Image credit: Scott Alexander #75 of the Los Angeles Dodgers walks back to the dugout during a pitching change in the 13th inning during Game 3 of the 2018 World Series. (Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Two weeks before pitchers and catchers report for spring training, Major League Baseball and the players’ union stoked the dying hot stove ember with rumors of potential rules changes that might be implemented in 2019.
While fans wait for free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado to sign their megadeals, MLB and the union have exchanged at least a half-dozen proposals that could alter the way the major league game is played, according to reports by Ken Rosenthal, Jeff Passan, Joel Sherman and others.
Passan has the complete list of proposals, but I want to focus on the first two potential rules changes, which would:
(1) restrict mid-inning pitching changes by requiring relievers to face at least three batters (or finish the inning), and
(2) bring the DH to the National League.
From my perspective, change on these two fronts is overdue. But I would humbly submit slight tweaks to both proposals.
Mid-Inning Pitching Changes
I like the spirit of the proposed three-batter rule for relievers. However, I also like the spirit of free substitution in baseball, and I understand managers’ desire to gain the platoon advantage for their team.
So my proposal would be to grant managers an unrestricted substitution if they remove their starting pitcher in the middle of an inning. Any subsequent mid-inning pitching change would carry the following penalty:
• The reliever enters with a 1-0 count on the batter.
Last season, there wasn’t much difference between the outcomes for plate appearances ending after the first pitch and those ending after a 1-0 count. It’s when the count reaches 2-0 that batters begin to see a real advantage.
So for a manager contemplating a mid-inning pitching change to gain the platoon advantage: How much confidence do you have that your reliever, fresh out of the bullpen and thrust into a big spot, can throw a strike to avoid setting a 2-0 trap?
The idea of escalating count penalties, e.g. 2-0, 3-0, for a second or third mid-inning pitching change in the same inning is also possible, but I would probably begin with the proposal outlined above.
The DH in the NL
Some fans prefer the NL rules where pitchers hit, but even they must concede that pitchers are worse hitters than they used to be. In fact, pitchers have never been worse hitters.
In 2018, pitchers made outs 86.7 percent of the time they stepped to the plate, which was an all-time record for futility. In this case, I am adding outs made in the commission of a sacrifice bunt to the totals. The out rate not counting sacrifices against pitchers is 85.6 percent, which is also an all-time record.
In the average NL lineup in 2018, the quality of hitter, as measured by OPS, improved incrementally from lineup spots 1 through 3. It decreased slightly from lineup spot 3 to 4 and then degraded with each successive lineup step until bottoming out with the 9 hitter.
In the NL last year, the difference between the average 8 hitter and 9 hitter—typically the pitcher but the sample also folds in many pinch-hitters—was minus-170 OPS points. The step down between 8 and 9 hitters in the American League was minus-44 OPS points.
This sort of imbalance between consecutive lineup spots introduces reflexive strategies such as sac bunting by pitchers and intentional walks to No. 8 hitters that are anti-competitive by nature and inherently low in entertainment value for viewers.
Bringing the DH to the NL is an easy remedy for this imbalance, but of course the DH is a hot-button issue for some fans. Many anti-DHers would chafe at the notion of having players in the lineup who don’t play the field. That’s why I propose this compromise between the current AL and NL rules:
• NL teams are disallowed from starting the same player at DH in consecutive games.
Under this proposal, a “start” would be defined as one plate appearance. After one PA, a pinch-hitter may replace the DH. This would forbid—or at least strongly discourage—teams from inserting yesterday’s starting pitcher at DH, only to pinch-hit for him the first time he bats.
This modified DH rule would ensure that the dedicated full-time designated hitter never comes to the NL, while simultaneously rewarding NL teams who are deep in hitting talent. It also affords NL managers the flexibility to grant partial rest days for their players, which would be beneficial in many cases but particularly on day games following night games.
The Imperfect Machine
As Bill James wrote nearly 20 year ago in his “New Historical Baseball Abstract,” baseball is not some “perfect machine” impervious to changing tides. Instead of being treated as if it were “designed by the gods,” baseball should be evaluated and tweaked to improve fan experience and enhance entertainment value.
MLB and the players’ union are doing just that, and I commend them for that.
From my perspective, restricting mid-inning pitching changes and bringing the DH to the NL would both be resounding wins for baseball, the imperfect—but classic—machine.