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A few thoughts about 3 significant rule changes for MLB’s 60-game 2020 season

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You’re probably going to love or hate all of these.

Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

There are a lot of things that are going to be different about the 2020 MLB season than anything we’ve seen before, from roster limits to trading deadlines to players not being allowed to spit.

Today, I want to highlight three rule changes that will be significant in the way they affect play, and could — because things like this often do — have unintended consequences.

Pitchers won’t bat in the National League

I’ve heard it all from opponents of the designated hitter, so you don’t have to repeat your arguments. Truth be told, I used to be like you, a “National League purist.” But over time, pitcher hitting got worse and worse (not that it was really any good to begin with) and now, with many pitchers not going past five innings, they don’t bat much anyway. There were just five pitchers in all of MLB who had 70 plate appearances in 2019. Ten years ago there were 19 such pitchers; 10 years before that there were 31. You’re defending a practice that’s vanishing on its own accord. The last Cubs pitchers to have 70 or more PA in a season were Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester in 2016; the most for a Cubs pitcher in 2019 was 64, by Kyle Hendricks.

I would heartily recommend to any of you still in favor of pitchers batting: Read Craig Calcaterra’s excellent piece on this topic, posted June 18. It covers everything, the history, strategy, most major objections, refutes all your arguments. My favorite is this:

As Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, has detailed, the idea of the DH has been traced back to at least 1891.

That’s when Pirates owner W.C. Temple and the famous executive J. Walter Spalding discussed the matter and wrote about it in the publication Sporting Life. The premise on which they both agreed: pitchers could not hit and it was a terrible bore to fans and teammates to watch them try.

Pitchers were far, far worse hitters than even the worse position players 129 years ago too. That stuff your dad or your grandpa told you about how, back in their day, pitchers worked on their hitting and were good at it is, like a lot of things they told you, baloney.

Before you post the obligatory GIF of Bartolo Colon hitting a home run, I will grant you that some small pleasures will be lost when pitchers no longer bat. But in my view, seeing this home run is not worth the 2,218 times pitchers struck out last year — 43.5 percent of their plate appearances.

Though the N.L. DH is officially only on the books for 2020, I cannot imagine the sport going back to having pitchers bat in 2021, especially since they will have then sat on the sidelines not hitting for 18 months by then.

The DH is 47 years old this year, and as Craig Calcaterra points out, the National League nearly approved the DH in 1891. Eighteen Ninety One. It’s way past time for the N.L. to get with the program.

Games can now be suspended at any point

I’ve been beating the drum for this for years, not that anyone’s ever listened. It’s absolutely ridiculous (for example) to get to within three outs of an “official game” (five innings, 4½ if the home team is ahead) and have a storm stop it, requiring the game to be replayed from the beginning. What’s even more ludicrous is to have umpires force play to continue through typhoon-like conditions just so the game can get to the fifth and be official, or if tied, to be suspended under the current suspended-game rule.

I wrote about a situation exactly like that one a year ago. It happened in a White Sox/Royals game on the South Side in May 2019. Go look at photos and videos from that day to see how absurd it was, and here’s what Mike Bojanowski, who was at that game, wrote afterwards:

After the second inning, it was raining hard enough for me to put my scorecard away. After that, it was readily apparent that the only goal they had by continuing to play was to finish five innings, and damn the consequences meantime. Teams do this almost routinely, now, but this became a farce early and got almost to the point of comedy before they finally were able to figleaf a technicality and get it suspended, still one out short, thus accomplishing their goal after all.

With one out in the bottom of the fifth, with the infield skin nearly a lake and lightning strikes nearby, they finally covered the field. There are some scheduled games that cannot be played to officialdom; there are some official games that cannot be played to nine innings. This is a practical and reasonable reality that MLB seems determined to ignore, to the detriment of the convenience and safety of fans and players alike.

About three hours later, the rain let up sufficiently (it never actually stopped) for the grounds crew to attempt heroic measures to resume play. The field had to be treated in sections, the tarp was rolled back piecemeal, and the exposed soil (nearly all that was visible under the tarp was standing water) was dried as well as could be done. They did resume, in another steady rain, and got an additional out, not to mention the Sox tying the game on Sanchez’ base hit. And in the midst of an increasing downpour, high comedy ensued when the Sox challenged the second out of the inning, a runner caught on the bases (it was upheld on review). Once again, the field had to be covered, with Sanchez getting the last word in, first making a “mud angel” in what was left of the infield, and then dousing himself with a waterlogged Gatorade bucket in the dugout.

Another hour and a half, and they tried it AGAIN. However, the field was so obviously damaged that it was unplayable, and thus they had the technicality to declare a suspension. We were finally sent home at 6:45 p.m., the few hundred or so that were left.

I should not have to establish my bonafides as a paying customer and ballpark regular in this town. I was angry. This displayed contempt for my comfort, my time, and any idea that I would, under the conditions they were willing to tolerate, see the major league baseball that I paid for.

