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Ranking baseball’s proposed rule changes

A scientific exploration of the impact of the MLB and Player’s Union proposed rules

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On Tuesday night, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic dropped a whopper of an article outlining the various rule changes MLB and the Player’s Association are considering for next season (Jeff Passan later expanded on it). Naturally this caused a bit of a fracas in the world of baseball fandom, mostly over the debate about bringing the designated hitter into the National League, 46 years after it was introduced in the American League.

Now, we could talk about the DH all day if we wanted to (and, apparently, many people spent Wednesday doing just that). But that ignores seven other proposals that would also make an impact on the game.

Here are all the proposals under consideration, arranged from least to most likely to see eventual adoption. It’s all based on #science (don’t ask to see the formula).

★ ★ ★

Tying draft position to competitiveness

According to Rosenthal, the union is proposing if a team fails to reach a certain win total for too many years in a row, they will slide down the draft order. This seems to be aimed at teams fielding non-competitive teams to prevent them from losing to get the top overall picks for several years in a row. While the impulse is admirable, this doesn’t seem to be a solution with legs. A lot of teams are bad on accident (see the Royals and Pirates in the 90s and 00s, the Orioles more recently, and the 2011-2015 Rockies) and this would penalize those them right where it hurts the most. And there are always rebuilding teams in baseball, so why cut off one of the few areas they can actively work to improve?

Would it change baseball much? Probably not as much as those proposing the rule would like. Is it likely to be adopted? This one is way too complicated to go very far.

Extra innings extra base runner

MLB has proposed placing a runner on second base at the start of any inning past the 11th. Look, I’m all for exhibition games like Spring Training and showcase events like the All-Star Game and the World Baseball Classic trying to end the game earlier rather than later. But the reason this is on the table is to see how it would work in real games. This seems like a gimmicky solution in search of a problem. Extra innings make up around seven percent of all games, and most of those end by the 11th inning anyways. Would it change the game in substantial ways? Well, it would change about 2.5% of games. Not only that, but anyone who remembers the WBC will recall this will inevitably lead to an intentional walk to create a force at every base, especially if someone like Nolan Arenado steps to the plate. There's enough downside, and little enough upside, to this that I wouldn’t count on seeing it anywhere meaningful anytime soon.

Reducing mound visits (6 to 4 in 2019, 4 to 3 in 2020)

This gets a big nothing-burger from me. I watch a lot of baseball games and I don’t think I’ve seen more than one where a team even used five of its mound visits, and yet game lengths are still over three hours long on average. Would cutting teams down to three visits change much? The only sure result I can see is frustrated managers and pitchers, everything else is a crapshoot.

Three batter minimum

This is the proposal that got the most attention from Rosenthal, since it’s the one most directly tied to pace of play concerns that have plagued sportswriters baseball for the last few years. Rockies fans can attest to how much Bruce Bochy’s compulsive bullpening slows down every Giants game, so maybe this would work? This could also reduce strikeouts, since there would be fewer opportunities for specialists to come in and blow hitters away. And with less bullpen flexibility for managers, it may even reverse the trend of the marginalization of the starting pitcher.

What would be lost, other than all those anonymous relievers who throw in the upper 90s with a wicked slider infringing upon your consciousness? For one thing, the one-batter relief appearance often appears in the most exciting part of the game. That’s great television right there, and requiring a clever bit of strategy from the manager. The proposed change makes exceptions for getting the last out in the inning or an injury (which seems way too exploitable, but that’s not my job to police), but it still reduces some of that strategy. Also, per Rosenthal’s article, the overall percentage of relief appearances lasting less than three batters has been pretty steady around 15% for three decades, dipping down to 14.1% last year. So how much of a problem is this for pace of play, really?

Three batter minimum for pitchers would require a huge shift in how pitching staffs are managed over the course of a long season, and in-game strategy would also change. Would this help pace of play that much? Personally, I’m skeptical.

