Changing on the fly

If there’s one thing I share with Wayne Gretzky, it’s that our favorite sport is baseball:

Trevor, a catcher, has his father excited
because of his promise as a baseball player.
“I live through him quite a bit because my
dream was to play baseball,” Gretzky said.

As luck would have it, we were both born Canadian, and so, our first exposure to life was a hockey stick. And the rest was history. Well, he’s a part of history. All I can do is enjoy it. And I do love baseball and hockey.

There may be some sports that can match hockey for its sheer power, but none can match it for its combination of speed and power. And, in a sport that prizes and values power and hitting as much as hockey does, even they have limits. Remember that, as I continue.

There is one thing that all sports share: action and tension. If you take out the action from sports, and if you take out the tension, is there any reason at all to watch? As long as you have one, you have a captive audience. If you have both, your audience is enthralled. But, neither? Well, now the sport is simply being arrogant in thinking that they’re doing a good job by giving the fans nothing but dead time.

What follows are some rule changes that were discussed on my blog. They are designed to reduce the dead time, or preserving the health of players. I’m not necessarily the originator of each of these rules, but I have been in one or two cases. I’ve tweaked some, and am basically championing all of them. If you like the rules, then go to my blog to see who had the idea. If you don’t, then just blame me.

Rule Change No. 1: The Mid-Inning Relief Change Penalty

Except for perhaps the first mid-inning relief change, is there a bigger drag to the sport? Look what happens in other sports. In the NHL, teams used to switch goalies as a way to get a timeout. The players would take practice shots on goalies to buy even more time. The NHL also has penalties for dumping the puck into the stands. In the NBA, it’s foul after foul, and getting guys to the line.. The NFL loves to kill tension by having as many commercials as possible, even inventing the commercial late-game break.

Baseball’s bullpen is so deep, and relievers are so specialized (the LOOGY, left-handed-one-out-guy), that teams take it to the extreme. And all the while, there is no action or tension. The best way to reduce or eliminate this is to do what the NHL does: penalties. Hockey doesn’t tolerate crap like tripping, hooking and other activities that limit the action. You want action, you want tension.

So, what you do is allow one mid-inning switch per game. But, the second time you do a mid-inning switch (same inning or not) is start the batter at 1-0. And the third time, the batter starts at 2-0. You may find it hard to believe, but a batter who starts at 2-0 hits as well as Albert Pujols does at 0-0.

Is there any manager in his right mind that would dare make three mid-inning pitching changes in the same game? I don’t even see a reason one would do it more than once. Any subsequent mid-inning change puts the batter at 3-0. This is a severe penalty, granted. But, this eliminates the dead time, and continues the tension. This is a rule with no downside.

Rule Change No. 2: The 4-0 Walk Penalty

Vladimir Guerrero is up at bat. He is prepared, with his batting gloves wrapped tightly around the bat, to swing at anything close to the plate. Anything! And still, teams will intentionally walk him. Was there a more tension-reducing sight than when Barry Bonds was coming to the plate with 1B open? This is the complete opposite of what should have happened, and was not what the fans paid to see.

The rule is simple: Any 4-0 walk, intentional or not, results in a two-base penalty. If you have a runner on 2B, the 4-0 walk gets you runners on 1B and 3B. If you have a runner on 3B, then it’s guys on 2B and 3B. And, with runners on 2B and 3B, the batter goes to 1B, the runner on 2B stays put, and the runner on 3B scores.

Under this scenario, how often would a pitcher not give the batter at least one strike? Again, fans win, and the players go back to giving us action and tension.

Rule Change No. 3A: The One-and-Done DH

The DH is nice as a fallback option, to let Vladimir rest, and so on. But, no one really likes the one-dimensional aspect of it. Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner and Frank Thomas, potentially being in the Hall of Fame, as they accumulate a substantial portion of their careers as a DH? The NFL-style rule, of having eight fielders and nine hitters isn’t appealing, as you have no diversification.

You want some variety. Every sport has that. The NHL has the pure scorers, the power forward, the checking forward, the rushing defensemen, the stay-at-home defensemen. They all have their value. The same for the NFL and NBA. But, nine bashers, and eight glove wizards? No thanks.

The current DH rule gives you a glimmer of dread of that happening. But, what if the DH can come in for only one at-bat, without the pitcher being removed from the game (as it would be with a PH)? That’s the one-and-done DH. The DH can come in for any player, with the manager deciding whether the starting player stays in the game (meaning our one-and-done DH is out of the game), or the starting player is removed (meaning that we have our traditional PH becoming a defensive substitute). And you can have as many one-and-done DH as you want in each game.

Does this help the action and tension? Not directly. But, unless Micah Owings is pitching, you’ll need at least four one-and-done DH per game. With eight starting fielders, and a backup catcher, that’s already 13 non-pitchers out of your 25-man roster. You’ll need at least 14, maybe 15 non-pitchers on your team. With the earlier rule change limiting the number of mid-inning pitching changes, we can get back to 10 pitchers per team. In order to preserve your bench, you may even let your best hitting pitcher (who may not even be pitching that day) come in to bat as a one-and-done DH, in a two-out, bases-empty situation.

