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Let’s talk about the big rule changes baseball is contemplating

Universal DH? No more one-batter relievers? Roster expansion?

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Texas Rangers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

One of the more beloved aspects of baseball is its familiarity over generations. Baseball is played today with more or less the same rules as it was 100 years ago - four bases, three strikes, you’re out; three outs to an inning. But nothing is impervious to change, and even baseball has made some tweaks along the way, most notably adding a designated hitter in 1972.

Baseball has seen its national television ratings slip, and attendance, which was at an all-time high in 2007, has seen steady erosion since then. To stem any further decline, the owners and players have both introduced several new proposals to change the game, according to both Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic and ESPN reporter Jeff Passan. Some of thes proposals may be mere posturing as a negotiating ploy for further talks on the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but many of these will be seriously debated as ways to improve the game. Let’s go over some of the suggested ideas.

Universal designated hitter

This is the big one, and it has been an issue debated on sports talk radio since, well, since the American League adopted the designated hitter. The idea has been proposed recently by the MLBPA, since it would give more plate appearances to hitters who could increase their earning potential. The proposal, according to Passan, could be implemented as soon as this year, although there is pushback to move

Most likely this is a bargaining chip to be used against owners who won’t be wild about having to spend more money on designated hitters.

I don’t think it would lead to a huge bump in salaries however. For one, no one seems to be landing those kind of deals this off-season. Second, teams have been moving away from full-time designated hitters for awhile now. Just ten players made 80+ starts at DH last year, and one of them was pitcher Shohei Ohtani. Making the DH universal would open up some jobs for the players, but it is probably not as big an impact financially as you might think.

As for whether a DH should be universal, I’m not wild about the idea. For all my jokes about the American League being the superior league and how silly it is to have pitchers bat, I like the contrast between the leagues. It is really the last thing separating the two leagues, which once operated almost like rival college conferences. Erasing the line moves us just one step closer to merging the two leagues with radical realignment along geographic lines which I am not a fan of at all.

Using the DH in interleague games might be a fine idea, especially for NL fans who never get to see it, but let’s hold off on making the rule universal. I still want to make fun of pitchers swinging the bat.

Three-batter minimum for relievers

Baseball wants to stem the rise of pitching changes, as well as end the practice of using a starting pitcher to face just one hitter only to turn to a reliever and gain a platoon advantage as the Brewers did in the NLCS last year. Owners have proposed requiring each pitcher to face a minimum of three hitters, with exceptions for when a pitcher ends the inning or gets injured. The union has not vigorously opposed the idea, which could lead to it becoming a rule soon.

I understand the motives behind the proposal, I’m just not sure I see the problem as that significant. Mid-inning pitching changes can drag a game down (looking at you, Terry Francona), but there also is a fair amount of strategy that provides an added wrinkle of intrigue in games. Pitcher usage has changed so much in just a few years that I’d like to see how it works itself out before added rules that hamstring what a manager can do. Baseball has constantly been a game of adjustments and re-adjustments. Let’s see how teams counter it.

That said, I can’t really think of a good reason NOT to do this, other than I don’t like limiting managerial strategy. I could warm up to this idea if I weren’t so adverse to change.

Expanding rosters to 26

This could be coupled with the three-batter minimum rule and would limit the number of pitchers on a roster to 12. Major League benches have been getting very thin lately - often American League teams will carry just one backup catcher, one backup infielder, and one backup outfielder. Benches are thinning to get more pitchers on the roster to create more matchup advantages.

Expanding rosters is fine, but I suppose the more significant move would be limiting the number of pitchers to 12. That might give rise to more two-way players like Shohei Ohtani. Already you are seeing teams flirt with the idea with players like J.D. Davis and Matt Davidson. In fact, you may not even need the three-batter minimum rule so much if you limit the number of pitchers on a roster to 12, since teams won’t have the luxury of burning one of their 12 pitchers on just one hitter.

Baseball is also proposing reducing September rosters to 28, instead of 40, which may cost some youngsters some playing time but is otherwise a sensible move.

Changing the draft order to punish perpetually bad teams

There aren’t a lot of details out on this, but according to Rosenthal, the union has proposed “lowering of a team’s draft position for failing to reach a specified win total in a certain number of seasons.” This is presumably to disincentivize “tanking” by teams with multi-season rebuilds. Passan fills in more details:

Low-revenue teams that succeed -- whether by finishing above .500 or making the playoffs -- would be given greater draft positions or bonus pools under the union’s proposal, according to sources. While the depth of the penalties were not clear, the union suggested teams that lose 90-plus games in consecutive years could be affected negatively in the draft.

This could be potentially interesting, but there are a lot of details that need to be ironed out. But as a Royals fan, it would be great to see further incentives to reward smaller market teams that are successful. This may not entirely take care of tanking, since tanking also involves clearing payroll and selling off assets for young, controllable prospects. But it would be a step in the right direction to reward teams that succeed, rather than teams that fail.

Other rule changes being proposed:

Consolidating the trade deadlines and moving it up to before the All-Star break makes a bit of sense. It always seemed silly to have two trade deadline (a non-waiver deadline at the end of July and a waiver deadline at the end of August). However moving it up to early July would likely reduce the number of transactions because of the uncertainty as to whether teams are in contention or not.

A 20-second pitch clock should absolutely be adopted, and if you don’t agree with me, go watch Pedro Baez pitch. Passan notes that the clock might be turned off with runners on base.

A reduction of mound visits from six to five seems fine. Can’t say I really noticed that rule much this year.

Increasing the time required on the disabled list to 15 days seems like a good idea. This would also increase the number of days spent in the minors before a recall to 15 as well. The Dodgers and a few other teams seemed to abuse the 10-day rule for the DL and minor league assignments last year, essentially giving them expanded rosters and logging thousands of airline miles for their pitchers.

The union proposed additional service time for performance, playoff appearances or awards to get around service time manipulation, but those don’t seem likely to have much of an impact.

A rule to allow two-sport athletes to sign Major League contracts would be for Kyler Murray, although you could see more athletes try to play multiple sports in the future. Getting those athletes to at least try a pro baseball career seems like a good idea, but what stops other draft picks from saying “uh yea, I’m a two-sport athlete too, give me a Major League contract”?

A rule placing a baserunner on second base in spring training games and the All-Star Game when the score is tied after the 10th inning seems inocuous enough since those are meaningless exhibition games, but if this is a slippery slope to getting this rule into regular season games, I will lead the “impeach Rob Manfred” efforts.

A study to lower the mound seems wise at this point. Baseball lowered the mound following an insanely low-scoring season in 1968, and with strikeouts at an all-time high, it makes sense to look into doing it again. MLB may also want to take a close look at how a slightly bigger and heavier baseball affects home run rates in the Korean Baseball Organization this season, as a way of reducing home runs and emphasizing putting the ball in play more.

What do you think about these proposed changes to baseball?