Seven Rule Changes To Improve Baseball
A NEW AGE TAKE ON FREE AGENCY
When a major league organization signs an amateur player to a minor league contract, the two parties sign a pact that binds player to team for seven years.
Then if a minor league player distinguishes himself as a prospect, he earns a spot on the 40-man roster following his fourth or fifth pro season. This establishes a new standard of team control by introducing three minor league option years.
After that, if the minor league player establishes himself in the majors, he is subject to yet another new standard of team control. Now he must accrue six years of major league service before he qualifies for free agency. But because of the way organizations manage service time, a player typically puts in seven years prior to becoming a free agent.
As a result, most players don’t reach free agency for the first time until they are 30 or older. Take the Cubs’ Kris Bryant as an example. Drafted out of college, he ascended rapidly to the majors and debuted in at age 23. He hit the ground running by winning a Rookie of the Year trophy, an MVP award and a World Series ring in his first two seasons.
Even with his rapid ascent, Bryant won’t qualify for free agency until after the 2021 season. He turns 30 in 2022.
While true that players who sign as teenagers and rocket to the majors—as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado did—can reach free agency after their age-25 seasons, they are the rarest of exceptions. The median age for players making their major league debut has held steady at 24.
The problem that 30-something free agents face today is that demand for their services has diminished, and the reason is simple. Organizations can extract more value from young players, who have limited earning power, than they can from veterans.
A veteran requires a commitment of dollars and years, while a so-called zero-to-three (years of service time) player’s contract can be extended year to year at the major league minimum, which this season is $555,000. And history has shown that young players are better equipped to succeed in the majors than ever before, in part because players peak at an earlier age than they once did.
The solution to this problem appears simple: unbind players from team control at a younger age. That way they can line up a few of their prime years with a marketplace more willing to pay for their services.
As it stands, an organization exerts unilateral control at every decision point in a player’s career until he reaches major league free agency, usually around age 30. It is the org that decides when to add a player to its 40-man, when to option him to the minors and when he accrues big league service time.
One agent contacted by BA outlined a plan to change that. In the agent’s proposed system, the majority of players would have a bite at free agency after they complete their age-26 seasons. To get there, he suggests that international free agents would be bound to their organization for 11 seasons, high school players for nine seasons and collegians for six seasons.
We would argue to extend those contract terms by one year. In that case, the best players would head into free agency after their age-27 seasons. A typical development path for very best prospects would look like this:
In this scenario, players who reach the majors by age 22—which admittedly is only applicable to the brightest talents—would still be bound to their organizations for six seasons. Players who get there by 23 would have five seasons prior to free agency.
We see two benefits from this system to overall competitiveness:
Teams would be incentivized to shuttle players to the majors as quickly as possible to capture the most value.
It would put an end to service-time manipulation games each spring, ensuring that the best 25 players make the Opening Day roster.
BRING ON THE UNIVERSAL DH
Despite its traditionalist reputation, Baseball America has never shied from espousing the virtues of the designated hitter.
As Tracy Ringolsby wrote in a BA column from 1985, having the pitcher bat promotes “defensive action during the offensive part of the game.”
The universal DH would remedy the non-competitive—or defensive—strategies that pervade National League games. That’s what happens when a lineup includes pitchers, who compiled a .295 OPS in the NL last season, surrounded by position players who averaged .744.
This sort of imbalance between lineup spots introduces reflexive strategies such as sacrifice bunting by pitchers and intentional walks to No. 8 hitters that are not only anti-competitive but inherently low in entertainment value.
It’s impossible to blame managers for employing these strategies, however, because pitchers are terrible hitters—and they keep falling farther below average.
Pitchers make an out 87 percent of the time they bat, which is up from 84 percent just 10 years ago. Even when they do try, they strike out 42 percent of the time, which is up nearly 9 percentage points since 2010.
Adding a DH to the NL would do more than foster more cohesive lineups and diminish anti-competitive strategies. It would also create an additional 9,500 plate appearances per season for regular position players in the NL that right now go to pitchers and pinch-hitters.
Position players would see clear on-field benefits from taking the bat out of pitchers’ hands. But those benefits would extend to the negotiating table, too, where so-called American League players, including recent free agents Nelson Cruz and J.D. Martinez, would be attractive to twice the number of suitors as they are today.
Not to be overlooked in the DH debate is the fact that when position players take the mound as pitchers, it is considered a novelty and not an expected area of contribution.
Likewise, adopting the universal DH would allow pitchers to focus on what they are expected to do: pitch.
LET TEAMS PURCHASE AN EXTRA OPTION
When a player joins the 40-man roster, he starts a clock. From that day forward, the team has three (or in a few cases four) option years where the player can be optioned to the minors. After that, a team can’t send him down without placing him on waivers, giving other teams an opportunity to claim the player.
The option system was put in place so that players cannot be moved back and forth from the minors to the majors indefinitely. It was designed so that after a few years, veterans earn a bit of security. This system used to work quite well. But nowadays in a league where teams shuffle players on an off of the roster, it actually harms many veteran players. Teams view the majority of relievers as interchangeable. So if given a choice between a veteran low-leverage reliever without options and another slightly less talented low-leverage reliever with options, teams will usually choose the lesser player whom they can option to the minors. That bit of roster flexibility compensates for a little less talent or certainty.
