If Major League Baseball has proven anything over the last quarter century, it’s that if its rules committee gives teams an inch they will hypothesize how to turn it into a home run.
For those who subscribe to the metrics now ruling the game, and the machinations managers and general managers make to best utilize them, this news from the Associated Press will not surprise you.
In 2016, MLB decided to shorten stints on the disabled list for players from 15 to 10 days as part of their collective bargaining agreement with the players. The feeling was, in most cases, two weeks was a bit excessive and that players were ready to go before the calendar allowed. It seemed like a proactive move, one which was met with a consensus of approval.
It also decreased the time players sent to the minor leagues – optioned is the proper term – had to spend there before they could be recalled.
But behind the scenes, the stat geeks were working hard to figure out a way to manipulate the changes in such a way to help them gain a competitive advantage.
They did it but apparently, it has upset some important people, and now it looks like the new rules will be rolled back to the good old days.
MLB is now proposing moving DL stays back to 15 days and adding time a player must spend in the minors after being optioned.
Why is this happening? MLB has statistical proof the original changes have added to an increased reliance on relief pitchers and that those fresher, stronger arms have resulted in diminished offensive production.
Look at these numbers: Teams used an average of 3.4 relievers a game in 2018 (16,399 total), up from 3.0 just eight years ago. As you would conclude, this has resulted in a decrease in innings starting pitchers throw. It was 5.36 in 2018, down from 5.89 in 2012.
As a result, MLB’s batting average for all its teams dropped to .248 last season, the lowest in 36 years. Strikeouts also broke records for the 11th straight year, increasing to 41,207, which for the first time in history exceeded the number of hits (41,019). That is astounding.
Always remember something. MLB loves power and run-scoring. Why do you think it looked the other way during commissioner Bud Selig’s era when the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) became mainstream?
Who could have ever imagined that a guy like Brady Anderson would hit 50 homers in 579 at-bats in 1996 after hitting just 16 in 554 the year before?
According to numbers the AP has obtained from the commissioner’s office, assignments to the DL rose from 563 in 2016 to 737 last year.
Here’s a possible reason: Teams have discovered starting pitchers are more prone to be hit harder when facing a lineup for the third time, in most cases somewhere around the sixth or seventh inning. This did not make them happy.
And so, GMs and managers have used the moderated lengths of stay on the DL and in the minors to recycle middle relievers more quickly for use in reprieving starters. In theory, this gives teams more rested arms at a quicker rate to fill more innings than before.
In 2018, it resulted in an abomination of the game’s tradition – in the eyes of its conservative fan base – when the Tampa Bay Rays began games by starting relief pitchers.
This revamped plan would require players reassigned to the minors to spend at least 15 days there. Do the math: That lessens the number of potential rested relievers a team could call on, thereby reducing the number of pitching changes that slow the game and skew offensive statistics.
The only exemption to this directive would be when a player needs to be recalled to replace someone who is going on the DL, is suspended under drug or domestic violence policies or is on bereavement or maternity lists.
This request is not being made on its own. There are a bundle of game-changing initiatives MLB would like the players association to consider. Among them is the installation of a pitch clock, something that was experimented with last spring training and used in the Minor Leagues.
According to the AP, management is allowed on its own to make these changes, as long as they are implemented following advance notice of one year to the players. But MLB would rather play good cop by including the players in these discussions so they can be a part of the change, if or when it happens.
The players have unconditionally resisted the pitch clock, so in order to speed up games – which averaged 3:00.44 in 2018 – MLB imposed a limit of six mound visits in nine innings without a pitching change by a manager, coach or player.
Those rules seem to be working. The time of the game is down to almost five minutes and mound visits are down to 4.01 from 7.41 in 2017.