Is there a chance that sweeping rules changes will diminish your interest in baseball?

March 3, 2019

For me, there is. In fact, that’s been going on for years, beginning with the DH, which deadened my none-too-lively interest in AL baseball from its inception. Up until 1973, I think I was fairly open, even enthusiastic, to most of the revolutionary changes in baseball—the smashing of the color line, for sure (though that predated my birth, I still approved of it strongly in utero), and the expansion to ten teams per league, and then to twelve teams per league. I was all, "Right on! You go, girl! Or guy! Or whatever indeterminate gender choice you wish to claim!"

Concurrent with the twelve-team expansion in 1969, however, I did begin to feel slightly leery about the breakup of the leagues into divisions, mostly on the grounds that it made possible the presence in the World Serious of a team that failed to win the most games in its league. I simply felt that that was a moral mis-step, that the reward for winning the most games in your league had always been, and should always be, that you get to play in the World Series. It often worked out, however, that the team with the most regular-season victories did often win its divisional playoffs, so I accepted one short divisional series as the price for twelve-team leagues.

I never did get the argument, however, that we need divisions because it would be intolerable to root for a twelfth-place team. Say what? The team I grew up rooting for, the early Mets, WAS a twelfth-place team, which was logistically difficult because there were only ten teams in their league. But they often finished so deep into last place, fifteen or twenty games behind the ninth-place team (I’ll look up the actual figures: their first four years, the Mets finished 18, 13, 15, and 13 games behind the ninth-place team) it was as bad as finishing in twelfth place. And I didn’t mind it. Don’t get me wrong, it drove me crazy that my team was so pathetic, but none of the solace I took derived from not being in twelfth place. It wasn’t like the number of places that constituted the NL consoled Mets fans in the least, while the promise of expanding to a twelve-team league filled us with terror: "Oh, no, we might finish twelfth, a fate so shameful we won’t be able to bear up!!"  Shame had no meaning for us. You could go to a twenty-team league, and we’d be all "Ahh, twentieth place isn’t so bad!"

Last place, the way I looked at it, was just a motivation: You want not to suck this bad? Play better. Stop trading your young stars for washed-up has-beens, learn a few fundamentals, hire a manager capable of retaining consciousness throughout a ball game. Etc. It ain’t that hard—play better and let someone else finish in the cellar for once. (You don’t hear "the cellar" much anymore, do you? Sixth place is "the mezzanine" at worst.) One of my first loopy proposals on BJOL concerned the elimination of divisions. (I described an elimination process that I think is more exciting than playoffs are:  https://www.billjamesonline.com/musical_chairs_playoffs/ .)   It gave a huge advantage to first-place finishers that’s much greater than any playoff system ever would, so it’s not as if I’m strictly opposed to change.

But I think the game has changed, perhaps beyond recognition. There is something downright elegant about a fast-paced, action-packed two-hour baseball game, and we’ve already lost that. Many of the proposed rules changes I’ve read about recently are aimed, ideally, at keeping the length down to under three hours, once in a while. I’d like to see rules changes that bring the average game under two hours. That brings us back to the late 1930s, but I actually think that goal is neither impossible nor deleterious.

Some of the current rules, the traditional rules of the game, don’t make much sense, and don’t add very much to the enjoyment of the game. As someone who’s had to explain the fine points of the game to a neophyte, I’ve found that some of the trickier rules don’t really serve a purpose that I can explain. Bill has expounded on the silliness of the balk rule: why shouldn’t a pitcher be able to use trickery and guile to deke out a base-runner? If pitchers were allowed to use fakery before they released the ball in the direction of the plate, what harm would be done? To the game, I mean. There’s harm to the would-be base-stealer, as he must stick close to his base before he’s absolutely sure that the pitcher has thrown the ball, but so what? Is keeping him closer to the bag really worth the whole complicated (and difficult to enforce) set of rules governing balks? Like many of the rules I object to (below), the balk rule hinges on the umpire’s subjective judgment, which in my view should play the smallest role possible in the outcome of the game.

And I’ve gone on and on about time-consuming practices that are actually against the rules but aren’t enforced: we could slice a useless half-hour, at least, off every game by allowing pitchers to throw the ball whether or not the batter has stepped out of the box. It’s an ump’s prerogative to call time, not the batter’s, and we could simply support the umps’ practice of not granting time routinely. I’ve argued that this would not only speed up the game in a way that does no harm, but actually does good in that it would emphasize the athleticism and skill of a batter who can cope with the pressure of a faster game.

