As the baseball season winds down, I think it a good time to offer some thoughts on aspects of the game.
The basic rules of baseball have remained unchanged for nearly a century. Parks have changed shape and size, but the location of outfield fences has never been standard. The height of the mound has been adjusted, but, from a fan perspective, this has hardly been noticeable; pitchers and hitters adjust.
What recent changes there have been have been a mixed bag. Rules intended to avoid injury-producing collisions at second base and home plate, while somewhat annoying, address fairness and (especially) safety concerns. (The NFL should be so concerned about safety.) It is difficult to make a conscientious argument that player safety should be sacrificed for more dramatic player collisions.
The most conspicuous addition to the major league game is the video review of disputed plays. Such an innovation could only be possible when all games are covered by multiple television cameras. The use of replays is frankly irritating, as reviews interrupt the continuity of the game. On the other hand, they largely make the game fairer. I have always been annoyed, for instance, by out calls at second base as part of a double play when the defensive player at second—the shortstop or secondbaseman—is only in the “neighborhood” of the base. (That is, the runner from first has technically not been put out at second but is called out anyway through a kind of gentlemen’s agreement.) The very existence of replays has largely eliminated this unfair stretching of the rules. On the other hand, the ability of one team to lose the right to demand a replay has the potential to allow bad calls to stand. I must grugingly—very grugingly—concede that video reviews have, on the whole, been a good thing.
Of course, the majority of umpire errors involve the calling of balls and strikes, a fact made obvious by the electronic magic employed frequently in televised games. Should balls and strikes be called by electronics, while the home plate umpire’s duties are limited to evaluating swings and misses and defensive plays at the plate? Perhaps, but this might be a step too far from tradition. In any case, allowing video replays of balls and strikes would be a huge departure from tradition and would lengthen games considerably. Nonetheless, it is infuriating when the home plate umpire calls a ball a strike or vice versa. In defense of umpires, however, it must be said that the man behind both the plate and the catcher has a less than perfect view of the plate.
Umpires are human, and they make mistakes. Actually, they make fewer than anyone has a right to expect. In the old days, we simply assumed that their mistakes would even out and not favor one team or the other. There have been some egregious bad calls by umpires, however, and it is probably best that we have a mechanism by which such mistakes can be averted.
The real impetus for this essay is the 2017 rule allowing a batter to be walked merely by declaring the intention that it be so. This new rule is, I think, a bridge too far. Presumably, it is intended to shorten games. (Baseball owners have become concerned with the length of games, which has been increasing of late. Recent rule changes have sought to speed things up, by requiring that a decision to review a play be made within 30 seconds, for example. Frankly, I’ve always felt that a longer game, and particularly an extra-innings game, gives me more entertainment for my money. Apparently, this view is not universal.)
There are a number of reasons to object to no-pitch intentional walks. First, tradition should not be thrown overboard without good reason, and there are, I assert, no good reasons for the new rule. It will not substantially shorten games. Intentional walks are infrequent, and speeding up an occasional game by a minute or two will make no real difference to anyone.
More significant is the fact that the new means of walking a batter relieves the pitcher of throwing four additional pitches. In an era when managers seldom allow pitchers to throw more than 100 pitches in a game, the new rule can have an effect on when a starting pitcher is replaced by a reliever. Realistically, even a soft pitch thrown to complete an intentional walk takes something out of the man on the mound.
Although I have not seen it done in a major league game, I have seen a batter hit a ball while the battery was attempting to walk him. This takes a good reach, but it can be done. The new rule precludes using this unorthodox move. Likewise, a runner on second could conceivably attempt to steal third while an intentional walk is being effected.
Although walking a batter in the conventional manner hardly requires extraordinary skills of pitcher and catcher, it is always possible that a wild pitch or passed ball could allow a runner to advance or even score. Such a surprising and exciting development is not possible if a walk is simply declared.
Finally, I object to the new walk rule as a fan. I was watching a game the other day and took my eyes off the television for just a moment. Suddenly, the batter was on first base. What happened? What did I miss? It was very disconcerting.
Next, I would like to propose a new rule. Bats are shattering with increasing frequency these days. Parts of bats fly off in all directions, endangering both players and fans. Surely nothing is more distressing to a fan than seeing a bat flying in his or her direction (unless, of course, it is being turned around and not seeing a bat flying at your head). The reason this is happening is that, over the years, players have ordered bats with increasingly slender handles. I personally own a bat with a chubby handle and one with a thin handle, and I can tell you that wielding the thin-handled bat is a lot more fun and can result in lots more bat speed. However, the thinner the handle, the more likely the bat is to shatter at the plate.
Hitters like thin-handled bats because they can be whipped around quickly. If the bat splits, the result is often a bloop single. On the other hand—and this is likely not widely appreciated—if a bat breaks, much of the energy that would otherwise go into powering the ball on its way is instead channeled into fracturing and propelling part of the bat. That bloop single could have been a double or even a home run.
My proposal, then, is that bats, whose weight, length, and maximum diameter are already limited, should have their minimum diameter prescribed as well. I don’t know precisely what the measurement should be or whether it should be a function of the type of wood from which the bat is fashioned. Scientific investigation should be able to set minimum diameters for bats that will minimize turning bats into dangerous missiles. (Please don’t anyone suggest that major league baseball should use metal bats!) MLB, are you paying attention?
Finally, I must comment on the designated hitter rule, that abominable newfangled rule that disqualifies the American League from being able to claim that its teams play true baseball. Baseball owners seem to think that a ballgame isn’t exciting unless there is a lot of hitting, particularly home-run hitting. This simply isn’t true, although the spectators who have become addicted to the gladiatorial fight that is football may indeed be bored by well-pitched, low-scoring games. The true baseball fan, I think, is not.
One of the most exciting baseball games I have ever seen was played this past August 23. The Pittsburgh Pirates bested the Los Angeles Dodgers 1–0 in 10 innings. Dodger pitcher Rich Hill was pitching a perfect game through 8 innings. Pirate pitcher Trevor Williams, for the same 8 innings, pitched out of a number of jams while keeping the opposition scoreless. In the top of the ninth, the perfect game was ruined, not by Hill, but by third baseman Logan Forsythe, who misplayed a routine ground ball and allowed Jordy Mercer to reach first. Nonetheless, the no-hitter went into extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Josh Harrison hit a home run to win the game for the home team. The Dodgers had 8 hits and one error. The Pirates had one hit and no errors.
That game may not be direct evidence against the designated hitter, but it certainly supports the notion that a game can be exciting despite few runs being scored and lots of hits being made by both teams.
The designated hitter rule is predicated upon the assumption that pitchers, who play much less frequently than position players and who concentrate on pitching rather than hitting skills, are, in fact, poor hitters. This is generally true, though not tautologically so. (Babe Ruth would have been a famous pitcher had he not been such a spectacular hitter that he needed to be played every day!) The American League says don’t let the pitcher bat; put in a non-defensive player who can hit in place of the pitcher. Although this results in more hits in a game, it eliminates a good deal of managerial strategy, thereby making the game less interesting. There are fewer sacrifice bunts and no need to remove a pitcher from the game for a pinch hitter. Managers have an easier job in the American League, but the game is thereby impoverished.
It is my fervent prayer that the designated hitter never comes to the National League and that the American League will eventually come to its senses and play real baseball again. Meanwhile, I am happy that the Pittsburgh Pirates play in the National League.