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Grading baseball's new rule changes

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Ten changes, all graded from "A" to "F." There will be no math.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Changes are coming to baseball. Purists hunker down in their purist bunkers, faces streaked with pine tar and rosin, ready for the battle. Internally, they have disagreements about how pure the purest purist platform should be -- no batting helmets? 16 teams? Every team should be required to have a minimum of 18 players with nicknames like "Granny" or "Pie Face?" -- but collectively, they're a veritable force. Baseball should never change. Never ever. No more changes. The game is perfect as is.

To which baseball responds: Hi, here are 10 changes to the rules, effective immediately. Purists will be taken seriously only if they respond by telegram.

Are these changes necessary, welcome, inconsequential or a complete disaster? To find out, here are the 10 rule changes, lifted verbatim from the MLB press release and graded from A to F on if they make sense, if they help speed the pace of play or improve the replay system, and if they don't screw the game up.

1.

The pace of game program will enforce the batter’s box rule, requiring that all batters must keep at least one foot in the batter’s box unless one of a group of exceptions occurs.

Here are those exceptions, which, if you are short on time, aren't very controversial. The rest of the rules aren't this long, I promise:

(1) The batter shall keep at least one foot in the batter’s box throughout the batter’s time at bat, unless one of the following exceptions applies, in which case the batter may leave the batter’s box but not the dirt area surrounding home plate:

(i) The batter swings at a pitch;
(ii) The batter is forced out of the batter’s box by a pitch;
(iii) A member of either team requests and is granted "Time";
(iv) A defensive player attempts a play on a runner at any base;
(v) The batter feints a bunt;
(vi) A wild pitch or passed ball occurs;
(vii) The pitcher leaves the dirt area of the pitching mound after receiving the ball; or
(viii) The catcher leaves the catcher’s box to give defensive signals.

If the batter intentionally leaves the batter’s box and delays play, and none of the exceptions listed in Rule 6.02(d)(1)(i) through (viii) applies, the umpire shall award a strike without the pitcher having to deliver the pitch. The ball is dead, and no runners may advance. The umpire shall award additional strikes, without the pitcher having to deliver the pitch, if the batter remains outside the batter’s box and further delays play.

Rule 6.02(d)(1) Comment: The umpire has the discretion to issue a warning to a batter in lieu of calling an automatic strike for the batter’s first violation of Rule 6.02(d)(1) in a game, so long as the batter’s violation is judged to be brief and inadvertent. The umpire shall give the batter a reasonable opportunity to take his proper position in the batter’s box after the umpire has called a strike pursuant to Rule 6.02(d)(1) and before the umpire calls a successive strike pursuant to Rule 6.02(d)(1).

(2) The batter may leave the batter’s box and the dirt area surrounding home plate when "Time" is called for the purpose of
(i) making a substitution; or
(ii) a conference by either team.

Rule 6.02(d) Comment: Umpires shall encourage the on-deck batter to take a position in the batter’s box quickly after the previous batter reaches base or is put out.

Grade: A

I empathize with the people complaining that baseball doesn't have a pace-of-play problem. Baseball works beautifully as a sport of contrast, a ponderous sequence of inaction punctuated by bursts of excitement. If there are bodies colliding at 100 mph, something went wrong, and that's the point. Baseball is supposed to be this meditative. That's the point.

No one wants to see players walking around the batter's box, though. No one. The purest of the purist can't argue in favor of a player heading halfway to the on-deck circle, tapping his helmet, adjusting his gloves, tapping his cleats, taking a half-swing or three, then putting one ... foot ... back ... and ... digging ... it ... in ... then ... the ... second ... foot .... If there were an ill-advised Naked Gun remake, you could probably do a solid Frank Drebin bit on this. (I have a treatment for this remake, call me Ashton.)

Want to step out? Call time. That makes sense. Too much sense. I want to be reflexively angry at these changes, but they're off to a good start.

2.