I’d like to discuss another rule that’s been around for a long, long time but never really stood up to very close scrutiny: the infield-fly rule. There are several rules like this, that serve to protect people who don’t need protecting. If a fielder can drop a popup and so create a triple play, isn’t that potentially a very exciting play? Instead of having everyone bored to death when someone pops up with two runners forced, "Uh-oh, automatic out, everyone returns to the base he started from," why isn’t it instead an exciting play where everyone thinks "Wow! Will the fielder catch the popup, or let it drop? If he lets it drop, will the lead runner be able to beat the throw, and if he does, will the other runner beat the relay throw? Is either runner too far from or too close to the bag? If the fielder lets the ball drop, might the ball take a crazy bounce and everyone’s safe? Is this a rally-killer, or the start of a huge inning?" etc. What is the great advantage of having an infield-fly rule in the first place? I don’t get it.

While I was searching for the exact wording of the infield-fly rule, I found that two lawyers had beat me to the punch. That is, a judge named Andrew J. Guilford and his law clerk Joel Mallord    wrote an intolerably pompous and parodically academic/legalistic article addressing the question of abolishing that rule, replete with dozens of footnotes, the vast majority of which are completely irrelevant digressions on subjects as far-fetched as Macbeth, Katy Perry,  Leave It to Beaver, and The New Yorker’s practice of putting two dots, a diaeresis, above the second ‘o’ in "cooperation" to indicate that the first syllable of that word is not pronounced like the place where chickens are kept or the last name of a former Surgeon-General of the United States. The footnotes also serve to show off the authors’ deep knowledge of baseball trivia, such as the history of female umpires or the nickname "Catfish," which the umpire Bill Klem hated and the pitcher Jim Hunter felt neutral about. I can’t imagine any of these footnotes were actually needed, except to lengthen a far-too-long article on a fairly simple point. (The infield-fly rule is cited fully in footnote #12.)  As a public service, I’ve read this entire tedious article for you, but I attach this link (https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=9507&context=penn_law_review) in case you think you will enjoy reading it for yourself. (You won’t.) But it does advance many of the points (too many) at length (too much length) that I had intended to bring up.

And before I go further, I should mention that their final paragraph does propose a different rule change that is beneficial, and elegant, and very easy to apply: the ground-rule double should be turned into a ground-rule triple. Easy-peasy, as Brooks Hatlen, James Whitmore’s character, likes to say in The Shawshank Redemption. (I will spare you the extensive footnote on the movie that Messrs. Guilford and Mallord would, no doubt, have subjected you to.) The ground-rule double is usually a disappointment to the offensive team, and a pick-me-up for the defensive team, which is not the result you want from a hit. Very often, the ground-rule double freezes the batter on second base when he had at least a  chance of getting a triple out of it and, even worse, freezes a runner on third base who had a very good chance to score, thus doubly penalizing the team that just did what it wanted to do (getting a long hit) while giving a break to the team that just did what it didn’t want to do (giving up a long hit). A ground-rule triple would solve everything, and it only requires a change of four letters.

Anyway, this 2015 Penn Law Review article ostensibly addresses that same issue of "justice," which is why it appears in a law review: the infield-fly rule is inherently unjust. It protects the runner from getting faked out, but why does he need protection? Faking-out is an exciting play, rewarding the most alert players, and any play that substitutes an automatic out is, by definition, boring. The rule, as written, exempts line-drives from being called automatic outs, so a fielder may drop a line drive to create the same exact situation that the infield-fly rule prohibits. No one objects to the "line-drive exemption" but why? It’s the same problem, isn’t it? The law review article cites (footnote # 19) a famous example of the line-drive exception, the play in the 1978 World Series that has come up a few times on BJOL, the one where Dodgers’ shortstop Bill Russell dropped a line drive and tried to double Reggie Jackson off first base, only Jackson stuck his hip into the throw, which got right to the root of the issue here: on both ends of that play, Russell’s dropped line-drive and Jackson getting hit by Russell’s throw, the umpire must read intentionality on the player’s part—any elimination of umpires’ need to read player’s minds is probably a positive development. They also bring up another play involving the Dodgers in the 2014 post-season that has been the subject of discussion here on "Hey Bill," Andre Ethier’s decision to drop a foul-fly, the catching of which would have very likely allowed a run to score. (The authors, not too surprisingly, describe themselves as Dodgers fans, which might be redundant information given their assertion that Maury Wills’ "achievements and intelligence should place him the Hall of Fame," footnote # 29. Obviously, they never viewed Wills’ intelligence managing the .317 Seattle Mariners, and neither did anyone else.)

Instead of rewarding the player who just hit a pop-up, by limiting the liability to his team, this proposed rule-change would penalize him, which seems more just, especially as we become more aware of how undesirable an outcome a pop-up truly is. It may have seemed at some early stage (certainly in my early stages of awareness) that a pop-up is merely an outcome that occurs more or less randomly to all batters, but now avoiding hitting pop-ups is widely regarded as a skill, so why not penalize the player who hits them, especially with runners on base?