28-man September rosters

While the idea of reducing the expanded September rosters from 40-players to 28 seems a little drastic, the principle is pretty sound. Last September the Dodgers got to play with essentially two different lineups over the course of the game, with a righty heavy lineup starting against a lefty (or vise versa), with many of those batters ceding their lineup spot to their platoon partner. We also see a lot of those same anonymous relievers ever September and that parade sure seem to make those games feel longer.

A compromise position could be reached: 40-man rosters stay intact, but only 28 are allowed to be on the active roster in any given game. That limits the manager’s toy box in ways that can help control pace of play, but it still gets those minor leaguers who had good seasons the opportunity to be rewarded with some time with the big club (and the paycheck that goes with it). If we don’t see the proposed version in the next two years, I expect we might see a compromise proposal take effect in the next five years.

26-man roster, 12-pitcher maximum

The union looks at this and sees 30 new major league jobs; the teams look at it and see a way to convince the union to agree to some of their less popular proposals (such as the pitch clock). The 12-pitcher limit seems arbitrary and ambiguous (what’s Shohei Otani listed as?), but adding a roster spot shouldn’t mean a spot for yet another anonymous reliever to shuttle between MLB and Triple-A. There is one proposal that could be paired with this one to make sure it doesn’t become that.

Universal DH

Yes, this is the one that had Baseball Twitter melting down on Wednesday. According to Jeff Passan, the proposal is that all interleague games would use the DH in 2019, not just the ones in AL parks, and then 2020 would be all DH, all the time.

Baseball purists are going to be very divided on this one, and for good reason. As Manfred pointed out in Rosenthal’s article, adding the DH to the NL would mean non-DH baseball wouldn’t exist at any meaningful level (except the Central League in NPB). But ask Astros fans how they adjusted when the switched from the NL to the AL and maybe it might seem more palatable. And, frankly, it’s probably one of those rule changes that we would barely notice by year three.

I’m not going to get into the DH debate here (though Ben Lindbergh may be able to convince you), since I remain pretty agnostic about it. I’m just saying, if it doesn’t happen by 2020, don’t think it won’t happen before 2030.

20-second pitch clock

When pitch clocks were first introduced as an idea a few years back people were very opinionated. It doesn’t even seem to make anyone bat an eye at this point, which is probably good. Rob Manfred could implement this in 2019 unilaterally if he wanted, though considering the tensions between owners and players I’m not sure he would go that route, especially since many players have objected to the idea.

But it’s probably coming. How much will it affect baseball? Perhaps not at all. Anyone who’s been to a minor league game in the past few years can tell you how unobtrusive it is; it’s still baseball, and you can still “play forever” until you record that 27th out.

In another sense, it would probably make the biggest impact on pace of play. As Grant Brisbee found, the time between pitches is the biggest culprit in game length today as compared to 30 years ago. Anyone who’s tired of falling asleep when Pedro Baez comes in to pitch for the Dodgers should welcome the clock with open arms.

★ ★ ★

Are these proposals good or bad? Due to the Law of Unintended Consequences, we’ll never know for sure until they happen. Many people thought instant replay in baseball was a slam dunk, but then we started arguing about whether a base runner that comes a quarter inch off the bag for a fraction of a second while the tag was applied should be considered out. Your results my vary, so buyer beware.

Except on banning the shift. That’s a terrible idea.


If you could enact one of these rules, which would it be?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Pitch Clock
    (140 votes)
  • 20%
    Universal DH
    (123 votes)
  • 12%
    26-man roster
    (72 votes)
  • 16%
    28-man September rosters
    (95 votes)
  • 17%
    Three batter minimum for pitchers
    (104 votes)
  • 3%
    Reducing mound visits
    (20 votes)
  • 1%
    Extra innings extra baserunner
    (9 votes)
  • 3%
    Draft position tied to year-over-year competitiveness
    (23 votes)
586 votes total Vote Now