Now that the county has moved past the distraction of a presidential election, it can get back to the important business of its national pastime. From today until Friday, major league baseball’s general managers will convene in California to discuss some important rule changes and, perhaps, a trade or two along the way.
Instant replay will likely be the most spirited issue discussed at the meetings, especially coming on the heels of a postseason fraught with missed calls and controversial officiating. Until recently, baseball’s hierarchy had been resistant to expanding replay, but discussions this week could very well get the ball rolling on some gradual, and maybe even substantial, changes.
An agenda for the meetings isn’t announced publicly, so, aside from replay, just about anything else could come up. Should the GMs find themselves grasping for topics, below are a few suggestions.
Fine Tune the Rule Book
Not only was the quality of umpiring exposed in October, but so too were vague inconsistencies in the rule book, particularly pertaining to contact on the base paths and the infield fly. Both issues were also prominently and controversially on display during the postseason, so, at the very least, a re-examination of those rules seems to be in order.
The infield fly rule should be low hanging fruit. As currently written, the rule is both too vague and too broad in its application. Instead of putting the burden on the umpire to determine when the runners are in jeopardy, and then, when such a determination is made, giving the defense impunity, a better solution would be to mitigate the offense’s risk. This could be accomplished by giving the defense a chance to record only one out once the infield fly rule is declared. That not only minimizes the importance of the umpire’s call (because no one is automatically declared out), but it also reduces the incentive for a defensive player to intentionally drop the ball and also penalizes a team in the event they bungle a play (such as occurred in the National League play-in game).
The second rule that needs to be addressed deals with the increasing amount of violent contact being made on the bases, especially at home plate and second base. For years (here and here), I have argued that baseball rules already prohibit takeout slides after an out has been recorded as well as catchers blocking the plate and runners barreling into them like a line backer on a blitz. For too long, baseball has tacitly accepted these practices, but the stakes are becoming too high. Not only are players being put at risk of career threatening injuries, but their lives are being threatened as well. With all that has been revealed about the long-term impact of concussions, it is unconscionable for baseball to continue allowing activity that poses such a threat while offering absolutely no redeeming value to how the game is played. Either MLB needs to instruct its umpires to start enforcing the rules already in place, or newer, stronger, and more explicit ones need to be written.
Fix the Postseason Schedule
It was considered a foregone that the ALDS would return to the 2-2-1 format in 2013, but the excitement generated by this postseason’s first round might lead some to reconsider. Baseball needs to resist that temptation and restore home field advantage to the higher seed. Granted, the format probably doesn’t weigh too much on field results, but there are other advantages to the 2-2-1 format that should be conveyed to the better team.
Instead of having the top seeded team waiting to find out where it will fly for game 1 of the ALDS, the burden should be placed on the wild card to hop on a plane. Also, there shouldn’t be a day-off between the play-in game and the start of the ALDS. This year, it seemed as if the schedule was structured to accommodate the travel needs of the wild card teams, when instead baseball should endeavor to put every reasonable obstacle in their path to the World Series. Of course, that assumes the motivation for scheduling is based on rewarding the better team. Because players only share in the gate receipts from the first three games of a five-game playoff series, games 4 and 5 are more lucrative for the home team. Under the 2-2-1 format, both teams get one crack at keeping the gate, but under the 2-3 structure, the largess falls into the lap of one team. So, if the owners determine that the financial aspect of scheduling is more important than the competitive angle, they could decide to stick with the 2-3 format, especially if it is viewed as being conducive to playing longer series.
Regardless of how the LDS schedule is structured, baseball needs to ensure other inequities are cleansed from the postseason schedule. In particular, each league’s two LDS should end on the same day. This year, the Yankees ended their series against the Orioles the day after the Tigers eliminated the Athletics. As a result, CC Sabathia was pushed back until game four, while Justin Verlander was lined up on full rest for games 3 and 7. As it turned out, the Tigers swept the Yankees, rendering the scheduling moot, but nonetheless, there was the potential for Detroit to own an advantage it didn’t deserve. If, for logistical reasons (i.e., maximizing TV revenue), baseball can not have both series in the same league end on the same day, it should, at least, ensure the team with the better record wraps up one day sooner.
Trades and Signings!
Granted, the issues mentioned above aren’t very sexy and likely won’t generate many headlines, even if significant changes are made. However, some trades and/or signings could get the hot stove embers burning early. And, because of the new CBA rules regarding free agent compensation, there could be increased activity. Instead of having to wait until December for players to accept or reject arbitration, draft pick compensation is now based on whether or not teams made a qualifying offer to their pending free agents. Because that deadline has come and gone already, teams will enter this week with a better feel for the market and understanding of their needs. The result could be more trades and earlier signings than in the recent past.