This is the essence of justice, and of fairness: players who pop-up should suffer penalties, not be rewarded for popping up. If we have an opportunity to watch a play that might develop into a triple-play, we should maximize it, not negate it with an automatic-out call. Turning a pop-up into a triple-play requires real skill on the fielder’s part, and avoiding that fate requires real skill on the baserunners’ part. The batter who hits a pop-up should be required to hustle afterwards to beat out the throw instead of hearing an umpire call him out whether the ball is caught or dropped. With runners on first and second, and none out, what should a second-base man do with a popup, if the infield-fly rule is eliminated? Should he drop the ball, and then try for the lead runner now forced out at third?  Should he concede that base to the lead runner, and go for the trail runner forced out at second? If the runner on second is taking a long lead, anticipating the dropped pop-up, should he catch the ball and race the lead runner back to second base to double him up?

Much tension is gained by eliminating the infield-fly rule, and nothing is lost.

 
 

COMMENTS (19 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
I did a little research, and so far it doesn't seem that anyone actually keeps track of ground-rule doubles (which are called "grounds-rule doubles" by John Sterling, apparently, and "automatic doubles," because they're described in the rule book, by others).
11:38 AM Mar 6th
 
Steven Goldleaf
How rare are ground-rules doubles now? My impression is "pretty rare." One per team per month? More rare than that? It's a fluke play. The only reason I mention it at all is that when "my" team hits into one, I'm always disappointed and when the opposing team hits into one, I'm always relieved, which is pretty crazy. I can't imagine it happening to a player more than a handful of times in his career.

You also must realize that a goodly proportion of those those rare times, the batter would have ended up on 3B anyway, with a "regular" triple, so it's not as though this new rule (not a rule-book rule, BTW) would have a profound effect to skew any stats.
3:50 AM Mar 6th
 
MarisFan61
That would-be rule would be at the top of my sh!t list too.
Almost as high: Anything about trying to ban shifts. Let's say that's atop my shift list.

Alongside those, I would hardly mind ending the infield fly rule and giving the hitter a triple on a "ground rule double." I might even like them.
BTW the main thing that bothers me about the latter ("bother" being too strong a word) is that it would make the excitingly rare triple less rare. I like its rarity. I mean, I'd love for there to be more of them (go figure) but I'd want them to be the normal kind. Maybe have a separate category for regular triples and ground rule triples. (I don't imagine this is a thing that would ever happen, or that anyone else would even think of, just musing out loud.)

BTW, re my thing about 'ramifications' of getting rid of the infield fly rule: I didn't mean that any of those specifics would be large effects, just that they're examples of things that would be affected; the basic thing was just that the balance of incentivizations and therefore of how the game is approached would be changed, well beyond just the isolated fact of what happens on infield pops with runners on 1st and 2nd and less than 2 out.
4:56 PM Mar 5th
 
villageelliott
If MLB ever monkeys around with runners on base to start an extra-inning, I may be less inclined to care.​
3:21 PM Mar 5th
 
shthar
Bartolo, Colon.


12:48 PM Mar 5th
 
Steven Goldleaf
steve161--I would be happy to wager that major changes in the rules will occur by 3019.
11:17 AM Mar 5th
 
steve161
Isn't it curious that we spend so much time at this site debating rule changes that, regardless of the merits, aren't going to happen in a thousand years?
9:22 AM Mar 5th
 
Steven Goldleaf
shthar--Why not? The umps have been looking us in the eye since the 19th century and telling us that speedy outfielders who bounce a ball into the stands belong on 2B, haven't they? Which do you think happens more often, a fast batter gets held to 2B when everyone knows he hit a ball that would have gotten him to 3B, or a slow batter hits a ball into the stands that would have gotten him no further than 2B? This is to say nothing of EVERY baserunner who would have scored EASILY but gets sent back to stand on 3B. You're defending a massive injustice by proposing that on an extremely rare occasion a different injustice occurs.
5:37 AM Mar 5th
 
shthar
You're going to look the umpires in the eye and tell them that in the event, of a ball, going into the stands, to award Bartolo Colon, a Triple?

I want to be there when you do that.


10:22 PM Mar 4th
 
MarisFan61
Interesting ideas.

About the infield fly rule: Not that I'm against eliminating it -- I don't know -- just want to say that while it might seem like a little thing, there would be ramifications, and they could be sizable.

Obviously it would change the meaning of pop-ups -- it would make them more costly -- and so it would change the incentives of both hitting and pitching with regard to them.

For hitters and pitchers who are superb at situational adjustment, maybe it would only affect them in the relevant situations (runners at 1st and 2nd [and perhaps also at 3rd] and less than 2 out), but perhaps for most, it would seep into their general approaches. It would incentivize high pitching (I don't mean pitching on drugs), and it would somewhat de-incentivize hitting underneath the ball.