A second new component to the pace of game program is the addition of timers that will measure non-game action and break time between innings and pitching changes during each Major League game.  One timer will be installed on or near the outfield scoreboard, and a smaller timer will be installed on the façade behind home plate near the press box.  Immediately following the third out of each half-inning, the timer will count down from 2:25 for locally televised games and from 2:45 for nationally televised games.  An MLB representative attending each game will operate the timers from the ballpark and will track the following events:

Time Remaining

Activity

40 Seconds

PA announces batter and begins to play walk-up music

30 Seconds

Pitcher throws final warm-up pitch

25 Seconds

Batter’s walk-up music ends

20 Seconds-5 Seconds

Batter enters the batter's box

20 Seconds-0 Seconds

Pitcher begins motion to deliver pitch

Grade: C-

This is the slippery slope to pitch clocks, but that's not what bothers me. I don't mind pitch clocks, and a big reason is that they're simple. Get ball. Throw ball before clock run out. Get ball. Throw ball before clock run out. Caveman noise. Get ball. Throw ball before clock run out.

That up there, though, is a convoluted terms of service that you skip over to start your download. Walk-up music SHALL END no fewer than five seconds BEFORE the batter actually walks up to the plate, but NO LATER than five seconds after the pitcher throws his final warm-up pitch, which SHALL COME 10 seconds after the walk-up music starts. Someone's job will be to watch this process and record who is violating the rules, and that person has already started drinking to compensate for all the dead inside.

Pitch clocks would be a less invasive first step. Then ease in one of those time requirements. Then another. All of the above at the same time is likely to be a noticeable mess, at least at first.

3.

Pitchers will be permitted to throw as many warm-up pitches as they wish prior to the point when 30 seconds remain on the clock; however, pitchers will be deemed to have forfeited any of their traditional eight warm-up pitches that they are unable to complete prior to the 30-second deadline.  Exceptions to these rules will be made in a variety of circumstances, including if the pitcher or catcher ended the prior half-inning at bat or on base.

Grade: B

I had to read it seven times, so the grade is subject to change. Basically: Hey, pitchers, make sure you don't dilly-dally with those warm-up pitches. The introduction of the 30-second countdown is somewhat obnoxious, but a pitcher can throw four or five pitches just in that 30-second period. As long as the pitcher can somehow work in three or four pitches in the 90 seconds before that, they'll get the eight they've always been entitled to. This should affect only the chronic dilly-dalliers.

4.

Batters will be encouraged to get into the batter’s box with 20 seconds remaining on the timer.  This is the same time that the broadcasters return from commercial.  The pitcher is expected to begin his motion to deliver the pitch as soon as the batter gets into the batter’s box and becomes alert to the pitcher.  Batters who do not enter the box prior to five seconds remaining on the timer and pitchers who do not begin the motion to deliver the pitch prior to zero seconds remaining on the timer will be deemed to have violated the break timing rules.

Grade: D+

Look at how clunky that reads. If it's not something that's easy to put into words, it's not likely to be something that's easy to enforce smoothly. Maybe if we dumb it down it'll make more sense.

  • With 20 seconds left on the clock, when we come back from commercial break, the batter is gently encouraged to get into the box, if he doesn't mind, really, we insist.

  • The pitcher waits for the batter to look up, possibly wink, then starts his motion.

  • But if the batter waits until five seconds, he's in big trouble.

  • The pitcher should watch the timer, too.

  • Persons deemed to have violated the break timing rules will be kept in a concrete box below the ballpark for one week.

  • Respect the timer.

  • Embrace the timer.

  • The timer contains a liquid core, which, if exposed due to rupture, should not be touched, inhaled, or looked at.

  • Do not taunt the timer.

How do you enforce this rule in spirit without a visible timer? An umpire with a stopwatch or timer. Try that out, first. The rules are the same, just let the umpires handle it. If a player is too slow, the umpire informs him of the problem. After a warning or two, then start with the concrete box below the ballpark. The visible timers seem like something that will annoy players and fans alike.

