It's the middle of March. Offices around the United States are losing productivity because workers are in their cubicles filling out their NCAA brackets. But while they are trying to figure out if Duke or Gonzaga could possibly go all the way, radio sports talk hosts are pontificating which number 12 seed will beat a five this year, and UCLA and USC are wondering if the NIT will call (they didn't), major league baseball has decided to sneak some rule changes by you like a 100 mile-an-hour fastball.
Several of these rule changes go into effect this year, with more on the way for 2020. Some are intended to speed up the game, and some seem to be out of left field, but they have been agreed to by the owners and players. They are, however, still subject to ratification by all 30 major league clubs. The following are the changes, coupled with a one-word reaction, and a slightly longer explanation...
RULES THAT TAKE EFFECT THIS YEAR
There will only be one trading deadline this year: Curious. There has been a July 31 deadline, followed by an August 31 deadline where players have to clear waivers before they can be moved. The waiver process was always complicated for fans, but there never really seemed to be an outcry for it to be eliminated. The only deadline now is July 31, which means general managers will have to decided earlier whether their team is in contention or not. It will be interesting to see if this means more trades or less, but I'd probably take the under.
More Home Run Derby Money: Hopeful. Major League Baseball is increasing the total prize money for the long-ball contest the night before the All-Star game to two-and-a-half million dollars. The winner gets a cool million. While this is designed to entice the big sluggers, Yankees outfielder and Sacramento area native Aaron Judge, who makes only about 600-thousand, says he won't do it. He won the derby a couple of years ago but injured his shoulder in the process.
All-Star game voting done in two rounds: Interactive. Fan voting will be done in two rounds. The 'primary round', which is the traditional ballot, will narrow the field to the top three players at each position. Then, there will be an 'Election Day', when fans vote the winners. It seems the design is more fan involvement, but we'll just have to wait and see.
All-star extra-innings will start with runner at second: Indoctrination. Remember the tie in Milwaukee? Starting this year, if an All-Star game is tied after regulation, each extra inning will begin with a runner at second base. The rule is designed to get the thing over with earlier, but unfortunately, it's also a sign that MLB will eventually bring this rule to the regular season. They used it in the last World Baseball Classic starting in the eleventh inning, but I think it only came into play once.
Mound visits will be reduced from six to five: Irrelevant? I couldn't come up with a single word for 'poking the bear', but Google taught me another way to say that is 'never tickle a sleeping dragon.' Last year, MLB instituted the six-mound-visit-a-game rule to curtail those pitcher-catcher conversations during the game. You know what” It worked. No one can seem to recall when a team was forced to remove a pitcher because they were out of mound visits. That's a good thing. The goal was achieved. But because there was no penalties, baseball is perhaps creating a situation where there doesn't need to be one. The word 'unnecessary' applies here, but that's coming up again later.
Commercial breaks between innings shortened: Hypocritical. 'Sanctimonious' would be another good one. At first glance, 'Hallelujah' should be the word. I've long said that if baseball truly wanted to speed up the game, they could eliminate a 30-second spot between innings. With 18 half-innings (assuming a bottom of the ninth), that's nine minutes. That's a great start. Instead, baseball is cutting five whole seconds, from 2:05 to two minutes. National broadcast breaks are 2:35—those will be cut to two minutes as well. You likely won't hear the uproar, but this rule is really stupid.
RULES THAT TAKE EFFECT NEXT YEAR
There's more meat to these, both good and bad...
Injured list reverts back to 15 days instead of 10: Legitimizing. With the old 15-day rule, teams might wait to see how hurt a guy really was before they put him on the DL, so the rule was changed to ten days so teams wouldn't need to be shorthanded. However, ten days really means missing only turn in the rotation for a starting pitcher, so teams would put a guy on the Disabled List if he had a bad outing or two, or needed some rest, or so another guy could come up and pitch. The Dodgers were masters at manipulating the DL, and many other clubs also did it, so it's been changed back. It's kind of like MLB pleaded 'no contest'. They are changing it back without admitting they screwed up.