Supposedly, the umpires had charge of the circumstance, but I can’t imagine any honest umpire allowing this to go on. I would love to know whether, directly or indirectly, umpires now are under a directive from the MLB office to continue hopeless games in this manner. I would like to know who to be angry at, but there’s likely no way to know, that anyone will admit.

He’s right. Playing games under conditions like that is contemptuous of the paying customer, not that it seems MLB cares much about that these days.

One objection that’s been raised to suspending games before they are official is: “But if you suspend games in conditions like that, before it’s ‘official,’ the paying customer doesn’t get a full game!”

To that I respond: In conditions like that, most fans have left anyway, not wanting to sit through a torrential downpour, and if a game’s delayed for hours there won’t be more than a few hundred or so die-hards left. People generally make their own choice to not see a full game under those circumstances.

Less than a week after that ludicrous Sox/Royals game, something very much like that happened in St. Louis, with the Cubs visiting the Cardinals, and I wrote a poem about it. Rather proud of that one, actually.

Fortunately, all that’s moot, for this year at least, because MLB has agreed to halt any game that starts, then is delayed by weather, and suspend it till the next time the teams play. The given reason is:

The purpose of this rule is to avoid long weather delays in an era in which health officials advise having players together at the ballpark for as little time as possible.

That’s all well and good, but even when the pandemic ends and things get back to whatever our new normal is, MLB should keep this rule in place. In practice we are likely talking about games that go three or four innings. If weather is such that it’s clear that a delay would be called in the first couple of innings, the game’s going to have a delayed start or, not likely going to be played at all.

Keep this one in place forever.

There’s going to be a runner on second base in extra-inning games

I understand the reasons this was instituted in the minor leagues. Among them:

  • Long bus rides for some minor-league teams can be made worse if games go way too long
  • It doesn’t really matter who wins or loses in the minors, as the games’ primary purpose is player development
  • Shortening games helps protect developing pitcher arms

Makes sense, I get it, even though this... really isn’t baseball. Some folks have talked about the DH as a “gimmick.” The DH isn’t a gimmick, truly it isn’t, read Calcaterra’s article.

This, though... this is a gimmick. It messes with the rules to the point where a team can lose a perfect game. No, really:

[The] Tampa Tarpons, of the Florida State League, could tell you all about it.

Those Tarpons took a perfect game into extra innings back in 2018. Alas, those extra innings began with a runner on second. What happened after that kind of messes up the story, since they then committed an error, and the winning run later scored on a fielder’s choice/groundout. But that game is a reminder that something like this totally could happen:

Nine perfect innings … 10th inning starts with a man on second … wild pitch … sacrifice fly … Voila! Team allowing no hits, walks, errors or HBPs still loses. There are several variations on this theme — but all 100 percent plausible.

Then again, maybe not. After that Tarpons game, the Elias Sports Bureau put itself on record as saying that any game in which a run is scored cannot be considered “perfect.” But Cory Schwartz, who oversees statistics for both major-league and minor-league baseball, took to Twitter to announce a slightly different interpretation back then.

I understand the reasons MLB wants to do this, this year: Tight time-frame schedule, like the minors wanting to protect pitcher arms, keep players healthy in general, sure, I get it.

After this year, kill this rule with fire.

On a related topic, for those of you who are in favor of some sort of change to extra-inning games that go longer than 12 innings, I once again present actual facts. Over the last 20 seasons, there have been 655 games that have gone 13 innings or longer, an average of about 33 per season. That’s approximately 1.3 percent of all games. The number varies somewhat from year to year, but that 1.3 percent is a pretty good benchmark. It also averages out to about 1.1 games per team, per year.

That means, therefore, that 98.7 percent of all games end in 12 innings or fewer and the average team has to deal with this once a season. To start making changes for such a tiny number of games is a solution in search of a problem, in my view.

Here’s a better idea: If a team plays a game of 13 innings or longer, that club can add a pitcher for their next game without a corresponding roster move. That would help a team get tired relievers some rest, and it’s not really that much of a competitive advantage considering we’re basically saying this happens about once a 162-game season, on average, for all teams.

Presuming we have a season in 2020, we’ll see all three of these likely happen at one time or another this year. What do you think?

Poll

The universal designated hitter...

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    Love it!
    (362 votes)
  • 36%
    Hate it!
    (313 votes)
  • 20%
    Don’t care either way
    (175 votes)
850 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Suspending games at any point, even if not official, due to weather...

This poll is closed

  • 73%
    Love it!
    (571 votes)
  • 9%
    Hate it!
    (70 votes)
  • 17%
    Don’t care either way
    (136 votes)
777 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Starting extra innings with a runner on second base...

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Love it!
    (88 votes)
  • 81%
    Hate it!
    (667 votes)
  • 7%
    Don’t care either way
    (65 votes)
820 votes total Vote Now