I rejoice that there are owls.... They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have.
- Thoreau (Really)
Sometimes you write something, publish it in some form or another, and wish you could take it back, just take a mulligan. Heck, I do it all the time. The usually enjoyable Jason Stark is probably feeling like that just about now.
His latest stab or stabs over at ESPN are about how to change the intentional walk rule followed by his top-25 "rule changes". I have rule changes in quotes because a number of his changes aren't changes at all, but I digress.
First, to his main argument regarding the intentional walk. He has three solutions:
1. One intentional walk per player per game
2. On an intentional walk, every runner gets to move up a base
3. The hitter can decline the intentional walk
I have to start by saying that I disagree that intentional walks are causing a problem. I wondered who was right about that. Here's a table of the percentage of intentional walks per plate appearance and per total walks since they started recording intentional walks in 1955:
The 2002 figures were lower than the historical average. They are higher than they had been since the early Nineties, but much lower than the late Sixties and early Seventies. I think we can state that the game itself doesn't have a problem.
So who's the problem? Barry Bonds, of course. Or perhaps it's the men pitching to Bonds. What am I, a knucklehead? It was evident in the World Series. Well, I have to agree with Sandy Alderson, I liked the Series:
"First of all," Alderson said, "I don't totally agree that those intentional walks (in the World Series) created some kind of black hole of excitement. As I was watching those games, to me, there was a lot going on.
"You were always thinking about what happened with (Kenny) Lofton, what happened with (Rich) Aurilia and (Jeff) Kent, about what was going on ahead of Bonds. Obviously, it deprived people of the opportunity to see Bonds swing the bat. On the other hand, it created a lot of interesting strategic considerations, which I think most baseball fans would appreciate."
I am still not convinced that walking Bonds the way that teams did this year didn't help the Giants more than it hurt them. I know Bonds' scoring percentage after a free pass was abysmal, but I just have to believe that the additional burden wore down the opposing pitching over time. But since I don't really have a way to test that theory just yet, on to bigger and better things.
If the Go-To-First-Free cards that Bonds is continually collecting really constitute a problem, so what? Bonds is, and this is empirically provable, quite a unique individual. One could argue that his like only comes around every 50 years or so. Are we going to alter the rules so drastically over one guy? I think not.
However, if we do alter the rules, this aint the way to do it. All three points are obviated by the point that Tony LaRussa makes quite clear:
"The biggest hole in that one," La Russa said, "is, you can walk a guy intentionally in an unintentional way. Just have the catcher sit out there and throw four sinkers in the dirt."
Of course, instead of real intentional walks, we'll have unintentional intentional walks. We have 'em now as it is. What will be the result? There'll be some more passed balls, some more wild pitches, and a few more hits due to balls that tail near the strike zone. How does that improve the game?
As for his third option, to not accept an intentional walk, players can do it now. They just get put out. From the rule book:
(a) Automatic putouts shall be credited to the catcher as follows:
(6) When the batter is called out for refusing to touch first base after receiving a base on balls;
At least the good readers at ESPN have been able to see through this bluster. 64% of them voted in the ESPN poll to keep the rule as it is.
As for the rest of Stark's rule changes, they reflect the population he polled-baseball people with axes to grind:
1. Use instant replay
OK, fine, but it would have to be on certain plays. You would have to get the players' and the umpires' union to agree-good luck. Also, baseball complains about game length now, what would this do to things? How about just having extra umpires on the right and left field lines like in the playoffs?
2. Stay in the box
This is annoying, but do we need to have umps watching where the batter's feet are? The box is obliterated after the first inning anyway.
