Baseball is undeniably at a tipping point. With its two definitive sides, the owners and executives of Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union, pitted against each other in an ongoing Game of Thrones-style fight for the upper hand in the forthcoming labor negotiations.
The ‘winter’ of those unavoidably tense boardroom brawls still lay ahead at least two years. But in the meantime, a rare showing of good faith emerged on Thursday, when the two seemingly immovable sides of the debate on right and wrong in the game finally came to the middle and offered up some imminent changes that will immediately impact portions of the game this season.
Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic and ESPN’s Jeff Passan both broke news of a series of small, yet significant changes that will be introduced to the game over the next two years. While some of the more radical deviations that have been on the table still are out there (more on a few of those later), the announced alterations will have a variety of impacts on how the game proceeds.
While there is still much further to go before either side is truly appeased, lets have a look at what each of the upcoming new rulings mean for the game.
There will be only one trade deadline (starting in 2019)
This is one change that really makes sense. In recent years, knowing exactly when the MLB trade deadline occurred had become an increasingly complicated scenario. There was, of course, the traditionally advertised deadline of July 31. However, more and more teams had begun taking advantage of the waiver-wire deadline of August 31 as well.
This was when if a player — often a highly compensated, older one — was presented to each team, they had an option to claim or pass on him. If he cleared past each team, he was eligible to be traded to any team then. Effective immediately, that is no more, as there is a single, comprehensive deadline. This will force the salary dumps forward with the strategic maneuvers and increase the urgency around the deadline buzz, with pennant chase rosters being more or less set for the final two months of the season. A good deal.
A further reduction in mound visits (starting in 2019, potentially expanding in 2020)
In pure nod to the need for a change in pace of play, restrictions on the amount of times a team can visit its pitchers on the mound during a game have continued. This a pretty straight forward decision and a good idea if keeping the clock moving in a non-radical direction is the goal.
In 2018, the allowed visits during a game was six, in non-pitching change situations. Underneath the new ruling, that will decrease to five and could go down to four in 2020.
Pitchers are required to face a minimum of three batters (starting in 2020)
This is an issue that could cause the most rumbling amongst the union. It is another move that is based in speeding up the game, however it also strikes at the heart of game strategy, the type of change which the players and managers have been staunchly against.
The strategy impact lies in that it removes the ability to counter a lineup with a same-handed pitcher late in games. On the labor front, it also potentially compromises the type of pitchers that are given opportunity, most noticeably the situational left-hander who is called on for tough left-handed batters, but rarely, if ever, sees the light of day against a right-hander.
The union is completely against changes that could limit opportunity for its members, so this could be one that is brought up for review in a few short years.
Commercial breaks during innings will be shortened (2019)
This is a minor tweak in the pace of play battle, as it will give back three guaranteed minutes back to each game. The mid-inning commercial break will be shortened by 20 seconds (or the equivalent of roughly one commercial) to two minutes.
Limiting who is allowed to pitch... when (2020)
In 2018, a record 48 positional players took to the mound. The difference being that the option began to be used by managers in lieu of burning innings on a reliever in a game that was beyond redemption. Of course, this led to some entertaining forays by guys that had not pitched in an actual game since high school, but it also caused for some unnecessarily drawn out games as they, predictably, got hammered.
One of the new rule provisions will eliminate this is a bail out option going forward, as positional players will not be allowed to pitch unless a team is already either up or down by eight runs.
But worry not, this will not impact Shohei Ohtani from continuing his one-man double duty act when he returns to the mound in 2020. Certain players will be allowed to be designated as “two-way players”, given they have at least 20 innings worked in the current or previous year.
Rosters will expand ever so slightly (2020)
The limitations of who can be used when will be slightly offset by an expansion of active rosters from 25 to 26 throughout the full season. This will allow for the active roster to be used more creatively (as well as provide an extra 30 MLB contract spots as well). This could make the pathway to the inevitable expansion of the designated hitter to the National League to occur more seamlessly, while also affording more space for relief arms.
Another notable change via this rule is the adjustment of active September roster size. Currently, a team’s entire 40-man roster is available on September 1. Under the upcoming provision, while a team can still feature up to 40 active players, only 28 will be available during a given game.
Giving the All-Star Game (further) to the people (2019)
All-Star voting will still be conducted in its current format – but with a twist. The top three vote recipients will move into a finalist selection process on All-Star Election Day. Starters will be selected in a one-day online vote by fans, like the current Final Vote effort. An added twist is that the players that are selected will receive a bonus payment.
This is an exciting extra step to garner fan involvement and insight into the ultimate exhibition game, as there should be. Lets just keep the Russian involvement in this American institution’s election process to minimum, please?
Incentives for the Derby (2019)
Although the MLB All-Star Home Run Derby has not fallen as far by the wayside of a lack of superstar involvement as the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest, there still has been a lack of true best of the best hitters participating in the Derby repeatedly.
One of the most intriguing changes that was put on the table was the $2.5 million worth of prize money that will be up for grabs in the Derby, with $1 million being earmarked for the winner. While that still may not be enough to entice the dream collection of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Station, Bryce Harper and (gasp) Mike Trout to get into mix, it still is enough to move the dial to mobilize more superstars to sign up.
Think about it: $1 million is more than what Judge, Alex Bregman and Cody Bellinger will make on the field for the schedule this year.
Thursday’s changes touch on a variety of expected, anticipated and controversial lanes of the game. Although issues of a pitch clock, expanding the DH and most importantly, fixing the competitive issues surrounding tanking and salary manipulation remain up in the air. No long-term agreement will be possible without an evolution and settlement in all of those regards. These are issues important to player, owner and fan alike.
The bottom line: it is good that both sides of the baseball world are talking, negotiating and fostering some actual change. The most promising outcome of all is the announcement of a “Joint Committee” that will further discuss issues and rule changes, featuring representatives of ownership, the commissioner’s office and the MLBPA. It is a more than reasonable expectation that baseball can move forward, while still holding its traditions tight and true.
Change is necessary. But a lost of the game in full due to an inability to settle on these topics, is not.
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