Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the first checkpoint to gauge what’s happening with the pennant races in Major League Baseball, but this year it’s also a good time to review potential permanent rule changes — some already enacted, others soon to be enacted.
In other words, like it or not, the designated hitter is here to stay and the Robot Umpire will soon be coming to a ballpark near you. The DH, a hot topic of conversation for half a century, seems to have been accepted, with only a whimper from the traditionalist crowd, which has shrunk considerably during the past 50 years, when it seemed almost everybody hated the idea.
The pitch clock has been used and abused for a couple of years now, an electronic monitor that, unlike the speed cameras in your neighborhood, was a reminder that came without penalty. The clock (which also displays elapsed time between innings — likewise without penalty) is one of three proposed rules that the Major League Baseball Players Association has agreed MLB could permanently enforce at its discretion. I just wish we could figure out a way to have pitch clocks replace pitch counts. That would be progress.
Bigger bases (18-inch square as opposed to 15) were a throwaway concession, as is likely to be the case with a proposed limit to attempted pickoff throws. It is the yet undetermined proposal to ban defensive shifts that will ultimately have the biggest impact on how the game is played. Whether it requires four fielders to be positioned on the dirt, or that at least two “infielders” be stationed on either side of second base, or a combination of both, is still being debated — but “the shift” as we know it is most likely to disappear from the park near you before the Robot Ump shows up.
Preliminary trials indicate a ban on the shift will open up the offensive part of the game that is in semi-desperate need of help, and we can expect at least a trial run for the 2023 season. The Robot Umpire made its debut in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League to call balls and strikes, and there has been almost no reaction, pro or con, at least from the fans’ standpoint.
It remains to be seen how the automated strike zone plays out with players, especially hitters. If the strike zone is strictly enforced — any part of the ball touching any part of the strike area — human nature tells us there are going to be a lot more strikes called than before.
Of particular note to this observer, based on information from those who have watched, the “strike box” on the television screen that we have learned to accept if not like has not been in evidence during those Triple-A games that have been called electronically. I would imagine that MLB umpires, who have had to live with that damning piece of evidence that appeared to be the same for every hitter, might find that rather amusing.
Going forward, assuming players will have access to the same electronic zone used to call pitches when they review their at-bats, you would expect the same info would be made available to viewers as well. But that’s for future debate, leading into the hot topic of the new rule being considered for the future while going through what is likely a final trial run.
Say hello to the Ghost (or Gifted) Runner, who is placed on second base at the start of every extra inning after the conventional nine have not produced a decision. Without a doubt it seems to be the most questionable of the new rules, all of which are designed to speed up (not necessarily improve) the game.
The traditionalist in me who believed ties are for formal attire only originally repelled at the idea of an “artificial ending” for extra-inning games. But after weeks of “chasing” games on the computer that were tied in the late innings I became hooked on watching the strategies of various managers as they navigated through this new challenge, which often started near the end of regulation time.
It may have been the only enjoyable experience from the early days of the pandemic, which hardly qualifies as a sound reason to adopt such a radical change. But the more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me as something those who invented the game (whoever they might be) might have drawn up as a way to avoid tie games.
I’m still “chasing” these fascinating games on a semi-regular basis and have found that, in addition to producing a quicker finish to overtime games, they also bring an added dimension to the final innings of close games. For me, this is a win-win situation.
But be forewarned: Don’t even bring up the possibility of seven-inning games. Not for doubleheaders, not even tripleheaders. Not ever. I won’t give up my “old fogie traditionalist” badge for anything scheduled for less than nine innings. Never.
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Been doing some binge-watching lately, which is what happens with too much time on your hands and a rising heat index. I was rooting big time for Coco Gauff to win the French Open, and it was a great disappointment when she lost the championship match — in 90 minutes!
I’m also into college baseball and softball. One thing I know for sure about the college game — MLB will not learn anything about speeding up the game by watching it at this level. Somewhere along the line head coaches seem to have determined they have to be very hands-on — and visible.
Having a sideline huddle with baserunners and coaches seems to be the new thing. During one Big Ten game I watched (not Maryland), the head coach did it three times. Next thing you know they will have a limit on timeouts along with replay challenges. Uncle!
Meanwhile, it was very encouraging to see both Maryland and Coppin State playing in the Division I NCAA Tournament. The Terps have a good thing going under head coach Rob Vaughn with the promise of more to come. It was a bumpy ride at the end for the Eagles, but hats off to head coach Sherman Reed and his team for setting a standard for the future.
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On the softball side, one thing of note is that the girls’ game in college seems to have overcome the major crisis in Major League Baseball — the strikeout rate. The pitchers don’t seem as dominating as in the past and the result is a high percentage of balls in play — which leads to an amazing number of good defensive plays.
I watched much more of the men’s tournament than the women’s (where I only caught a glimpse), but it was enough to learn that the guys could learn a lot from the gals when it comes to pace of play.
Hopefully some athletic directors are paying attention and will relay the message. I love college baseball, but just like football and basketball at that level, it is taking so long to play it is making MLB look good in comparison.
Jim Henneman can be contacted at JimH@pressboxonline.com