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A few thoughts on MLB’s rule changes for 2022 and beyond

Baseball is going to be a different sort of game over the next few years, both for players and executives.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Among the many things announced as part of the new MLB/MLBPA collective bargaining agreement this week were a number of rule changes both on and off the field. You might remember hearing during negotiations that different committees and groups representing both sides were busy sewing up “non-core economic issues” even during times when the main player and owner negotiators weren’t talking. These are the things I’m going talk about here, and that’s the reason so many of them were made and/or changed in the deal just announced; they’d been working on these all along.

The universal designated hitter

You know, I used to be very much against the DH myself. I was an old-time National League fan and I thought the game played that way was somehow “superior” to American League baseball. Red Smith, the famous New York Times columnist, basically wrote that at the time the DH was first installed in the AL in 1973:

Why have a manager at all? Some of us are traditionalists who find baseball beautiful and consider it a bloody awful shame when the hucksters wrench the game out of shape, Now they are altering the music, a lot of tone‐deaf hacks rewriting Beethoven.

This was the sentiment of many traditionalists back then, as if the rules of baseball were sent down on stone tablets from the heavens millennia ago. That’s obviously not the case. Sports continuously evolve to reflect their times. When do you think these words were written?

Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

All right, the florid style of that prose tells you right away that’s quite old. In fact, it was written in The Sporting Life in 1891... over 130 years ago. That’s the time the DH was first proposed. It was put to a vote of the then-12 National League owners the following year (the eight-team league had absorbed four clubs from the American Association). A two-thirds vote was needed to approve. From a 2016 article by MLB historian John Thorn, quoting Pirates President William Temple:

“We came very near making it a rule to exempt the pitcher from batting in a game, under a resolution which permitted such exemption, when the captain of the team notified the umpire of such desire prior to the beginning of a game. The vote stood 7 to 5 for. I looked for it to be the reverse, but Von der Ahe, whom I depended on, voted otherwise.”

One vote short. Otherwise we’d have had a DH in baseball long before any reader of this site was even born, and we’d all think of it as the natural progression of the sport. If baseball were immutable, pitchers would still stand in a box 45 feet from home plate and throw balls to batters underhanded — after the batter told the pitcher where he wanted it thrown.

We have discussed the pro- and anti-DH arguments many times here and I have cited this 2020 Craig Calcaterra article often in articles here, as I agree with his takes. If you haven’t read it I would suggest you do that, as it makes the case for the universal DH quite well.

Let me interrupt the idea that someone will post video of the argument many cite for letting pitchers bat, Bartolo Colon’s home run in 2016, by doing it myself:

Was that unexpected, a “holy crap” moment? Yes. Was it fun? Undeniably. Granted and stipulated. The problem is that these moments are so rare it’s not worth all the strikeouts and double plays and risking a pitcher’s health on the bases to make it worthwhile. (For the record, Colon hit one career home run and struck out 166 times.)

I welcome the universal DH. Perhaps it will prompt a reunion between Kyle Schwarber and the Cubs. That’d be nice.

Lastly, I’ll again link to my article from last October noting some significant “lasts” by Cubs pitchers at bat. Just for the record.

Before I get to a few rule changes that won’t happen until 2023, I wanted to post two quotes about baseball and see if you can guess when they were said.

“The great trouble with baseball today is that most of the players are in the game for the money that’s in it — not for the love of it, the excitement of it, the thrill of it.”

“I wouldn’t give a dime to watch a baseball game today. I see so many things they’re doing wrong. For one, they’re all swinging for the fences.”

The first of those was said by Ty Cobb... in 1925. The second, by Edd Roush, a player of the early 20th Century... in 1987.

Same as it ever was. Old-timers complaining about “nowadays.” You’ll do it too someday, if you’re young now. Me? I try not to, really and truly. Baseball players today are more fit, stronger, in better shape, have better eyesight and are better trained than players back in the day. They are as competitive, or more, than their forebears. If Babe Ruth played today, modern pitchers would strike him out so many times you’d lose count. A team of average major leaguers of 2022, if they could suddenly time-travel to 1922, would be world-beating monsters.

Baseball is a great game today in part because it has evolved with the times, not because it stands sacrosanct from the time you first fell in love with it as a child. Yes, the game evokes fond memories of childhood and the players and teams you loved back then, but there’s no doubt baseball as it’s played now is as technically good as it’s ever been due to advances in nutrition, medicine, training techniques, etc.

And that’s exactly why it needs to adapt and adjust, because some of these methods, as well as the analytics brought into the game, have made parts of it stale and boring (“Three True Outcomes,” three-hour games, etc.). Some criticize the lack of strategy in certain cases brought about by the universal DH (see Calcaterra’s article for why that isn’t true). In fact, managers have lost some of their ability to strategize because the analytics folks from their team give them charts to position players defensively.

That leads me to three likely 2023 rule changes.

Banning the shift

Like the DH, this is one I was against. I’m coming around to this, though, because I’m tired of seeing the third baseman in medium right field taking hits away from lefthanded hitters. I’m now not opposed to some form of regulating infield shifts. For example, you could require two fielders on either side of second base. In practice? A manager could still put his second baseman in short right field and his shortstop just to the left of second base for a lefthanded hitter. It would open up the field a bit more and, perhaps, stop LH hitters from simply trying to launch baseballs over the shift.

The argument that hitters should just try to hit the other way? Easy to say, not so easy to do when a constant parade of pitchers is throwing 95+ mile per hour fastballs interspersed with unhittable sliders.

