Well, we made it. Sort of.
Despite missteps and misgivings, a few COVID outbreaks, legions of cardboard fans and piped-in crowd noise, Major League Baseball somehow managed to complete its highly irregular regular season. We’re deep in the throes of the playoffs now and all a little wiser, and a little more suited to figuring out what rule changes worked this year, and which really, really didn’t.
But first, some accountability on my part. At the beginning of this season, when commissioner Rob Manfred threw out things like "universal DH" and "a runner on second base to start extra innings," I immediately wanted to punt every last rule change into the sun.
You can’t tell me the sport that gave us Rick Camp’s 18th-inning home run and Robin Ventura’s grand slam single would be better off without either (Shawon Dunston would have probably singled in the runner from second, by the way, and Todd Pratt’s bases-loaded walk would have won it). And you also can’t tell me that the only way to make something better is to streamline and homogenize it for casual consumption.
But after seeing it all in action, some of it honestly didn’t seem all that bad, and I’ll even grant that a few of the changes should stick around for next season.
One thing to note, though: None of these rule changes actually did the thing that Manfred was trying to do the most — speed up pace of play. The time of a nine-inning game went up two minutes, to 3:07, this season, though for all games went down four minutes, from 3:10 to 3:06 (thanks, seven-inning doubleheaders!). Despite the three-batter minimum for pitchers, the number of pitchers used in a game also went up, to 4.43, the highest in baseball history and in line with the steady increase that began in 2014.
So, without further ado, the highly debatable list of what worked and what didn’t:
The universal designated hitter
Baseball purists and lovers of in-game strategy shuddered at the thought of the universal DH, and rightfully so. By eliminating the one thing that truly distinguished the American League from the National League, baseball also lost a bit of its character, and fans of pitchers hitting were deprived of the unique joy of unexpected ninth-slot production.
To quote Dwight Gooden, who spoke out against the universal DH earlier this season, "Now, everything is back to the basics."
All that said, there’s just no point in arguing it anymore. It's highly likely the universal DH is here to stay, and that both players and owners prefer the opportunity to protect their pitchers while also squeezing a few more playing years out of aging or injury-prone athletes who can still hit. The rest of us — an apparently dwindling group who’d like to hold on to baseball’s past — are just going to have to deal with it.
One of the best things to come out of this season was the seven-inning doubleheader, and one of the worst things was that nobody was there to enjoy them in person. Shortening the games allowed managers to use their relievers more judiciously and the 14 total innings weren’t as taxing to players already dealing with a frenzied season. It was just better baseball, and it no doubt helped keep players healthier.
Now, imagine what it would be like to actually get to enjoy one of these at the ballpark. It would be a full day of baseball without the slog of four extra innings and all the questionable in-game decisions that come with too much baseball and not enough fresh players. I’ll go so far to say it wouldn’t be terrible to throw a few of these in the schedule in 2021, allowing teams to have more days off and potential makeup days.
Runner at second in extra innings
This rule didn’t make games shorter overall, put undue pressure on pitchers and artificially impacted who won or lost. A walk-off leadoff single shouldn’t be a thing that happens, and there’s no need for this rule to continue into 2021.
There could be, though, room for compromise. If MLB really doesn’t want to deal with 16-inning games, or even just ties, they can reintroduce this rule after the 11th inning. Only 1.5% of games went 12 innings or more in 2019, a small enough number that a gift runner at second wouldn’t be quite so offensive, while still giving teams enough time to win it in extras the old-fashioned way.
Three-batter minimum for relievers
One of the most entertaining parts of baseball is seeing the very best go up against the very best in a tense, late-game situation, which is why the three-batter minimum rule felt like a bust. Gone are the days of the lefty specialist, brought in specifically to get one batter out. What’s more, the rule seemed to overwhelmingly benefit hitters, since a pitcher either had to face the next three batters or finish the inning, but a manager could easily swap in a pinch hitter to get the platoon advantage.
Now, take into consideration that pace of play hasn’t really been affected by this change, and that teams are using more pitchers per game than they have in history. There’s no point to this rule, and it should go.
All the rest
Keep the expanded rosters. Regionally based schedules are good for the environment but bad for exposing fans to players from the opposite coast. A compromise would be to have the schedule be mostly regional, with a few opposite coast trips mixed in so we can all ooh and ahh at Mike Trout. Expanded playoffs are fun, but a 162-game performance should have meaning, and a lot of that meaning is lost when more than half the league is in the playoffs. Baseball should either cut it down slightly or get rid of it altogether.
In the end, though, whether people liked the changes or hated them, one thing is undoubtedly true: It was good to get baseball back. It was even good to argue about rule changes. Let’s do it again next year.