year one or two of those drop down to the next tier, and on the next tier the top few teams have playoffs to decide who gets to move up a tier.

Not only does this give some extra value to each team's position (it's now meaningful how bad the worst teams are - no throwing away a season!), it makes lower-level teams worth following as well. Farm teams in hockey and baseball aren't there as a practice league for future top-level pros. They are real leagues whose teams could actually move up and play among the best teams. And suddenly some little village team that had a run of good fortune is playing in its 6,000-seat stadium against the continent's powerhouse teams. And even if you don't live in a big team's market, you have a local team to cheer for, because you love the sport, not the marketing.

It's a bit like my affinity for the CFL. I totally get why people don't like football. But I wish people would think about why people love the CFL rather than the big-bucks, big-marketing NFL. It all comes back to the sport being more than a business.

laura k said...

Thanks Matt. It took me a long time to sort through my feelings and cone up with anything coherent.

I've always accepted that professional sports are businesses. There are labour issues. People who risk their bodies for short careers deserve to be compensated fairly. All that stuff. I know you agree.

But the sport's governance pushes it too far, trying to squeeze out every dollar, at the fans' expense. I feel like I can barely see the baseball through the ads.

Oh also, I've always loved the premiereship system. I would love to see the last place team in baseball become a minor league and have to win their way back into the majors!

Bob Broughton said...

I disagree with you about the automatic intentional walk; I think this rule is a good idea.
This is a new one for me: Position players are not allowed to pitch. I think this is a bad idea.
I'm totally for reducing the amount of time between innings. Not by five seconds; cut it to a minute and a half.
There's another bad idea that your article didn't address; the minor league rule of starting the tenth and subsequent innings with a runner on second base. Now, I totally understand why MLB doesn't want minor league games to go on for a very long time; they have an investment in players that they want to protect. Here's a solution I like better; if a game is tied after eleven innings, stop it, and put it in the books as a tie. This isn't all that radical; in Japan, a game becomes a tie after twelve innings.

laura k said...

I wilk never ever ever support a tie. EVER. Did I mention NEVER?

I mentioned that rule (10th inning runner on 2nd) in regard to the All Star Game. I forgot it is already happening in the minors! Good call, I will add a bit.

Reducing time between innings is great but not if the cost is more in-game ads.

Thanks for reading.

laura k said...

And by the way, why do you like the automatic intentional walk? I'm curious.

allan said...

I could accept ties in minor league games. I guess it would be a drag for fans at games, but everyone should realize team performance is secondary.

Ties will never return to the majors. I do fear that MLB will institute a runner on second in extra innings, that its use in the minors is simply to get younger players used to the idea. It is one of the worst ideas I can think of and might single-handedly drive me away from the game. (Or could I watch nine innings and then turn the TV off?)

Amy said...

Wow, this made me realize how distanced I have become from baseball. I didn't even know about the automatic intentional walk. And the idea of putting a runner on second in extra innings just horrifies me. Those extra innings are often the most dramatic, tension-filled parts of games. Uch.

So I guess I am done with baseball after being a fan since I was a kid. It just no longer holds my interest, and it's not because games are too slow or too long or even because of the commercials. It just has become for me like all professional sports---pointless and boring and all about money and celebrity. I much prefer watching kids play baseball or going to yoga or riding my bike.

Jim said...

Thanks for taking the time to express a lot of my own thoughts. I grew up loving baseball more than hockey (strange for a Canadian, especially since my uncle played in the NHL). We lived just down the street from the park where the men played baseball ("sandlot" in the States) and as a 5 year-old, they even let me be bat-boy. My uncle played for the Bruins, so everything from Boston was gold to me--and I discovered Ted Williams. That was it-- Red Sox fan for life. (As an aside, 67 years later I now live across the street from that park and there is no organized baseball there anymore).
Basically, you hit the nail on the head with excess ads. It's obscene. The in-booth stuff during the game is nauseous and, as you know, the main Red Sox broadcaster revels in it, to the extent of critiquing his booth-mates on how well they're doing reading the adds.
The expansion and excesses of the other pro leagues have driven me away from watching and now I ration the Sox. I subscribe to the Boston Globe because of the Sox. The game is on mute. After 2 hours, there has to be something to convince me to keep watching, otherwise it's on to Netflix or Britbox. Subscribing to MLB is a sunk cost for me, although next season I may consider going month-by-month instead of letting them hose me in advance. I'm not leaving because the Sox are losing, it's simply because the presentation is too annoying. (Besides, I can catch up with Alan's blog in the AM).
All of the proposed tinkering and "fixing" for MLB is pointless without addressing the craven huckstering.
Thanks again for writing this--I could go on and on--maybe some day I will.

wallythe24 said...

Excellent stuff.
I'm afraid broadcasts for every sport is going down the pan with inane drivel.
As for pace of game , Allan has mentioned on JOS about batters and their silly habits between pitches , get that knocked on the head for starters.
I'm not bothered one way or the other about the intentional walk thing but it seems everyone hates the runner on second in extra innings , and I'm no different.
I'm with Allan on the ties in the minor leagues as ok. I grew up watching Cricket for 5 days and it ends in a draw.

johngoldfine said...

That's a great, great piece, Laura, but I hope it isn't a eulogy for your days as a RS fan.

laura k said...

I wouldn't care what rules were changed in the minors -- but as Allan said, MLB wants players to get used to these rules, for the future of MLB. If we say that about the 10th inning issue, why are we OK with ties?

What other sports do... doesn't matter.

Jim, thanks, it was great to learn how one Canadian became a Red Sox fan.

Wallythe24, thank you too.

John... it might be my eulogy for baseball. I don't know. I'm really bothered. MLB is like the Democrats. They think they can do whatever they want and their core fans will never jump ship, so they play to the fringes (swing voters).

