Monday, April 26, 2021

Want to Ruin Baseball? Banning Defensive Shifts, Ghost Runners and Home Run Derbies Are a Good Way of Doing It

Yankees' first basemen/outfielder Jay Bruce has one talent - hitting the ball hard to the right side of the field, preferably out of the ballpark.   When the left-handed hitter entered the majors 14 years ago, defensive shifts to combat pull hitters like Bruce were not that common.  Now they are.  As a result, Bruce had a choice - adjust to the shift or retire.  Bruce chose retirement.

That decision caused Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated to pen an article advocating that the MLB ban the defensive shift.  Poor Jay Bruce.   Because he and other MLB pull hitters either won't or are incapable of taking legendary contact hitter Wee Willie Keeler's advice to "hit 'em where they ain't," Verducci believes MLB needs to ban the shift.

Give me a break.  Baseball has a long, long history of developing players to meet the changing nature of the game.  In the 1960s and 1970s, major league ballparks put in artificial turf, making the game faster, so teams started drafting and trading for players with more speed.  When those artificial turf ballparks were replaced with more compact ones using grass fields, speed began being downplayed in favor of power hitting.  

Major League teams are already adjusting to the shift.  Players who can hit the ball all over the field are a hot commodity.  Players who previously only utilized one area of the diamond are learning to hit the ball to openings created by the shift.  As a result, teams are increasingly abandoning shifts against these players.  These developments are a wonderful thing.  Verducci wants to stop that. 

Out of fairness to Verducci, he has even worse ideas such as his "bonus batter" idea that would allow a manager to designate a player who could be called upon to bat one time a game regardless of where he is in the lineup or even if he is out of the game.

Speaking of MLB teams adjusting to changes, another development is that, with fewer position players on the roster, finding players who can play a multitude of positions has become a priority.  An example of that is Kyle Farmer of the Reds.  Farmer has played all infield positions, as well as left field and catcher.  While he's an average hitter and average defensively at all those positions, he is of extraordinary value due to the need for teams today to be flexible.

"Ghost runner?"  I heard that term used in an MLB game the other day.  A change for 2020 and 2021 pandemic seasons is that in extra innings, teams will start out with a runner (the person who made the last out the inning before) with a runner on second.  That person, for some reason, is being referred to as a "ghost runner."  The change is supposed to more quickly end tie games and avoid the infrequent marathon extra inning games. 

The change smacks of a gimmick, a bastardization of the rules of the game.  So I was intrigued by an article which bemoaned the change, pointing out that teams can win in extra innings simply by bunting over the ghost runner and bringing him in on a sacrifice fly.  Good enough so far.  Then the author proposed an alternative - a home run derby!!!  Each team could pick a player to pitch and the team could see how many home runs they could hit before the other team caught three balls in the outfield which didn't make it to the fence.  A run would be added to the score for every home run!  So the score of extra inning games would be like 17-15 or 20-18.  How exciting! 

I'm not sure lengthy extra inning games are a huge problem.   But I'm more open to games ending in ties (maybe after 12 innings) than ridiculous gimmicks like ghost runners or a home run derby.

There are changes to the game I would make:

1) Shrink the length of the season.  Playing and watching baseball in cold weather is awful.  The regular season needs to start and end about three weeks earlier.  This can be done by scheduling day-night doubleheaders on the weekends.  I'm also not opposed to returning to a 154 game season.

2) Playoff and World Series Games need to start earlier.  MLB cannot have its premier games concluding after midnight.   I know the reason the games start later.  MLB wants to try to hit prime time in both the Eastern and Pacific time zones.  But there are a lot more people living in the Eastern time zone and it is important to get those games over before that audience goes to bed.

3) Batters stepping out of the box.  Let's call this the Small Rule as my friend Mark Small is constantly mentioning it to me. Once a player steps into box, he is to stay there until the completion of the at bat.  No stepping out and scratching or doing other things. 

4) Enforce the 12 second rule between pitches.  People do not know this rule exists, but MLB requires that when the bases are unoccupied, pitchers need to throw a pitch every 12 seconds. The rule is consistently ignored.

5) Move the mound back.  Fewer and fewer balls are being put into play which is ruining the excitement of the game.  One of the reasons why is that even middle relief pitchers are throwing in the middle to upper 90s.  While this seems to contradict my earlier position, I don't think human beings are ever going to be able adjust to consistently make contact with balls thrown that hard.  And I don't believe the mound distance of 60 feet, 6 inches is somehow magical.  The mound has been lowered before.  I don't think moving it back is any different.  The MLB is experimenting with this.

5) Modified Designated Hitter.  Okay, to be clear I am not in favor of the DH.  I think it removes a very important strategic decision in the game - when and whether to take out a pitcher for a pinch hitter.  But if the universal DH is going to be adopted, which seems increasingly likely, it needs to be modified.  When a hitter is designated to hit for a pitcher, that DH should be tied to that particular pitcher.  Remove that pitcher and you need to designate another hitter when that relief pitcher's turn comes up in the lineup.  Or you could have the relief pitcher hit (say for example it is only a bunt that the manager wants) and not burn another position player as DH.  My modified DH rule would return a lot of the strategy to the game that the current DH rule removes.  Let's call this the Ogden Rule as I seem to be the only one advocating it.

6) Stealing First Base.  I like this rule.  The ball gets away from the catcher, the batter can opt to try to make it to first base rather than continue hitting.  Right now, the batter can run to first (assuming its unoccupied) on a third strike that gets away from the catcher.  This basically expands upon that rule.  It would be a fairly rare occurrence and would add excitement while not undermining the integrity of the game.  MLB has experimented with this rule in the minors.

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