Just tell the umps to be less lenient in giving time-outs. By the way, it's already in the record book:
(a) The batter shall take his position in the batter's box promptly when it is his time at bat. (b) The batter shall not leave his position in the batter's box after the pitcher comes to Set Position, or starts his windup. PENALTY: If the pitcher pitches, the umpire shall call "Ball" or "Strike," as the case may be. The batter leaves the batter's box at the risk of having a strike delivered and called, unless he requests the umpire to call "Time." The batter is not at liberty to step in and out of the batter's box at will. Once a batter has taken his position in the batter's box, he shall not be permitted to step out of the batter's box in order to use the resin or the pine tar rag, unless there is a delay in the game action or, in the judgment of the umpires, weather conditions warrant an exception. Umpires will not call "Time" at the request of the batter or any member of his team once the pitcher has started his windup or has come to a set position even though the batter claims "dust in his eyes," "steamed glasses," "didn't get the sign" or for any other cause. Umpires may grant a hitter's request for "Time" once he is in the batter's box, but the umpire should eliminate hitters walking out of the batter's box without reason. If umpires are not lenient, batters will understand that they are in the batter's box and they must remain there until the ball is pitched. If pitcher delays once the batter is in his box and the umpire feels that the delay is not justified he may allow the batter to step out of the box momentarily. If after the pitcher starts his windup or comes to a "set position" with a runner on, he does not go through with his pitch because the batter has stepped out of the box, it shall not be called a balk. Both the pitcher and batter have violated a rule and the umpire shall call time and both the batter and pitcher start over from "scratch." (c) If the batter refuses to take his position in the batter's box during his time at bat, the umpire shall order the pitcher to pitch, and shall call "Strike" on each such pitch. The batter may take his proper position after any such pitch, and the regular ball and strike count shall continue, but if he does not take his proper position before three strikes are called, he shall be declared out.
3. Establish visiting hours
There are already rules regarding the number of trips to the mound per batter per pitcher per inning. When the rule was written, of course, the number of relief pitchers per game was a bit lower, but is it that big a deal? If baseball wants to shorten games, why not specify the amount of time that the manager/coach has to convey his thoughts to the pitcher and start the clock from the time that he steps out of the dugout to get rid of the slow walk to get the reliever a few extra tosses in the pen. A better way to shorten games would be to take shorter commercial breaks between innings, but no one in baseball would suggest that.
4. Toughen up the save rule
The save rule is a bit outdated. What closers pitch three innings now? Why is holding a three-run lead deserving of a save? As many have pointed out, games sometimes need saving in the seventh inning, so why is only the man who finishes the game eligible for a save?
There are some issues with the save rule, but one must keep in mind that there are a number of records that would have to refigured; otherwise, the new "save" would have no context, and if that were the case why have the stat at all? Also, relief pitching is constantly changing. Are we prepared to rewrite the record books as well as the encyclopedias every 20 years or so? Why not base it on research by Bill James-reward only relievers who come in with the score tied or a one-run lead? Why not add the concept of a hold (as an official stat), which has more relevance all the time? Also, he mentions messing with what constitutes a win for a reliever: "And relievers shouldn't get a win if they blow a save." Actually there is a provision in the rules for this already:
WINNING AND LOSING PITCHER
10.19 (c) When the starting pitcher cannot be credited with the victory because of the provisions of 10.19 (a) or (b) and more than one relief pitcher is used, the victory shall be awarded on the following basis: (4) The winning relief pitcher shall be the one who is the pitcher of record when his team assumes the lead and maintains it to the finish of the game. EXCEPTION: Do not credit a victory to a relief pitcher who is ineffective in a brief appearance, when a succeeding relief pitcher pitches effectively in helping his team maintain the lead. In such cases, credit the succeeding relief pitcher with the victory
One last note, this was obviously raised by a GM or GMs, who are sick of overpaying for 30-save guys who subsequently underperform. My answer to this is, "Do your homework!" Don't sign Antonio Alfonseca and Kelvim Escobar to huge contracts because the have big save totals to go along with their big ERAs.
5. Ban the fake-to-third, throw-to-first move
This is a rather specific situation. It only relates to runners at first and third. There were 5782 such plate appearances last year out of the 186,553 recorded in 2002. That's about 3%. That scenario only came up in about two-third of all games played.
And was it an issue in those games? The stolen base success rate was 79.23% in those scenarios in 2002. It was 68.20% in all situations. That's about a 10% improvement. Also, the average OPS in those situations was .819 as opposed to the major-league average in all situations, .745. Also, grounded-into-double play rates went up in those situations from 2.06% to 5.98%.
