The current Collective Bargaining Agreement between owners and players expires this December, and while we should not expect an interruption of the unprecedented two decades of labor peace, the negotiations does give baseball a chance to examine the current state of the game. Rules will be amended, policies changed, and Commissioner Rob Manfred has repeatedly said he will keep an open mind to new ideas to improve the game.
Jim Bowden of ESPN wrote recently that the pace of play has become a big concern among Major League executives and that there will be a determined effort to tweak the game to reduce the amount of dead time. He also expects some changes to other aspects of the game, such as expanded roster in September, and perhaps increased discussion on the state of the designated hitter rule.
Let’s take a look at some of the rule changes he expects major discussion on this off-season and how it might affect the Royals.
September roster expansion
Some recent games have featured a ridiculous number of pitching changes due to expanded rosters, leading some to call for an end to the practice of increasing roster limits in September to 40. The Royals have benefited from September expanded rosters, calling up speedster Terrence Gore the last few seasons to use as a strategic weapon late in games as a pinch-runner extraordinaire. Ending the practice could also hurt them by preventing them from seeing what some of their minor league callups can do against Major League pitching.
Bowden suggests having a 30-man roster all season, with a 25-man active roster each game, similar to how football has declared actives for each game. It would allow teams a bit more flexibility in dealing with paternal and bereavement leave as well as the daily grind that leads to injuries and fatigue. Such a proposal could help the Royals add some more relievers, allowing them to rest their elite relievers more, possibly increasing their effectiveness.
However, such a proposal seems counterproductive to the goal of decreasing reliever usage. Teams would likely “deactivate” the four starting pitchers that aren’t pitching that particular night, giving them an additional four relief pitchers to their bullpen. Imagine what Terry Francona could do with that many pitching change options!
Pitch clock and hitters staying in the box
This seems an inevitability. Pitch clocks were implemented last season in minor league ballparks and it is just a matter of time before they are in MLB ballparks. It is tough to say what, if any, impact this will have on the Royals. Edinson Volquez has one of the slowest paces by any pitcher this year, but Yordano Ventura is one of the quickest workers. Hitters like Lorenzo Cain may have to take some adjustments to stay in the box, but overall this is probably a net wash.
Pitching change limitations
No one pays good money to see the manager waddle out to the mound to bring in his third relief specialist of the inning. Pitching changes can bring a lively game to a screeching halt in the late innings, so baseball could look to limit the number of times a manager can make a change. This should not affect the Royals too much, under Ned Yost, the Royals have the third-fewest relief appearances in baseball this year.
Trips to the mound
Currently coaches can only make two visits to the mound per inning before pulling a pitcher, but teammates can visit a pitcher as much as they want, at the discretion of the umpire. Bowden suggests that coaches trips to the mound could be limited to just one per inning. Again, this should not affect the Royals very much.
There are already reports the act of performing an intentional walk is on the way out. Instead, teams would just signal they want to walk the hitter, and would not need to go through the motions of throwing four balls. The impact is very small, but the potential for runners to take an extra base is removed, which could hurt a team that relies on aggressive baserunning like the Royals.
Cut-down between-inning dead time
Aside from shortening the number of warm-up pitches, this isn’t likely to affect how the game is played much, but it would potentially decrease revenues because it cuts the number of ads television and radio stations can run between innings. For that reason, it seems unlikely this proposal is adopted.
Improve instant replay
Bowden suggests an instant replay umpire dedicated to each game, with quicker communication to bench coaches via headsets. Some would like to do away with replay altogether, although the Royals have been excellent at challenging replays, winning 24 of 35 challenges. This proposal isn’t likely to change the game on the field, but tightening up the replay process would be a welcome change.
DH or no DH
According to Bowden’s sources, a majority of teams want one universal rule on the DH for both leagues. Managers favor no DH, but the union is likely to hold a hard line on keeping the DH so aging sluggers can still land lucrative deals. Although the Royals have gotten good hitting out of designated hitter Kendrys Morales, they play more of a National League-style of baseball with low scoring, and an emphasis on speed and defense. In the unlikely scenario where the DH is abolished, the Royals could benefit greatly.
Major League Baseball has not expanded since 1998, the longest period without expansion since they began adding teams in 1960. Commissioner Rob Manfred says expansion is unlikely until stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay are resolved, but with support for a team in Montreal growing, baseball could look to expand to new markets in Portland, Charlotte, Nashville, Las Vegas, or even in Mexico.
Expansion usually hurts the better clubs, who must protect many players from the expansion draft, exposing good players to the new teams. However, it is hard to say where the Royals will be by the time teams are added. Expansion also tends to dilute pitching, which could hurt the Royals, who have had trouble building much pitching depth.
This radical idea does not seem to be a proposal with legs, but Bowden suggests it anyway. At first blush, this might seem to be a huge advantage for the Royals, a team that struggles with starting pitching, but has an elite bullpen. Shortening the game allows them to get to their dominant relievers sooner.
However, the Royals bullpen advantage has a lot to do with their depth. Many teams have elite closers, but lack the seventh and eighth inning relievers to get the ball to the closer with a lead. Shortening the game allows for other teams to go from their dominant starting pitcher to the dominant closer, with no crummy middle reliever in between to cough up the lead to the pesky Royals. Thankfully, this is a far-fetched idea.