Bob Broughton said...

First, I agree with what Allan said about tie games. Fact is, a win or loss in minor league standings doesn't matter all that much. Do you know who won the Northwest League championship last year? Or the Pacific Coast League? Very few people do.
As for automatic intentional walks, the amount of time they save isn't much, but this rule solves some other problems. There have been games decided because a pitcher balked in a run in the ninth inning. Taking away the requirement for the pitcher to throw four unnecessary pitches also takes away the possibility of passed balls, wild pitches, and stolen bases. In other words, it takes away uncertainty. Coaches and players don't like uncertainty, and that's why this rule was adopted so rapidly at all levels of baseball, after being a fixture of NAIA ball for many years.

laura k said...

Taking away the requirement for the pitcher to throw four unnecessary pitches also takes away the possibility of passed balls, wild pitches, and stolen bases. In other words, it takes away uncertainty.

Exactly. Take away uncertainty in sport, and you ruin the sport.

Re minor leagues, I couldn't care less about standings. My concern is for the way the game is played. If it's played with ties in the minors, it will be played with ties in the majors, a little further down the road.

M@ said...

But the sport's governance pushes it too far, trying to squeeze out every dollar, at the fans' expense. I feel like I can barely see the baseball through the ads.

I absolutely agree, and I do fear for my beloved CFL as well. Its revenue is increasing, so the grasping for that revenue is only going to increase as well.

Oh also, I've always loved the premiereship system. I would love to see the last place team in baseball become a minor league and have to win their way back into the majors!

It can be great for the relegated team, too! They still have a strong fan base and high revenue, so they won't be destroyed by going down for a season or two. And when they go down, they usually have a lot of advantages over the other teams in the lower division, so they have a good chance of bouncing back up. In the meantime, they can retool their team and coaching. It's just such a great system compared to the North American all-or-nothing system.

(Also I hope I didn't come across as mansplaining or nerdsplaining in my previous comment - it felt like that when I re-read it, and I think we've talked about the relegation/promotion system in the past so I knew you were familiar. It was a bit of a soapbox moment I guess...)

allan said...

Well, one thing is certain. Laura got her anti-MLB post up before mine! Mine has been in drafts since last season!

Some of the changes that will be implemented in 2020
- 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

Why couldn't a team carry 14 pitchers (instead of 12 or 13) if it wanted? Is one extra pitcher really going to make games take longer? Having position players pitch does not lengthen games, but it does allow managers to limit how many pitchers are used in a game, something that would be more important if the size of the pitching staff is limited.

Forcing a pitcher to face at least three batters (with the exception of injury or the end of an inning) limits strategy. (LOOGY stands for Lefty One-Out GuY, usually a left-handed pitcher, who is brought in to face only one batter, usually someone who does poorly against lefties.) Banning or limiting the use of shifts also removes strategic options for managers. One minor league is already having some limitations on shifts. (What about having hitters learn how to hit (or bunt) the ball in the opposite direction of the shift? Nah, why bother with that?)

As far as eliminating the time pitchers waste before throwing the ball - which is perhaps the biggest culprit in games taking so long - a rule about that has existed for more than 110 years! But MLB does not tell its umpires to enforce it! ... No, MLB would rather alter the fundamental structure of the game rather than enforce a rule that is already on the books.

Bob Broughton said...

I agree that banning or limiting the use of shifts is a bad idea.

laura k said...

M@, ha ha, no, not at all, not the slightest bit. I'm sure we've never talked about it -- and lots of other people reading it wouldn't know how it works either.

The only reason I have any knowledge of that is from an long email relationship I had with a woman who lived near Newcastle. So I learned all about the Toon Army and considered myself a nominal fan. Other than that, I don't think I'd ever have run into the premiereship rules. (Is it still the Barclay Premiere League?) (You know MLB is chomping at the bit for the Mastercard World Series -- rather than the current World Series presented by Mastercard.)

laura k said...

As far as eliminating the time pitchers waste before throwing the ball - which is perhaps the biggest culprit in games taking so long - a rule about that has existed for more than 110 years! But MLB does not tell its umpires to enforce it! ... No, MLB would rather alter the fundamental structure of the game rather than enforce a rule that is already on the books.

You know I left this out so you could say it, right?

I think MLB doesn't want to admit that they could have fixed this issue a long time ago. They want to pretend its out of their hands, and give fans a [false] reason to like the new rules, or at least to [falsely] understand why they changes are necessary.

I agree that banning or limiting the use of shifts is a bad idea.

Worst idea ever.

Jim said...

Thanks for clarifying that the pitcher time-wasting rule was still on the books. It is literally never mentioned by the booth guys on TV or radio. That and the plate ump leaning over the catcher's right shoulder and calling a 100mph low pitch on the left side of the plate is beyond insane. The latest propaganda saying that MLB's own monitoring of their umps show 90% accuracy rates on balls and strikes is misleading. More like 90% of pitches any idiot can call. It's the borderline stuff that needs the robot measuring, and I'd bet the umps miss 50% of pitches that are one ball's width on either side on the plate. Plus the high/low calls.

laura k said...

MLB's own monitoring of their umps show 90% accuracy rates

That's a perfect example of lying using numbers.

It reminds me of my former employer during our 2016 strike, telling the media that the average salary of all library employees was more than $50K/year. That counted management -- not on strike -- and all earning 6-figure salaries! Fortunately in that case the reporter asked me for comment before writing the story. MLB and the announcers who follow its marching orders don't include the independent baseball writers in their analysis.

johngoldfine said...

Not that 90% accuracy is that damn impressive. Especially when nearly 100% is available to anyone watching Gameday.