Decade Of Change: The 10 Step Program To Improving Baseball

Welcome to SB Nation's 'Decade Of Change' series. We'll present a series of articles throughout the week, representing every sport. Each one is authored by a blogger from within our vast network and will outline various aspects of their favorite league they'd like to see changed by the end of the new decade. Now up: MLB, authored by Jeff Sullivan, editor of SB Nation's Mariners site, Lookout Landing.

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Decade Of Change: The 10 Step Program To Improving Baseball

A couple years ago, when I was just getting to know my current girlfriend, she hated baseball. Hated it. It was one of the things we’d talk about most often. "It’s so boring!" she would tell me. "How can you spend so much damn time watching it and writing about it day after day?" She didn’t understand how I – or anyone for that matter – could do what I do.

By and large, of course, good relationships are founded upon shared interests. If there’s something that you know your partner really enjoys, you should make an effort to enjoy it, too. That way you can enjoy things together. Talk about them together. Bond over them together.

We still talk about baseball from time to time. Ask her what she thinks about it now, and she’ll tell you it’s probably not the worst thing in the world.

Baseball, rather obviously, is a popular sport. An immensely popular sport. But it’s a sport that attracts particular sorts of people. It doesn’t have hockey’s speed or blend of skill and strength. It doesn’t have basketball’s pace or high scoring. It doesn’t have football’s ability to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t have soccer’s whatever it is that makes people like soccer. Baseball is a very deliberate game.  It’s one of the only sports wherein competitors are able to think their way through almost any given situation before it happens. As such, it has a tempo all its own, and while it’s this tempo and thinking-man’s appeal that draws a lot of us in, it’s also the very thing that pushes a lot of people away. If you don’t like baseball because it’s too slow or too boring, chances are no one will ever be able to change your mind.

Baseball fans are okay with that. We’re generally not the preachy sort. We love the game and the league the way they are, and if you disagree, then the loss is yours and yours only.  With that said, no matter how much we love the game, it’s not perfect, and not even the hardiest fan in the world would tell you it is. This game could use some changes. Not changes to make it more appealing to a broader viewership, but rather changes to make it more appealing to us, the core audience.

I’ve listed ten such changes to Major League Baseball below. Some of these changes are my own ideas. Some of them are ideas I’ve heard before. In general, I think the game could change for the better in three areas: (1) entertainment, (2) parity, and (3) safety. This is far from a complete list, and I don’t expect many or any of them to take place over the next ten years, but I think that each and every one of them would help improve a game we love, but have the capacity to love even more.

ENTERTAINMENT

Phase in replay and robots. This is the obvious one, and the most controversial one. Newer technology has presented us with the ability to review pretty much any call an umpire makes. This, in turn, makes umpires almost obsolete, save for certain situations. The result is that we get a group of baseball fans in support of higher accuracy arguing against a group of baseball fans in support of preserving tradition.

Look, I get the tradition thing. I know how much change sucks. But why do umpires exist? Umpires exist to make rulings on the actions on the field. Umpires are trained to be as accurate as is humanly possible. Turns out the maximum threshold of human accuracy is lower than the level of accuracy we can get from a TV or computer.
      
Baseball is the only sport that has the opportunity to get nearly every single one of its calls right on the field. The only sport. We can review every single pitch or tag or foul ball without interrupting the pace of the game. So why wouldn’t we? I get that human error has some appeal in that it gives everyone something to talk about, but wouldn’t you rather have people talking about the game? Baseball is a competition between two teams, and because of that, it seems to me that you’d want to minimize the influence of a subjective third party. Everybody who watched this year’s playoffs knows that a bad call can have a dramatic effect in dramatic situations. How is that a good thing? How is that in the best interests of the game?
      
Baseball has the means of getting better in this regard, and I think it’s imperative that the league takes measures to do it. You don’t eliminate umpires altogether. You can still have them on the field to make calls. You just make sure those calls are confirmed before play resumes. Once this sort of thing is implemented, there is no way – no way – that, five or ten years down the road, anyone would think the game is worse off.

Quicken pitcher pace on the mound. Pitchers are going to take their time, and that’s fine. Pitching requires a lot of thought. It requires a lot of strategizing. But sometimes certain guys will take that to the extreme. Miguel Batista and Steve Trachsel, for example, are renowned for how slowly they work. Sometimes you’ll see a guy throw over to first four or five times in an at bat. Mound visits are another issue that can really kill the mood. In order to keep the game moving forward, I think pitchers should be timed, pickoffs should be penalized (after the first one), and mound visits should be limited. The pitcher throwing the ball to the catcher is the very core of the game. Ultimately, we want to see more of that and less of all the other stuff.

Limit or penalize mid-inning pitching changes. While a pickoff or a mound visit can serve as an annoying pause, I don’t know if there’s anything worse than the mid-inning pitching change. The mid-inning pitching change sends you to commercial and delays the game by a good three minutes. That is an absolute tension killer, something that actively reduces one’s level of entertainment. There should be restrictions. I don’t know the best way to do it. You could mandate that every reliever has to face multiple batters. You could give managers one mid-inning change a game. You could force guys to come in without warming up. There are a lot of ideas out there, and I don’t know which is best. I just know that something ought to be done, because with the way things are now, the later innings of a close contest can feel an awful lot like the final minute in the NBA.

Penalize intentional walks. The intentional walk sucks. It sucks. I get the strategy, but the strategy is basically "I don’t like this situation so I’ll chicken out in favor of the next one," and that’s stupid. It is not in the best interests of the game to have Ichiro or Albert Pujols or Barry Bonds get fewer at bats. I like the two-base penalty idea I’ve seen in a few places. Double the cost of the IBB. And to make sure pitchers don’t cheat by issuing non-intentional intentional walks, apply the same rule to any four-pitch walk. Any pitcher should be able to throw at least one strike per at bat. Do this and managers will think twice about avoiding the next superstar or No. 8 batter or what have you. It’s a more radical change than the others in terms of on-field effect, but it’s one that I think everyone agrees would increase the game’s excitement.