This and two other significant rule changes will be discussed by a reconstituted Competition Committee, which will be comprised of representatives designated by the Commissioner’s Office, active players (with at least one active pitcher and one active position player), and an umpire. The Competition Committee will be responsible for adopting, revising, and/or repealing playing rules, in addition to providing the timeline upon which changes to such playing rules will be adopted, beginning with the 2023 season. The new CBA allows such rule changes to be implemented 45 days after this Committee approves them.

The pitch clock

If you argue “baseball isn’t timed!”, yes, it is. There’s been a rule requiring a pitch to be delivered within 12 seconds with the bases empty on the books for decades. That rule has not been properly enforced. The clock would provide a means of enforcement. The Competition Committee will decide about a clock, but I expect this to be in place for Opening Day 2023. They’ll keep using it in the minor leagues this year, and that should help, because a clock has been used in some minor leagues since 2015. Most MLB pitchers, then, by 2023 should be used to it. It’s then up to umpires to enforce it with a penalty. It applies to hitters, too; they need to be in the box ready to go. The penalty for a pitcher not being ready is a called ball; for a hitter, a called strike. You might see a lot of these in the first week of 2023; after that as players get used to it, maybe not so much, and you’ll see the pace of play improve. When the clock was instituted in Triple-A in 2015, game times decreased by about 15 minutes.

New, larger bases

These bases will be 18” square instead of 15” square. These will accomplish three things:

  • Fewer injuries from close contact at bases
  • Fewer players coming off the base for a fraction of a second and being called out on replay review
  • More stolen bases

All of these are positive outcomes and I assume these will be approved.

Here are some off-field rules governing the game that are in effect as of now:

There will continue to be a 26-man roster limit (and 28 in September) with a limit of 13 pitchers on the roster (and 14 in September).

There has also been discussion of having 28 active players on team rosters for at least the first couple of weeks of the 2022 regular season due to the abbreviated spring training now occurring. This is still up in the air and no decision has been made either way.

Players may only be optioned to the Minor Leagues five times in a single season

This is to avoid things like the Iowa Shuttle, where players had frequently been up and down eight, nine or more times a season, losing service time and MLB pay.

This is another thing that probably should be waived for the first couple of weeks of the season if they expand rosters, because as pitchers ramp up for the year they will need more time to get ready to avoid injury.

The provision states that players would require clearing waivers after five options in one season. It will mean that teams will either have to keep guys in the majors longer, or keep more such optionable players available.

It should be noted that this refers to the number of options within a season; once added to the 40-man roster, a player would still have three option seasons once called up before being “out of options,” which really means “out of option years.”

The Office of the Commissioner will have the flexibility to set the Major League Trade Deadline on a date between July 28 and August 3

This is another under-the-radar good idea. What is being done here is to provide for the deadline to be on a day when no afternoon games are being played, or few or no games at all. In recent years the deadline has been set at 3 p.m. CT and I would anticipate that would continue. The point is to avoid players having to be pulled from a game if they’re being traded. I realize this will eliminate “hugwatch,” but overall I think it’s a good idea.

Looking at the 2022 schedule, for example, July 28 falls on a Thursday and August 3 on a Wednesday. There’s no way MLB will set the deadline on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday since all teams are in action. However, Monday, August 1, 2022 presents a schedule date on which 10 of the 30 teams are off and the 10 games involving the other 20 teams are all night games, the first beginning at 6:40 p.m. ET.

Thus I think you can be pretty much assured that this year’s trade deadline will fall on August 1, and in future years MLB will attempt to schedule a date between July 28 and August 3 with most or all teams having an off day on which they can then set the trade deadline.

Think of it this way: Wall-to-wall TV coverage on MLB Network, social media and on this very website of a trade deadline with no ballgames that afternoon or evening. It will be an Event!

Waiver priority will be amended to provide that if a Club has already previously claimed a player on outright waivers in a given year, the Club’s claiming priority will be moved to last among the 30 Clubs.

The wording is a bit confusing here. The priority isn’t “if you claim ANY player, your priority is then moved to last.” This applies only to multiple claims of the same player in any given year. This is a very player-friendly provision and good on MLB and the MLBPA for agreeing to it.

There are going to be a lot more details on these and other changes to MLB rules going forward. A complete copy of the CBA is not yet available — and I wouldn’t expect it to be for a few weeks’ time, at the very least. Lawyers have to go over the agreement and make sure it’s worded the way the parties actually agreed to it. When it’s available I intend to read it in depth and see if there’s anything else worth noting.

Between this article, yesterday’s piece on schedule changes and the one I wrote Friday after the agreement was put in place late Thursday, that’s over 5,700 words on the end of the lockout and the beginning, at last, of the 2022 MLB season.

Enough words, for now. Let’s play ball!

Poll

Universal DH...

This poll is closed

  • 61%
    Yes
    (417 votes)
  • 38%
    No
    (263 votes)
680 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Some kind of modification or ban of defensive shifting...

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  • 64%
    Yes
    (431 votes)
  • 35%
    No
    (238 votes)
669 votes total Vote Now

Poll

A pitch clock...

This poll is closed

  • 75%
    Yes
    (507 votes)
  • 24%
    No
    (161 votes)
668 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Larger bases...

This poll is closed

  • 70%
    Yes
    (466 votes)
  • 29%
    No
    (194 votes)
660 votes total Vote Now