It would be wrong to blame/credit the changes that are coming to baseball on the pandemic. It would, however, be correct to say the coronavirus-altered 2020 season presented an easy opportunity to try out new ideas — some novel, some not.
Make no mistake though, there are changes coming. Some words of caution: Be careful what you wish for, and especially be cautious of potential love affairs with what might seem like exotic proposals.
Words of warning: Beware of expanded playoffs — and shortened games.
Of all the innovations introduced this year only because of the bizarre nature of the schedule, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred seems most enamored with the best-of-three wild-card system, which does away with “one and done” and adds three more teams to the mix in each league.
If adopted permanently — and well-informed sources say Manfred is all-in — it would put baseball in the same boat with other sports that cheapen the system by having more than half of the teams participate. Baseball had two sub-.500 teams qualify this year, and even with a severely reduced schedule, that’s a huge red flag that shouldn’t be ignored.
The seven-inning game is another story. Like additional playoff teams, seven-inning games for doubleheaders were instituted strictly because of circumstances created by the uncertainty of the schedule to ease the burden on pitching staffs and protect everyone’s overall health.
All well and good. No problem. One and done after this year. Except all of a sudden, the novelty of the seven-inning game, long a staple in the minor leagues for doubleheaders, has gained traction. Enough, in fact, that it has been suggested MLB make it permanent for all doubleheaders.
That idea probably has little chance of being passed because scheduled doubleheaders (one admission) are virtually non-existent. But some are already taking the idea to the next level and proposing that MLB consider making all games seven innings.
There is one, and only one, reason behind this idea — to get average playing time below three hours. In other words, forget that baseball is a timeless game that, on average, lasts slightly longer than other sports featuring games that run 40-60 minutes on the playing clock.
And forget about the idea of reducing the product by 22 percent — at regular prices, of course. But please don’t forget about the possibility of starting pitchers going four innings and “giving my team a chance to win” en route to a workhorse season of 150 innings, or Mike Trout making just three plate appearances, with perhaps an intentional walk in the mix.
We can live with the intentional walk rule or a relief pitcher facing a minimum of three batters. They are minimal time-saving moves that don’t drastically affect the game. But MLB just needs to say no to seven-inning games. The sooner the better.
On the other hand, there are some other changes that appear set to fly. It did take a pandemic to get both leagues to use the designated hitter. Now that it’s here it’ll likely be harder to get rid of than COVID-19, although some of the time savers point out games would be faster if pitchers hit. Offense will win this debate, and the National League no longer has the old guard offering resistance.
Also, the rule that places a runner at second base to start extra innings seems to be gaining favor. Originally thought to be too drastic by the so-called purists and not favored by managers, it is now looked at as an interesting strategic development that forces decisions on both sides.
MLB had already experimented with the extra-inning rule in the minor leagues and added it this year, mainly because the unique situation provided the opportunity. It is not in play during this postseason, but there is a good chance this rule will be adopted in 2021. There is a possibility it may be tweaked so it wouldn’t come into play until the 11th or 12th inning, but acceptance is now considered a strong possibility.
In many ways the effect of the 2020 season will play out in years to come, and somewhere along the line there may even be something known as the “Pandemic Rule.”
For the good of the game, it better not have anything to do with seven-inning games.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox