It has become tiring to describe baseball and those in it and just outside of it, as crusty. But it also hasn’t stopped me from being crusty on certain subjects that MLB has discussed to try and liven the game up. I hate the expanded playoffs. I don’t mind the DH in the NL anymore, though I used to be an ideologue. I hate the idea of banning the shift, but love a pitch clock. Perhaps it’s time for me, along with others, to stop picking and choosing and just see what happens with all of it.
Perhaps my fear is that once something is introduced into any sport, it generally becomes entrenched. Which is why I’m living through 3-on-3 overtime and shootouts in hockey even though they don’t make any logical sense. The Manfred Man runner in extra innings is still with us (not a ghost runner, as there’s an actual, live human being on 2nd to start the 10th. Except the times it’s Albert Pujols). So whatever rules changes you or I don’t like, or experiments in the minors that will eventually make their way to the majors, once they arrive it’s more likely that they stick than just pop up for air for a season or two and then disappear.
Still, my ears perked up today when MLB announced that, in the minors for the second half of the season, second base will be moved closer to the pitcher’s mound, and hence closer to first and third base. I had never really considered that second base wasn’t actually 90 feet from its compatriots, but Jayson Stark does a pretty excellent job of explaining why it wasn’t here, and what this change will do. Reading it will make you wonder why it took 150 years to even think about. Baseball just moves slower, but the flashbacks and nightmares of geometry class were much quicker to arrive upon reading Stark’s article.
The obvious result, or the one that MLB is hoping for, is to up steals. A foot might not seem like much, barely 1 percent of the distance. And yet you’ve seen enough attempted steals that end in bang-bang plays to know that flipping a bunch of caught-stealings into stolen bases doesn’t take more than a minor change. Combined with bigger bases that essentially bring the base toward the runner and the runner away from gloves attempting to apply a tag, and it’s clear that baseball wants more green lights on the basepaths.
And these changes…what can it hurt? At least to see? It’s unlikely that we’ll get back to the 80s and teams like the Cardinals running wild every inning of every game (to the point that field crews would water their infield dirt to the point of mud to try and stop them). Players aren’t brought through the minors honing their stealing instincts much anymore, so perhaps it’ll take time for this kind of change to really bear fruit, as players make their way through the minors working on it more now that the runways are open.
And baseball needs more action. Stolen bases are action, and show off a variety of skills we don’t get to see nearly as much these days. Hell, the bigger bases are basically meant to combat Javy Baez specifically. But not only are stolen bases action, there’s a flare to them the game could use more of. There’s always a touch of arrogance and panache to a player stealing a base, given how much effort the pitcher and catcher put into not letting them do so. It’s the shooting over a double-team or threading a pass through double coverage of baseball. It’s no coincidence that baseball’s steals king, Rickey Henderson, is perhaps also its greatest character.
However, this doesn’t really solve baseball’s biggest problem, which is that there aren’t enough guys standing on first to try to steal second right now. The single has been suffering a wheezing death over the past decade. Last year there were 25,006 singles in the MLB season. Compare that with 2015, when the number was 28,016. Or 2011 when it was 28,418. That’s a 12 percent decrease in 10 years. Your instinct is to say those have been replaced by walks, but there’s only been a five percent raise in walks over the same span (all numbers from Fangraphs).
But as part of a package…sure. The ban on shifts is meant to promote more singles, though how many line drives over where the second baseman used to stand that are now caught will be saved is hard to know. Preliminary evidence suggests it might not make much difference at all.
But these problems that baseball has probably require a host of answers. Maybe some hitters will be more willing to accept a single instead of swinging for Poughkeepsie if they know they have a better chance of swiping second and third. A pitch-clock might reduce velocity enough for more contact. Maybe one day they’ll actually figure out what to do with the baseball and sticky stuff, which they’re sadly miles from currently.
The NBA needed a change on hand-checking and defensive three seconds to open up its game. Football needed a combination of pass-interference rule changes and what DBs could do at the line and for how long. Hockey continues to mess with goalie equipment size, and crackdowns on interference via different methods. First it was holding and grabbing. Then it was hooking. Now it’s cross-checking. There’s never a magic bullet.
And baseball will find a better environment for these changes if assholes like me don’t wet themselves when something they don’t like is suggested. There’s no question that baseball needs help, and the problems have gotten deep enough that nothing should be ruled out or not experimented with. I could point out what could hurt and what could go wrong. But more than enough has gone wrong with baseball leaving itself alone. At this point, it’s deep enough in the muck that “Why not?” really has to be the pervading attitude among the players, brass, and fans.
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