Which, BTW, other things being equal (I know I'm building edifice upon edifice), would reduce fly balls (I know that this depends on thinking that the adjustment by batters would outweigh the adjustment by pitchers) -- and, if so, would reduce HR's.

If you believe all that, and I do :-) ....perhaps it's a thing that baseball wouldn't wish to do.

I know that's not all necessarily so. But anyway those specifics aren't my main point. My point is that there would be ramifications beyond just the change in what happens on pop flies with runners on 1st and 2nd and less than 2 out. The specific things I mentioned are just possible for-instances.
9:27 PM Mar 4th
 
Mjh821
For the ground rule double, how about the batter still gets second but all runners score?
7:29 PM Mar 4th
 
FrankD
Just thinking: if the batter is past first when a batted ball bounces over the fence - isn't that a triple because its just like an over-throw: the runner gets the base he's headed for and another for the out-of-play... so it should be a triple anyway. I totlly agree that limiting umpire discretion/opinion is best
6:19 PM Mar 4th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I'm trying to propose changes that would eliminate, or at least minimize, judgment calls. Judgment calls suck, across the board. I can't think of any situation in which they're anything but a necessary evil, and I doubt their necessity.

What would be wrong with changing the standard to "any ball that bounces into the stands in fair territory is a triple"? Period. No judgment, no guessing whether a runner had passed a certain base by the instant the ball hopped the fence, no nothing. Just "a triple." Where is the problem?
4:33 PM Mar 4th
 
shthar
The ground rule triple would have to be a judgement call.
3:10 PM Mar 4th
 
jwilt
I'm all for baseball trying to fix things that make no sense. That's better than the current position on playing rules, which seems to be "Moses brought them down on stone tablets in 1875 and, by God, we're not changing anything. Even the stuff we can't figure out what it means."

So yes, to getting rid of the infield fly rule. Yes to ground rule triples. And I'd get rid of the balk rule with one caveat - all throws to first that don't result in an out are a called ball to the batter.

I'm all for eliminating divisional play and rewarding the team with the most wins, just as long as you're also implementing changes to eradicate the influence of territorial rights and revenues on pennant races. If we were still operating under 1967 rules where the best team goes to the World Series we'd have the Sox or Yanks in the Series about seven times in 10. And I'd just go watch something else.
1:58 PM Mar 4th
 
FrankD
It seems that baseball rules seem to accumulate with very few ever repealed. What baseball rules have ever been removed? I'm sure there are some but I can't think of any just off hand. All governing bodies seem to continue to seek power through increasing rules, and the governing powers of baseball are the same. I too would be loathe to add more rules - I'd rather let competition decide the evolution of the game. I too don't want varying umpire opinions deciding outcomes.

But if there is to be some changes:
AS to ground-rule double - if a fan interferes then if it was home team on offense then its a double, if visitor is on offense then its a triple. I'd even go on to say if the ball gets stuck in the ivy at Wrigely, batter can run as far as he wants, the OF has to dig the ball out. Why can the OF effectively make it a double by pretending he can't find the ball and just raise his arms?

Infield fly, I agree with author, get rid of rule. Another aspect of this is if the fly is in shallow outfield, how does umpire decide infield fly, on who catches if (Inf or OF), and with the shifts who is Inf and who is OF, then what is the call?
11:39 AM Mar 4th
 
bearbyz
Wow, I never thought of a ground rule triple, but you make a good argument. I'm now for it.
11:30 AM Mar 4th
 
Steven Goldleaf
The question of which individual rule changes you favor or not differs from the philosophical question of whether you favor change or not. I'm squarely in the middle, I realize; I'm a staunch conservative, favoring slow change if any, in regard to baseball, but I can be convinced that particular rules are foolish or no longer serve their purpose, as with the balk rule (Thanks, Bill) or the infield-fly rule. The ground-rule double seems to me arbitrary and absurd, if we think it over for more than a minute, and the solution to it the authors propose is simple and effective. I'm the Kirsten Gillibrand of baseball, I suppose: having once been a conservative, I can understand where they're coming form philosophically, but having survived changes, I can see now that change is beneficial, and in some cases absolutely necessary. It amazes me how pig-headed MLB can be in this regard.
6:54 AM Mar 4th
 
steve161
First off, the answer to the question in the title is, "No, probably not."

I could probably live without the infield fly rule and I'm all for simplifying the balk rule, but I like divisional play. In the first place, it increases the number of meaningful games late in the regular season. In the second, it increases the number of postseason games, which almost by definition are meaningful. Third and perhaps most importantly, it recognizes the reality of a long season by rewarding teams that improve in the course of it: it's easier to recover from a slow start if you only have five opponents than if you have fifteen.
5:36 AM Mar 4th
 
 
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