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Cooper: Baseball Fans Should Learn To Embrace Change

Do you remember the great intentional walk controversy of 2017? Major League Baseball and the players’ union agreed that instead of a pitcher throwing four pitches for an intentional walk, the batter would instead be sent directly to first base.

As rule changes go, it’s hard to envision one with a lower impact. An intentional walk happens once every couple of games. And almost every time, it goes exactly as planned.

The rule change prompted outrage among some fans. There was talk of the futility of changing a game that is already beautiful.

And then the intentional walk rule change happened, and we all quickly forgot that it ever happened. For a rule change that was pitched as a pace of play change, the decision didn’t cut much time from the game. It didn’t make much impact at all. But once the rule change was implemented, almost everyone seemed to forget the tweak had ever happened.

We’ve seen this over and over. The decision to eliminate home plate collisions and rolling body blocks at second base was greeted by many fans as a sign that baseball was losing its way. That was a rule that actually changed the game, because teams have adjusted what they look for in a second baseman now that the gymnastic ability to hurdle over an incoming baserunner is less important.

But once again, it was a change that quickly become the new normal, and the game rolled on.

Just as it rolled on after the season was extended from 154 to 162 games.

Just as it rolled on after the American League added the DH.

MLB was once two separate leagues that played each other only in the All-Star Game and World Series, at a time when the umpires, league presidents and even statistics were all separated. Now it’s effectively one league with a few remaining distinctions.

Even more changes are on the way. MLB and the MLB Players Association recently announced rules changes for 2019 and 2020. MLB also unveiled a series of experimental rules that the independent Atlantic League will adopt on a trial basis.

The MLB rules tweak for 2019 are largely minor—the biggest change is the elimination of the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline and shortening of between-inning breaks.

The 2020 changes are more significant. They will include a 26-man roster as well as limits on the number of pitchers on a roster and a three-batter minimum for pitchers.

The Atlantic Leagues rules tweaks, which include computerized calling of balls and strikes and a mound moved back two feet, are much more drastic. There’s no guarantee that any of the Atlantic League experiments will ever make it the majors, but MLB wouldn’t experiment with them if they didn’t have some idea that those ideas have merit.

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Moving the mound to 62 feet, six inches from home plate is a much more drastic tweak than anything MLB has rolled out in the past decade. It’s something that might make fans upset. Similarly, I would expect fans would picket outside ballparks in the very unlikely event that MLB eventually adopted the extra-inning rule now present the minors in which a baserunner is installed at second base to lead off every half-inning after the ninth.

But here’s the problem. A significant subset of MLB fans get upset over minor changes to the rules. They seem to think that we’re watching a game with the same rules that existed in 1901, even if that’s not true at all.

And that quickly-dissipating outrage that greets every rules proposal makes it more difficult to filter out what is a rules change that will quickly be accepted and which is a bridge too far. The intentional walk tweak barely affected the game, and it drew plenty of vociferous response.

At Baseball America, we're proposing several changes that we believe would improve the game—for players and, yes, for fans. We did the same thing roughly a quarter of a century ago. Many of those proposals seemed radical then, but many of them have since been adopted, and the game rolls on.

Being a baseball fan often means valuing tradition and wanting the game to remain recognizable, which is understandable given that the game’s statistics stretch back more than a century.

But if you’re a traditionalist who wants to keep the game generally the same, pick your spots. When fans get upset over each and every little tweak and then quickly forget that outrage once the tweak arrives, it lessens the impact of protesting against major changes that might significantly change the game.

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