Sheehan: New September Callup Rules Are A Mistake

Image credit: Francisco Rodriguez (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Watching your favorite team finish out its season, you’ve certainly seen some new faces, young players called up from the minors to get a taste of the majors for the first time. Some are prospects, some are filler, but they’re all part of what is projected to be the last crop of September callups for a while.

Beginning in 2020, Major League Baseball will cap rosters in September at 28, down from the current 40, and put an end to one of the game’s most polarizing traditions. In the negotiation, the union earned an extra roster spot for the other five months of the season, with the standard active roster increasing from 25 to 26 players.

Put me down as disappointed by the change. For all the complaints about how expanded rosters change the game in September, it has always seemed to me a fun part of the game. Maybe it’s personal; Don Mattingly, my favorite player ever, made his debut as a September callup in 1982. He went 2-for-12 in seven games, but to an 11-year-old lefthanded hitter stuck watching the Bronx Burners ruin his summer, Mattingly was manna from heaven. That’s one of the best reasons for September callups—to give fans of bad teams a taste of better days to come.

September callups have gone on to even bigger careers than Mattingly had. The Hall of Fame’s most recent induction class included Edgar Martinez, who hit .372 as a September callup in 1987. The Mariners were so impressed they finally gave him a full-time job in 1990.

The late Roy Halladay made his big league debut as the Blue Jays were playing out the string in 1998. He threw a one-hitter in his second major league start on Sept. 27.

Before he was one of the best pitchers ever, Greg Maddux was a 20-year-old September callup for the Cubs, posting a 5.52 ERA in 31 innings in 1986.

Imagine being a 14-year-old Dodgers fan in 1992, watching the Reds blow out your team on Sept. 24 for their 92nd loss of the season. The battery for the final two innings of that game? Pedro Martinez, making his major league debut, pitching to Mike Piazza, a September callup hitting .233. That was a pretty good peek at the future.

Look around the league this September and you could see Nate Pearson in Toronto, Ke’Bryan Hayes in Pittsburgh and Ryan Mountcastle in Baltimore getting fans excited about the future.

It’s not just bad teams that can get a boost from expanding their rosters. In 1980, the Phillies called up righthander Marty Bystrom as they battled the Pirates and Expos for the National League East title. Bystrom went 5-0, 1.54 in five starts to help Philadelphia win the division, then started two of the team’s seven wins on their way to a World Series victory.

More recently, righty Francisco Rodriguez came up to the Angels on Sept. 18, 2002, struck out 13 of the 21 batters he faced as a callup, forced his way on to the playoff roster, and was the most important pitcher on the Halos’ championship team.

Not all September callups have that kind of happy ending, but all of them are meaningful to a player, to his parents, to his family and friends. Back in 2002, in that same September in which K-Rod was mesmerizing the American League, there were nine September callups who would make their major league debuts and then never again play in the majors.

This includes the Orioles’ Steve Bechler, who died at 23 years old just a few months later. It includes Andy Van Hekken, who threw an eight-hit shutout against the Indians in his debut on Sept. 3. Ben Kozlowski’s major league career consisted of two five-inning starts for a Rangers team going nowhere that September, but for the rest of his life he’s a major leaguer.

Baseball is about Mike Trout and Justin Verlander and Christian Yelich, about the Yankees and Dodgers and Cubs, but it is also, just a little, about Ben Kozlowski and Andy Van Hekken. Giving those players their moment in the sun is a tradition worth keeping.

Look, we’ve all heard the complaints, but none of them are enough to move the needle. “The biggest games of the year are played by different rules!” Well, first of all, every game counts exactly the same. September wins don’t count double or we would be a lot more worried about the Dodgers holding on in the NL West.

That we know which teams have more on the line doesn’t make the games count more, it just means we’re paying more attention. The added bench players in September also bring back a balance that’s lacking on today’s rosters, with their 13-man pitching staffs and undermanned benches. September allows for the pinch-runners and pinch-hitters sorely lacking from April through August.

The changes to the game in September don’t hold a candle to the changes in October, anyway. Playoff games truly are the biggest of the year, but teams go from an off day every week or two to an off day roughly every other game.

If the playoffs can be played in a way that allows teams to work their best pitchers far more often than would ever be possible in the regular season—an actual distortion of the game—then the “biggest games/different rules” argument against September callups, when games of exactly the same value as all the others are played with some extra bodies around, loses all its steam.

September roster expansion has allowed postseason heroes to emerge, it’s given us a peek at future legends, it’s created major league careers that last a few days for fans but a lifetime for the players.

The arguments against September roster expansion are technocratic at best, anti-fun at worst. Hopefully MLB and the MLB Players’ Association will rethink their position and elect to continue this tradition in 2020 and beyond.

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