The purpose of the option limit was never to keep veterans out of the big leagues. But that is how it often works now. A potential solution is to allow teams to work out a deal with a veteran player to purchase an additional option year. The player would have to agree to the offer. But if the player agrees, a team could purchase an additional option by including an option bonus in the contract (ideally at a fixed amount). The player gets more money while the team gains roster flexibility.
Now, there would have to be limits on how many players a team can buy an option for. Otherwise, large-pocket teams may fill Triple-A with these players. But this tweak would bring advantages with few drawbacks.
INCREASE BASEBALL SCHOLARSHIPS
The big push in Division I in recent years has been the effort to make the third assistant coach a paid position rather than a volunteer spot. So far, those efforts have been unsuccessful, but the fact that college baseball has made adding spending on another coach rather than spending more money on scholarships its main lobbying effort shows how far away the sport is from getting the 11.7 scholarship limit tweaked any time soon.
Division I baseball has been limited to 11.7 scholarships since 1991. The decision wasn’t a result of an in-depth study, it happened because the NCAA required across the board 10 percent scholarship cuts. College baseball is a sport where every team uses 20-plus players regularly. It’s a partial scholarship sport which means that most players get some fraction of a scholarship (at a minimum they receive 25 percent). That system ensures that most every player playing D-I baseball is paying a significant part of their way through school. Even with a 3.3 scholarship bump to 15 that would still be true, but it would go a long ways toward helping more players afford steadily increasing college costs. A similar three-scholarship bump to softball (from its present 12 to 15 scholarships) would provide a similar impact for the most comparable women’s sport (and ensure the bump meets Title IX requirements). Considering the fewer players used during a softball season, such a bump may help softball become a head count sport with full scholarships.
How would schools pay for it? Reducing the facilities arms race or cutting the ever-growing roster of assistant and associate athletic directors would help most schools foot the bill.
THE TANK TAX
Baseball has a middle-class problem. Front offices have realized that being stuck in the middle with 75-85 wins is the worst of both worlds. There are no playoff spots as a reward, and thus no postseason gates. Furthermore, the team’s draft spot is middling.
While playing competitive ball may lead to increased ticket sales compared to a sub-70 win team, that doesn’t mean nearly as much these days when off-field revenues are such a larger portion of the monies teams receive. Also, the hard caps in the draft mean that there is now a massive advantage to picking early in the draft that did not occur before 2012’s changes to draft spending rules.
Last year, we proposed in the pages of Baseball America to institute draft pick penalties for teams who failed to top 70 wins in back-to-back seasons. The idea was back-to-back sub-70 win seasons would cost 10 draft spots and three straight seasons would result in a 15-spot drop. That’s one potential approach.
Craig Edwards at Fangraphs.com has proposed tying revenue sharing in some way to success—providing revenue bonuses for non-playoff, small-revenue teams tied to their major league wins total. That also could work by providing incentives for trying to win.
Whatever the mechanism, the key is to create incentives that reward teams for making efforts to win, rather than creating incentives that reward teams—via amateur bonus pool money—for being catastrophically bad. Baseball is better off if more teams are making attempts to field representative teams, especially in a sport where unbalanced schedules ensure that a team that plays in a division with two or three rebuilding teams has an advantage at landing a wild card spot.
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STOP MANAGERS’ MEDDLING WITH MID-INNING PITCHING CHANGES
Major League Baseball and the players’ union have tentatively agreed to a rule designed to restrict mid-inning pitching changes by requiring relievers to face at least three batters (or finish the inning) before they can be relieved by another reliever.
The “three-batter” rule could take effect in 2020.
Change on this front is overdue, but we would humbly submit a different take.
The spirit of the proposed three-batter rule is noble, but the tradition of free substitution and managers’ desire to gain the platoon advantage are significant and entrenched.
So our proposal would be to grant managers an unrestricted substitution when removing a 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 noticeable 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?
REALIGN THE MINORS GEOGRAPHICALLY
There has been long been talk about cutting back on the number of minor league teams. In fact, 26 years ago, we proposed cutting one level of Class A. From a player development standpoint, that still makes some sense.
But the minor leagues have value beyond just player development, and many cities have invested significantly in ballparks to host their affiliated minor league teams. So while there may still be arguments to slim down from a cost-cutting standpoint, we believe the downside risk outweighs the benefits.
However, there’s another tweak that makes plenty of sense. The minor leagues have gotten unwieldy in some cases. At both the Triple-A and Class A levels, there are too many leagues with teams spread all over the country.
The Pacific Coast League has worked around its unwieldiness by splitting into two conferences that play each other as little as possible. And since that is a league with plenty of airline travel, it works well enough that the downsides of splitting the league into two (as was the case in the 1990s) exceed the benefits.
But the Class A leagues are bus leagues. That means that having Wilmington, Del., share a league with Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and having Rome, Ga., and Lakewood, N.J., in the same league makes little sense.
Our solution: Group all of the low Class A and high Class A teams in the Carolinas, then add Rome. That would make for a geographically tight 14-team low Class A league.
Then take Lakewood, Hagerstown and Delmarva and add them to the Carolina League franchises in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. That would bring geographic cohesion to our new 10-team high Class A league.
The drawback is that the West Virginia and Lexington franchises don’t fit as neatly into this new high Class A league. However, West Virginia and Lexington fit geographically with Salem, Lynchburg, Hagerstown and Frederick in a reasonable northern division.