Rule Change No. 3B: The Floating DH

As an option to tweaking the existing DH rule, we can continue with our David Ortizes and Travis Hafners, but they can bat for anyone in the lineup, and can come up no quicker than one time per every nine team at-bats. So, if No. 8 hitter Adam Everett is up with men on base, you can bring in your floating DH to bat for him.

But, that means that the next batter, the pitcher, must bat for himself. The floating DH must wait for at least eight more batters to come up, before being brought in. This may drastically increase the value of a guy like Vladimir Guerrero, by taking him off the field of play, and provide the flexibility of floating him to bat in someone’s place when you need him the most. This would also imply that the first time he comes to bat would be no earlier than the 9th batter of the game. It’s a small tweak with drastic implications.

Rule Change No. 4: The Hit Batter Misconduct

Once again inspired by the NHL, who don’t take kindly to the cowardly practice of its competitors: Any pitch that hits a batter in the head is an automatic ejection, regardless of intent. Basically, it’s a reckless play to throw the pitch at, or near, the batter’s head. And that’s not the kind of tension we need.

Any hit batter will move all runners one base. If there are no runners on base, then the hit batter puts the batter at second base. There’s really no reason to allow a pitcher to hit the batter. I know all about the tough pitchers in the 1960s throwing inside and being indignant at the idea of taking away part of the plate. But, a tougher sport like hockey takes exception to such reckless and flagrant use of a weapon. A pitcher is not being tough by having a weapon his opponent doesn’t.

Rule Change No. 5: The Pickoff Called Ball

This was more of an issue back in the days when Tim Raines was getting pickoff throws left and right. Fans love basestealing. And for the most part, basestealing is inconsequential. And pickoff throws do nothing to advance the game’s tension, and it rarely has any action to it. So, how will it work?

The first pickoff throw, per batter, is a freebie. Any other pickoff throw is treated like a pitchout: a called ball, if the runner is not picked off. You can also put a commit line, whereby if a runner takes a lead that crosses that line, the pickoff penalty rule no longer applies. This way, if a guy takes an overly aggressive lead, then the pitcher won’t be penalized for trying to pick him off. It’s a dare by the runner to pick him off, and in this case, we want to see the pitcher trying to pick him off. This would also have the by-product of eliminating the balk rule. It’s a horrible rule that is no longer needed.

Rule Change No. 6: The Home Plate Commit Line

The NHL doesn’t allow their goalies to be touched. The NFL hardly allows their quarterback to be touched. Why is a catcher at the mercy of the runner, especially since his focus is away from the runner for the key moment in time? The catcher is not a doll to be pummeled, regardless of how much fun it is to see a guy with minimal equipment (compared to hockey and football) be knocked down.

You put a commit line thirty feet from home plate. Once a runner crosses that line, it becomes a force play at home plate. Now, the catcher simply needs to touch the base, and not worry about tagging the runner.

Ridiculous? Tough-minded hockey GMs (many of whom are former players) are seriously considering changing the icing rule. The way it currently works in the NHL is that when a player dumps the puck down ice, the opposing defenseman and a forward on the dumping team race to the puck as it crosses the (extended) goal line. If the defenseman gets to the puck first, it’s icing. If not, the play is still on.

It’s a pure speed and physical confrontation moment, that sometimes leads to injuries. Injuries are part of the game, but in this case, the defenseman has his back to the forward. And in hockey, behind the back plays is highly frowned upon. So, a suggestion by these tough guys is to treat the goal line as a commit line. If the defenseman crosses the line first (without needing to touch the puck), it’s icing.

This keeps the speed aspect of it. Confrontations can still happen, when the forward passes the defenseman, and now the defenseman must take aim. In this case, however, the forward is in a better position to take the hit. Another option is to put the commit line 30 feet from the boards (the goal line is about 10 feet). This gives both players enough time to stop, once they cross the line.

Conclusion

If hockey-loving folks, who will do anything to keep the physical parts in the game, talk about eliminating unnecessary parts of the game, the other leagues should pay attention. It’s apparent that at some point, you have to sacrifice the confrontations, for the health of the player, even at the highest level of professional sports. At one point, goalies didn’t even wear masks, as the culture at the time treated them as cowards if they dare don protection.

Drastic rule changes of any kind in any sport to protect any player is always looked at, and encouraged. Not baseball. Any such attempts are shouted down as ridicule. Welcome to the NHL, circa 1950. Really, if I was proposing rule changes in the NFL or NBA, there would be little to no resistance. “Baseball” makes things different. Eventually, MLB will wise up, just as every other sport has.

Keep the action and tension in the game, while preserving the health of the players. Who can disagree?

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