This is a non-issue.
6. Three pickoffs and you're done 7. Five for fighting 8. It takes two
Do we really need to legislate away bad decision-making?
(6) I believe it was Bob Gibson who said that the best pickoff move is the one that's never (or rarely) seen. Excessive pickoff attempts are a sign of a faltering pitcher and usually just add to the wear on his arm. There is no way to say with any degree of authority since pickoff attempts are not recorded and successful pickoffs appear as caught stealing, but I would think that throwing to first more than a couple of times is a bad idea. The runner gets to see more of your move and, I believe, is usually more successful because of it. Let the pitcher learn from his mistakes.
(7 & 8) Managers will inexplicably go to their second left-handed setup man to face one lefty bat even though left-handers bat .342 against him and better pitchers (usually the closer for one) are available. How many times did we see this last year even in the playoffs with good bullpens? Let the good managers figure this one out. Or let organizations develop enough talent to accommodate the strategy. Either way it will take time, years, to change. Why take a snapshot at developing strategy and try to shore up its shortcomings before it has reached a maturity level.
My questions are: What are the penalties if you break these "rules"? Umpires can't call balls and strikes yet and you want them to count pickoff attempts?
9. Let's not see you in September
I've discussed this one before. Oh, GM sounding board thy name is Gammons. It's just impractical. What are you going to do, limit all clubs to 30 players? Why can't struggling teams try out new talent in September to assess their offseason needs? If you have difficulty identifying the Tigers, at least you get to see different sucky players. I know it's irksome when it affects a pennant race, but you can't give non-playoff teams an unfair advantage. How do you even identify the non-playoff contenders? I know GMs get made because of a Francisco Rodriguez-type who may affect a race (my archetype is Marty Bystrom in 1980), but he really is just sour-graping the teams with more depth in the minors that they are competing against.
10. Unify the numbers
Who cares? Basically, this hadn't been much of a problem until Mark McGwire in 1997. Last year, Colon, under unusual circumstances, won 20 games but wasn't credited with the feat. Anyone actually concerned with the stats can see through league-boundaries. Also, this isn't really a rule, more an accounting thing.
11. Waive the waiver system
Again not a rule, more a procedure. OK, it makes sense given the drift against league schisms in the majors. But basically, who cares?
12. Erase the runner's box
Here's the offending rule:
A batter is out when ; (k) In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs outside (to the right of) the three foot line, or inside (to the left of) the foul line, and in the umpire's judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base; except that he may run outside (to the right of) the three foot line or inside (to the left of) the foul line to avoid a fielder attempting to field a batted ball;
Basically, it is designed to prevent the batter/runner from evading a tag from the first baseman after he fields a ball. It's just a line, a guide. It's still the umpire's call, just as Stark wants it to be. Obviously right-handed batters have a slight disadvantage since the start out on the opposite of the diamond. What does Glanville want to be able to do, run in the dirt in fair territory on bunt attempts? C'mon, he knows better than that-he went to Penn.
13. Define the true meaning of sacrifice
"So why wouldn't they have the discretion to give "sacs" to guys who obviously are hitting a ball to the right side to advance a runner?" Because it will mess up the historical record, that's why. Is Andy Fox prepared to go back through history and record the new sacs? Add a new official stat called Moved Runner as a catch-all for these sorts of things. It could be interesting. Get rid of the meaningless sac fly if they want. But don't make a ground ball to the right side a non-AB.
14. Dump the designated pinch-runner
Again some GM with a short bench and manager who cannot manage is grinding an axe. How many times does this come up in a game? It has to be in the late innings with a close score. If a manager can save players for this strategy and win, more power to him. It seems that Stark wants to bleed all strategy out of the game and replace it with gimmicks and pickoff counts.