***

PARITY

Even out the American League and the National League. The AL has 14 teams, the NL has 16 teams, and for some reason people just accept this. What it means is that, in any given season, any team in the AL will have a 14% better chance of making the playoffs than any team in the NL. That’s…what? How can you justify having four teams in one division and six in another? Being a Mariners fan, I know it works to my personal benefit, but that’s crazy, and no possible scheduling or interleague explanation can convince me that what we have now is somehow optimal. You don’t have to re-align all the divisions if you don’t want to. Just move one team over. It’ll be weird, but then it’ll be fine, and it’ll make a hell of a lot more sense.

Resolve the payroll problem. People always think it’s jealousy or sour grapes, but let’s face it: when one team can spend $201m on its roster in 2009 while another team spends $37m on its own, something’s broken. We’ve all just kind of grown to accept it, that the Yankees and Red Sox can play with fake money while other teams invest too little, but that gives us a playing field that’s way out of whack, and the gap between the haves, the have-nots, and the haves-but-want-to-be-perceived-as-have-nots will only get wider as the level of information increases. Again, I’m not sure of the best way to handle this, whether it be by introducing salary caps and floors, penalizing high or low payrolls, or plopping a third team in New York, but something needs to be done if baseball wants to be seen as fair. When one team can sign CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, and Mark Teixeira in the same winter, parity is an illusion.

Condense the playoff schedule. Right now, there are so many days between games and rounds that a team’s depth is never tested. In the playoffs, for example, the Yankees gave 78% of their innings to Mariano Rivera, CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, and Andy Pettitte. In the regular season, those four accounted for just 48%. The Phillies rode Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, and the Mariners, right now, are set to press ahead with Lee and Felix Hernandez. Teams that are top-heavy are at an advantage in the postseason, as they’re able to maximize the playing time given to their best players. This is all well and good, except for the fact that the regular season is a test of the roster entire.
      
The result? The regular season and the playoffs kind of reward different things. Depth is absolutely critical during the summer, but as soon as October rolls around, it’s virtually irrelevant. That’s weird. How do you reward one thing for six months and then have a tournament that rewards something else? The playoffs will never be perfect, as people can’t even agree on the purpose of their very existence, but we should, at the very least, attempt to make them a little more consistent with the other 162 games. And by eliminating as many off days as possible, we could even extend the division series to seven games.

Resolve the PED problem. This addresses a different sort of parity – parity not between teams, but between players. Either draw a clear line between what’s allowed and what’s not – and justify that line – or, more aligned with my preference, legalize and monitor the use of PEDs. Personally, I’ve never really had that much of a problem with PED use. Not only are players always going to find ways to cheat, but more importantly, I don’t get why they’re against the rules.
      
The example I always go back to is Lasik eye surgery. PEDs use artificial means to, in theory, improve one’s performance. Lasik eye surgery does the same thing. Why is one okay while the other isn’t? They both represent advances in medical technology, and they both, in theory, may give certain players certain advantages.
      
If someone can draw a good line, that’s great. But I don’t think that’s possible, which is why I think we should just let players do pretty much whatever they want, just so long as they’re doing it safely. People in any field will take anything for anything as long as they think it’ll help. This has gone on forever, and it’ll continue that way for as long as competition exists. The problem is the secrecy. Get it out in the open and, before long, the problem will go away.

***

SAFETY

Take measures to reduce take-out slides and home plate collisions. Take-out slides and home plate collisions are considered to be among the toughest parts of the game, but they’re also dangerous, and unlike in football or hockey, the players on the receiving end generally aren’t in any way prepared to take a hit. Which makes them a real issue. Players should be automatically ejected and suspended for any take-out slide that’s seen as excessive or carries them away from second base (the "Jose Guillen"), and the same should go for any player that initiates a collision at home plate. If you have to collide with the catcher to try to be safe, you made the wrong decision to run. Plays at home plate should either be automatic forces, or the runner must attempt to slide in to safety. Either works. Just eliminate the collision. They aren’t allowed at any other base, and all that padding doesn’t mean a thing if the catcher’s trying to field a bounce.

Penalize the HBP. Sometimes a pitch will just get away from a guy. It happens, especially when you’re trying to throw inside. HBP’s shouldn’t totally screw a guy over. However, I do think they should be penalized more severely than they are now, so that the penalty can serve as an additional deterrent. Any beanball below the neck should warrant a two-base penalty. And any beanball to the neck and the head should warrant immediate ejection and suspension, even if accidental. Throwing at a guy isn’t tough. It’s dangerous. Aside from a little helmet and layers of back fat, hitters are defenseless, and baseballs go fast. So measures need to be taken to greatly reduce the intentional beanball. Also, as always, any beanball perceived as intentional, even if to the back, should warrant ejection and suspension, so that pitchers can’t get away with throwing at a guy in a blowout. 
      
To make sure hitters don’t take advantage of this, the batter’s box could be moved back an inch or so, and umpires could be more vigilant about penalizing them for either stepping out of the box or not making an effort to move out of the way of an inside pitch.

***

Baseball will never be a sport that appeals to everybody. Baseball’s pace is its most distinguishing feature, and it’s a pace that’s always going to be right there at the heart. But that isn’t to say that baseball, as constructed right now, is a flawless game. Above, I’ve presented a detailed but incomplete list of possible changes that could enhance Major League Baseball’s levels of entertainment, parity, and safety. These are areas that could each stand to improve, and the sooner baseball recognizes the ways in which it can move itself forward, the better off it’ll be.

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