Baseball’s career home run record was set by Babe Ruth in 1935. It stood until 1974 before Henry Aaron broke it, and then again until 2007 when Barry Bonds broke it.
The NFL’s career rushing record was set by Cliff Battles in 1937. It stood until 1941 when Clarke Hinkle broke it, and has since been eclipsed by 220 other running backs.
The point is simple. As much as the world and other sports have changed, baseball has remained remarkably consistent for nearly a century. Ted Lyons tied for the American League lead in wins in 1925 with 21, and Blake Snell led the AL in wins in 2018 with 21. Baseball has a sense of symmetry and familiarity in numbers. It’s part of the game’s allure that most other sports cannot match.
So be careful, baseball. Be very, very careful.
In case you haven’t heard, The Athletic has reported the commissioner’s office and the union have traded proposals with a lot of potential rule changes. Some are bureaucratic; some are seismic.
From the league’s point of view, the changes would speed up the pace of play and cut down on the number of strikeouts. The players’ union wants more competitive teams and roster spots.
Those goals are not the problem. It’s what might get lost in the process.
So maybe we should start with what should be the non-starters:
Moving the mound back
Hall of Fame journalist Jayson Stark says baseball is considering a proposal to lengthen the distance between the pitcher’s rubber and home plate. The motivation is that pitchers are throwing harder than ever, and strikeouts have overtaken hits as the more likely outcome in an at-bat.
This idea has some problems. Mostly, that it’s bonkers.
The distance of 60 feet, six inches is sacred, and I’m not sure that’s hyperbole. Change that distance and you fundamentally change every pitch of every game that follows. You’re not just giving batters an extra fraction of a second, you’re changing the geometry of breaking pitches.
Incentivizing the draft
The union is justifiably concerned with the number of teams in rebuilding modes, so the players are suggesting the draft order not be automatically tied to winning percentage. In other words, teams can’t count on high draft picks if they lose year after year.
This seems counterintuitive. For low revenue teams such as Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and, yes, Tampa Bay, the draft is a critical way to level the playing field with baseball’s big boys. Tying payroll requirements or revenue sharing to the draft, as the union seems to be suggesting, is not the way to go.
Extra inning baserunners
This would be baseball’s version of hockey’s shootout or college football’s overtime tiebreaker. Beginning with the 10th, every extra inning would start with a runner on second base.
Extra innings do not need artificial excitement. And it’s not like they’re going on for hours every night. Less than three percent of games were 12 innings or longer in 2018.
Baseball is supposedly considering testing this idea in spring training.
Lowering mound/changing strike zone
Two other ideas to help hitters and, thus, increase offense. Baseball has tinkered with this before. The mound was lowered five inches following Bob Gibson’s historic 1.12 ERA in 1968, and scoring jumped more than a half-run a game in 1969. Would another five-inch drop have a similar impact? That’s debatable, but at least it’s not as drastic as moving the mound backward.
Raising the strike zone above the knee is another idea talked about often. Pitchers won’t like it, but it’s probably an easier sell than changes to the playing field.
Another pace-of-play idea. Pitchers would have to face at least three batters during an appearance, which might make the left-handed specialist a vanishing breed. The idea is to cut down on the number of lengthy delays with multiple pitching changes in an inning. Hard to get worked up either way over this one.
Universal designated hitter
The union has long wanted the DH in the National League, and baseball may finally be willing to use that as a bargaining chip to get other concessions. It would eliminate a link to baseball’s past with the strategies involving pitchers in the lineup, but it would increase offense and reunite AL and NL rules for the first time since 1972.
Pitch clock/mound visits
Baseball instituted restrictions on mound visits last season and it didn’t seem to have an adverse effect. The pitch clock has also been used in the minors and could be popular with fans. If you’re looking for ways to speed up the game, this could work with a minimal impact on player performance.
Contact John Romano at [email protected] Follow @romano_tbtimes