15. But add the designated fielder
Only in bizarro world can 15 follow 14. Stark says in 14, "One-dimensional hitters: bad. That's our motto." But why are one-dimensional fielders good? This is some allegedly tradition-laden approach to the game that overvalues Phil Rizzuto and Ozzie Smith. Yes, they were great but not have as good as, say, Cal Ripken because he could hit. Besides how can you have one man cover all eight defensive positions? Are they cloning Bert Campaneris? Isn't this just another guy on your bench, be it Alex Ochoa or Jerry Martin? It sounds like the same GM in 14 complaining that he has to waste a roster spot on a defensive player when he has no offensive bench.
16. Ban all body armor
Again, this isn't really a rule change, and again is another thing umpires have to monitor. How about each player carries a doctor's note to bat? Leave it up to the trainer/team physician. Just make the batter stand in the batter's box and it's irrelevant.
17. Invent the "team" error
No, it's someone's play. He just didn't make it. The rule doesn't even have to be changed to accommodate this:
NOTE (2) It is not necessary that the fielder touch the ball to be charged with an error. If a ground ball goes through a fielder's legs or a pop fly falls untouched and in the scorer's judgment the fielder could have handled the ball with ordinary effort, an error shall be charged.
Just have the official scorers call such misplays an error on the player concerned. Of course, you can't blame the defense if a Texas-Leaguer finds a seam. There also are gap hits that would be easy flyouts if hit to someone.
18. Enforce the batter's box
At least he admits that this is not a rule change. Just tell the umps to call it. They could add a rule that states that any batter trying to rub out the lines will get a strike called. That would help keep the lines in shape for the entire game not just for the leadoff hitter.
19. The phantom must go
Here we go again:
Any runner is out when_ (a) (1) He runs more than three feet away from a direct line between bases to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball;
b) He intentionally interferes with a thrown ball; or hinders a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted ball; A runner who is adjudged to have hindered a fielder who is attempting to make a play on a batted ball is out whether it was intentional or not. If, however, the runner has contact with a legally occupied base when he hinders the fielder, he shall not be called out unless, in the umpire's judgment, such hindrance, whether it occurs on fair or foul territory, is intentional. If the umpire declares the hindrance intentional, the following penalty shall apply: With less than two out, the umpire shall declare both the runner and batter out.
Call the batter out when a runner at second goes two feet to the right of second to interfere with the relay throw and you'll get rid of the so-called "phantom" tag.
20. No more Saturday night games
Again this is not a rule change. Besides what about we adult fans who want to see a game on a Saturday night? How about bringing back the old double-header to accommodate us both?
FIVE MORE FOR FUN
21. No more out-of-the-baseline rule
How about making the dizzy bat contest count in the standings? It's just crazy enough to work.
22. Farm out the Brewers
A) Fix that loophole in the next CBA. B) What is Stark smoking? Aside from the impracticability (are they affiliated with the new major league team? What about the prospects on that new major league team-does the old major-league affiliate forego compensation for them? Do we want Durham in the majors? What about rebuilding teams-do they have now to worry about holding on to enough aging stiffs in order to not finish last in the majors, thereby delaying their prospects' growth? Is the team with the worst record always the worst? What about ones from tough divisions? What about ties? Etc.), how about the history. Besides didn't they do this in Major League III? Maybe the majors should hire Ted McGinley and really "jump the shark".
23. No win, no welfare
I'm tired. Just fix the CBA.
24. Get the fans in the game -- literally
Aside from the potential Gamboa-like security issues, which are big, what do you do with fair balls in the corners that fans grab. Make'em all ground-rule doubles? Homers? How long do we need to lionize Jeffrey Maier?
25. Ban Thunder Stix
How does this follow legalizing fan interference? I dislike thinderstix, the chop, the wave, and basically anything fun at the game, too. But most fans seem to like it and who's going to enforce that one anyway?
To sum up, Jayson needs to read the rules before trying to change them. And Doug Melvin, who is clamoring to be the next Tony LaRussa, needs a hobby. The one actual rule change that I would push for, and this is a GM rule, not an in-game rule, would be to close the loophole that allows Triple-A players (e.g., Francisco Rodriguez) on a team's playoff roster to replace a player hurt since spring training. Enforce the real rules first, then we can talk about changing them.