A couple years ago, I was watching a San Francisco Giants baseball game on TV. The game was tied in extra innings (for my unbaseballed readers: if the game is tied at the end of the normal game length, they keep playing more innings until the game isn’t tied anymore at the end of an inning). It is well known in baseball that some pitchers are better at pitching against certain types of batters; for example, pitchers tend to be better at getting out batters who bat with the same hand that the pitcher throws with. Giants manager Bruce Bochy wanted to put in a left-handed pitcher (I don’t remember the names of any of the players involved here, nor do I remember the opponent) because the next batter was left-handed, but the existing right-handed pitcher would be preferable for the right-handed batters following this one. Once a player is removed from the game, he may not re-enter the game, and being that this game had gone to extra innings, there were very few players left, especially pitchers, who could enter the game.
Something happened here that I had never seen in all the decades I’ve been watching baseball. Instead of removing the pitcher, Bochy removed an outfielder from the game, and the right-handed pitcher moved to left field, where the upcoming left-handed batter would not be likely to hit the ball. After that left-handed batter had finished his at-bat against the new left-handed pitcher, the right-handed pitcher came back to the mound to pitch, and a new outfielder entered the game.
Baseball, especially in leagues where no designated hitter is used, is a game of brilliant strategy. This part of the game seems to be misunderstood these days by all but the most dedicated baseball fans. For years, baseball executives have been pointing out that interest in the game is slowly declining, because younger generations see baseball as a slow and boring game. I wouldn’t disagree with the slow part, but I disagree with the assumption that being slow is a bad thing. I can go to a baseball game with someone and, because of the slow pace of the game, I don’t have to choose between spending time with my friend and paying attention to the game, as is the case sometimes with, say, basketball, where the ball is constantly moving and scoring happens often. And, if you know enough to follow the strategy, baseball is not boring at all. The number of strategic moves required to maximize the team’s chance of scoring, and the excitement of seeing whether or not a strategy succeeds, makes for a very exciting game.
Major League Baseball has proposed a number of rule changes for the 2020 season, and as far as I can tell, the brilliant strategy described above, in which the pitcher briefly moved to left field, would be against the rules for two reasons under the new rules. Players would be designated as either pitchers or position players, prohibiting pitchers from playing any other position in the field. This situation that I described would be uncommon, but it is fairly common to use pitchers as pinch runners late in the game, and this would seemingly be prohibited as well. (For the unbaseballed: this means substituting a player when they are already on base, so if a slow player gets a hit, he might be removed from the game and replaced with a fast player to run the rest of the bases and have a better chance at scoring because of his speed. I should also acknowledge that there are inconsistencies in the articles I’ve read about the rule changes, and I’m not 100% sure that using pitchers as pinch runners would be against the rules.)
But there is another rule that clearly would affect the game in profound ways: a pitcher will be required to pitch to a minimum of three batters. In the scenario I described above, the pitcher only pitched to one batter, and this is far more common than any of the other unusual strategies I have described. And this rule change affects so many aspects of the game beyond on-field strategy, extending to front-office decisions about which players a team chooses to sign and the value of pitchers in a trade or free agent signing. Many pitchers have specifically built careers around being specialists who are brought in just to get one batter out, typically a batter of the same handedness. This gives them an additional advantage of being usable in more games, since pitching to only one batter does not wear out their pitching arm or require resting over multiple games before pitching again. Now, their skill sets will be rendered invalid with the stroke of a pen.
The justification for this rule change is to speed up the game. Some of the proposals to speed up the game I’m perfectly okay with, like shortening slightly the breaks between innings. But changing the strategy and the value of certain skill sets will change the game so fundamentally as to render it almost unrecognizable to some of us long-term fans. And I’m not sure I buy the argument that the young have attention spans too short to appreciate baseball. After all, younger fans have embraced soccer at levels heretofore unprecedented in the USA, and soccer is certainly a game requiring patience with so few goals being scored. Or maybe the problem is that fewer kids are playing baseball, with other sports and activities such as competitive video gaming taking up their recreation time, so they never learn all the strategies involved with baseball.
Bruce Bochy and his strategic brilliance will not see these rule changes, since he is retiring at the end of the 2019 season. But there is another generation of fans for whom the game will not be the same as it was before. So how does baseball revitalize and reinvent itself for the younger generation? I don’t know. The world is a different place than it was a generation ago, and I realize that baseball has been through major rule changes before. One theory I’ve heard is that MLB owners receive so much revenue from licensing deals that they have little financial incentive to put a winning team on the field, which makes some organizations perpetually not competitive. Maybe we need to look at that. I don’t have a definite answer. But is it worth it for the game to lose its soul over this?