Relief pitchers must face a minimum of three batters instead of one: Controversial. This is the big one. Announcers have been talking at length about this one with no real consensus, but if you ask me (and no one has, which is why I'm writing this), this is fundamentally bad. All of these other changes are either creating a new rule, or tweaking something outside the real game (home run derby, etc.). It's been in the rule book for 150 years that a pitcher must face a minimum of one batter. The intent is to drastically reduce in-inning pitching changes, which definitely slows down the game, but there actually are a limited number of pitchers. I had never heard this term before this week, but the change would all but eliminate what players apparently call a LOOGY (lefty one-out guy). I heard one broadcaster say, “Let's try it and see how it works.” Sure, and let's just have two strikes or one inning. We'll all get home a lot more quickly if that's the goal.
Rosters expanded to 26 players: Wimpy. This seems to be hailed as the best thing to come along since sliced bread, but it's really an example of how timid sports has become. The reason for the expansion is because teams are carrying so many more pitchers than they used to. They are complaining that they only have three or four bench players. If they used fewer pitchers, or let them stay in a game longer, this wouldn't be an issue. Teams also would be allowed a 27th player on days when they play a doubleheader.
The 40-man roster in September will be eliminated: Celebrated. I haven't been against the 40-man as much as most people, but you do have to agree it is ridiculous to play by a different set of rules in the final month of the season, especially for contending teams. Last summer, I came up with the idea of having up to 40 eligible players, but you can't use more than 25, but you don't have to announce which 25 before the game. I'd like to see something like that, ut the new cap will be 28 players in September. Seems like a decent compromise.
Number of pitchers on a roster will be capped: Unnecessary. If you are limited to 26 players, why does it make a difference how many pitchers you have? The number has not been agreed upon yet, ut if figures to be 13, or maybe even 14. On a National League team, 14 pitchers would mean 12 position players, which would be your starting eight, and four guys on the bench including your backup catcher—same as you have now.
Position players will not be allowed to pitch, unless...: Overprotective. Well, that's what they are aiming at. There are exceptions, and those include extra-innings or blowouts (defined as a team being up or down by more than six runs). There will also be a new designation of a 'two-way player'--someone who has pitched at least 20 innings and had three plate appearances in at least 20 major league games. Move over Shohei Ohtani.
With apologies to Bill Maher, those are your new rules. They will be in effect until the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2021 season. In agreeing to these terms and conditions, there will not be a pitch clock and the designated hitter will not find its way into the National League. At least that's something.
Earlier than the rising sun: You have to get up pretty early in the morning if you want to see the beginning of the baseball season. Games count for real between the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners in Tokyo, Japan Wednesday and Thursday. Both games will be televised live by ESPN. First pitch is 2:30am Pacific Daylight Time. Dave Flemming and Eduardo Perez will have the call. Replays are scheduled to air on MLB Network at 1pm and 10pm.
Tourney talk: Haven't really had time to fill out brackets yet, but here are a couple of my favorite matchups. I like western teams so Utah State-Washington is a good one. I was hoping for Nevada-Montana, but the Grizzlies would have to upset Michigan, and Nevada beat Florida to make that happen...Arizona State got the play-in game against St. John's, meaning a coaching matchup of Bobby Hurley and Chris Mullin.. Nevada was ranked number six in the country a couple of weeks ago, so it's disappointing to see them as a seven seed.
California Dreamin': Quick. Name the only two California schools selected to the NCAA Tournament field of 68. No UC:LA, USC, Cal, Stanford, San Diego State, Fresno State, or even Pacific this year. The answer is Saint Mary's (a perennial team that usually provides Gonzaga's only competition in the West Coast Conference) and the mighty Anteaters of UC Irvine, the Big West conference champs. Eleventh seed St. Mary's will play Villanova. UCI, a 13 seed, will play fourth seed Kansas State in San Jose on Thursday. A lot of the so-called experts are smelling upset in that one.