5.

These rules will be enforced through a warning and fine system, with discipline resulting for flagrant violators.  No fines will be issued in Spring Training or in April of the 2015 regular season.  Donations will be made to the Major League Baseball Players Trust charitable foundation based on the level of adherence to the new rules.

Grade: D-

Oh, come on. Just call a ball or a strike depending on who is violating the rule. Don't bring money into this.

Unless it's, like, a $100,000 fine for each transgression, which would lead to players completely freaking out. Now that's something we can GIF. Anything in the middle is tacky.

6.

Managers may now invoke instant replay from the dugout and will no longer be required to approach the calling umpire to challenge a call.  Managers may hold play from the top step of the dugout by signaling to players and the home plate umpire that he is considering a challenge.  A decision can be communicated verbally or with a hand signal.  To challenge an inning-ending call, managers will be required to leave the dugout immediately in order to hold the defensive team on the field.

Grade: A-

The coy-not-coy dance last year was irritating. The manager would lumber out to the field, taking his sweet time, obviously stalling while his video monkeys watch the replay. The manager would talk to the umpire, saying things like, "I am obviously stalling while my video monkeys watch the replay, how are the kids?" The manager would get a thumbs up from his bench coach and the process started, or the manager got a thumbs down and lumbered back to the dugout.

The downside to eliminating the Dance of the Lumbering Skipper might be that incorrectly called plays don't get challenged because there's no time to review the video. This will likely happen a few times without the indefinite stalling, but the top-step rule is a fair compromise. The manager still has a way to stop play from resuming, but we don't have to watch him lumber quite as much.

7.

Whether a runner left the base early or properly touched a base on a tag-up play will be reviewable.

Grade: A

Would have loved to hear the rationale for leaving it out in the first place.

8.

A manager will retain his challenge after every call that is overturned.  Last year, a manager retained his challenge only after the first overturned call.

Grade: A

The point of instant replay was to get the calls right, not to get as many calls right as possible until it adds an additional five minutes in every 20th game because of especially rare umpire incompetence. I don't remember many games last year where this was even an issue, so the only effect this should have is that there's a greater chance of more correct calls.

9.

A manager must use a challenge in order to review whether a play at home plate included a violation of the rule governing home plate collisions.  However, in the event that a manager is out of challenges after the start of the seventh inning, the Crew Chief may still choose to review whether there was a violation of the rule.

Grade: A

Bruce Bochy would challenge the plays when the catcher's butt came within a foot of the dirt path before receiving the ball. When asked about it, his response was more or less, "Why shouldn't I?" There was no risk. Here, then, is a risk to consider when seeking the reward of a run taken away. Managers can still challenge clear-path violations, but the frivolous cases were essentially eliminated with this simple change.

10.

During Postseason games, regular season tiebreaker games and the All-Star Game, managers will now have two challenges per game.

Grade: B

Again, the goal is to get the calls right, so this will help in theory. What this will do in practice, though, is give the managers an IDK YOLO challenge in every postseason game. If the replay monkeys are watching closely, one replay challenge should be enough. If it's good enough for the regular season, it should probably be good enough for the postseason.

More postseason calls will be correct, though. That's the end result of this change, so there's no point in railing against it.

Summary: The replay revisions are generally outstanding, no one wants to see batters screw around outside of the batter's box, but the not-a-pitch-clock clock is somewhere between unpleasant and repugnant. Until everyone gets used to it, that is. Once there's a rhythm, maybe we won't notice it at all.

Maybe we'll have more games closer to three hours. That's the point, after all, and if the timer-based pressure becomes something players can follow unconsciously, everything up there is retroactively given an "A." I have a feeling, though, that there will need to be some adjustments after some initial bugs.

It's hard to get irate about any of the changes, even for purists. Not yet. This looks like it all has a ceiling of completely unobtrusive and a floor of bothersome. When games are actively screwed up, we can complain a lot more. We'll be right here for you.