MLB is forced by the Coronavirus situation to examine alternatives to its usual schedule. There is no way that a 162-game schedule can be played, and their first efforts in dealing with this reality has been to work with the Players' Union to work out workplace issues stemming from that fact.
But what about the games themselves? How many will there be, and how many will involve games played with no one in attendance? What can be done to make those games (however many there may need to be...) more entertaining, more unusual, more watchable?
For many, such a question is moot--baseball's deep nostalgic connection with much of its fan base will be sufficient for people to engage whenever games start getting played. Folks will shell out $$ to see games in some revised pay-per-view package, and many will be satisfied with what they get.
But for others, it's a time of radical disjuncture from established norms. Baseball literally has no idea how such a cultural force will manifest itself during the weeks where it is virtually certain that they will be relying on fans to supply revenue by paying to watch from home.
With that in mind, it's time to consider how to use that time in a more creative and unusual way--to create what would unquestionably be the most unusual "spring training" ever held. It's time to go outside the box and experiment with some versions of the game that no one has ever seen before, and use the likely "fanless" games as a laboratory for rules changes that would otherwise never be considered.
(Yes, the minor leagues have been designated as the place for such activity. But the minor leagues are in their special form of peril at this time: it's a situation that the 2020 season is only going to make worse. That laboratory is simply unavailable.)
What are these "radical" rules changes that we are endorsing as incremental experiments for a spring training that would occupy 4-6 weeks beginning on June 1st? Hang on to your caps...as long-time readers know, we are capable of going not only "off road" but (as a dear friend said...) "off galaxy."
Experiment 1: Change the number of outs per inning (and change the number of innings in a game). Here is possibly our greatest sacrilege, and so we'll lead with our chin. What could possibly be the rationale for changing the sacrosanct "three outs in an inning rule"?
Because it would change the game in ways that no one can predict without implementing it. Other changes can be modeled: you can change fence height, OF distances, the nature of the baseball, etc., and get a pretty good idea of what effect it will have on run scoring. With four outs an inning, however, strategy changes. Aspects of the game that have been marginalized and minimized by the aggressive modelers of the past twenty-five years will have a new lease on life.
Of course such a change only works if you also lower the number of innings in a game. (Yes, you're no longer just gnashing your teeth now, you are thinking about whether you can waive your objections to the Second Amendment in just this one instance...) We figure that the optimum number of innings under a four-out-per-inning scenario is six. It is harder to get 24 outs four at a time than 27 outs three at a time? Will the games be longer or shorter? Higher scoring or lower scoring? Who knows? Let's find out. Two weeks of applying these two simple changes will tell us everything we need to know.
Our prediction: people will be mesmerized by the idea of two double plays in the same inning. They will be happy to see teams try to steal more bases because giving up one out in such a structure will be less detrimental to their chances of scoring in any given inning. Pitchers will hate it, because their ERAs will automatically be higher if run scoring stays constant over a four-out, six-inning game.
Experiment 2: Change the number of balls needed to draw a walk from four to three. This idea is not quite so outlandish, we admit: it has surfaced in many discussions over the years. So why not try it for a couple of weeks and see how pitchers and hitters adjust to it? Such a change should produce fewer pitches per plate appearance...the only question is whether walks will go up at such a rate that the length of the game remains the same. We're betting that it will knock 20-30 minutes off game duration.
It will fascinating to see, even in just a two-week period, how pitchers adjust to such a rule change. We'd figure that some guys would do just fine from the beginning, while others would struggle; but by the second week, many of those who had a problem with it would have found a way to adjust what they do to the demands of such a rule change.
You could argue that we'd need more than two weeks to really see the difference. We grant that, but we suggest that the idea be given a spin for a couple weeks, as most of the starting pitchers would receive at least two starts to deal with the idea. We expect run scoring would be up in the first week, and down in the second.
Experiment 3: Implement our wacky but wonderful "190-foot rule" and create the random half-inning of defensive deprivation (aka "in search of the endangered triple"). Many of you have read about this one before. To recap for those who've not yet signed the petition to have us escorted to the nearest booby hatch, the idea works like this. At the beginning of the game, each team spins a wheel which features the numbers 3 through 6 on it. Wherever the wheel lands--let's say "4" for the home team and "5" for the visiting team--the inning in which the team must move its center fielder inside a line painted across the field at 190 feet from home plate and not shift anyone else into the outfield is established.
What this rule puts into play is a situation where the team on defense is deprived of some of its ability to chase down balls hit into the gaps, resulting in more time for the hitter to advance further on long hits. The result of this rule change will be to create more triples, which will redress some of the ongoing imbalance in extra-base hits that has come into being as the game created ballparks with smaller and more regularized outfield areas.
As far as we're concerned, it's high time to see exactly what happens when such a rule is put into effect. We'd recommend, however, that this rule be tried when fans can actually attend the games, because it is likely to create the greatest visual excitement amongst these proposals. The sight of a center fielder forced to play short-center and a team with no recourse to make sufficient adjustments to overcome such a defensive privation would almost certainly create a monumental anticipation in the spectators.
Some may initially find it to be too gimmicky, that's true. But we still contend that once people see such a rule in actual operation, they will glom onto it as one of the great enhancements of essential baseball drama that's ever been devised.
MLB is still struggling with how to implement the 2020 season. We propose that if the game can begin on June 1, then those leapin' Lords of Baseball should try out each of these radical experiments in the spirit of "nothing left to lose," and do so as follows:
1--June 1-15: Initial spring training--the six-inning four-outs-per inning rule. Since pitchers will be building up arm strength over the first month of baseball's return, expanded rosters could support this notion better than any other. Two innings of four-out baseball would be roughly equal to three traditional innings. And in spring training games, teams could afford to try out every possible strategic modification that a four-out scenario would provide.
2--June 16-30: Phase two of spring training--three balls for a walk. We return to "normal" baseball (three outs, nine innings) but substitute the three-ball walk. Run scoring and BB/9 is monitored.
3--July 1-15: The 190-foot rule rides high. Everything goes back to "normal"--four balls, three outs, nine innings. Bring the fans back to the ballpark. Only when you do so, you've got this line across the field and 20-foot nets from foul pole to power alleys in place (to lower HR levels a bit--Lord knows they need lowering). Play two weeks under such conditions and see what the results look like. See how people react to games where they realize that in the top of the fourth, the home team is going to have to bring its CF in to play at little league distance and the other two outfielders are going to have to (as they say in the hallowed halls of Congress...) bust their asses.
Oh, yes. And you make this last klatch of games count in the standings. Then, on July 18, you hold an All-Star game using this rule.
On July 21, you start a truncated 81-game season that extends into early October. It includes a smattering of doubleheaders and leaves out interleague play. The 14 games played under the 190-foot rule count in the standings, so you actually have a 95-game schedule.
Then, at the end of that year, you ask the fans to tell you what they think of the three potential rule changes. Our guess is that they will be lukewarm to #1, mixed-to-positive about #2, and--
...Puzzled, mystified, but strongly and strangely enamored with #3. "Sure were a lot of guys running around the bases in those innings, weren't there?" "Sure would've been fun to see that rule in the post-season..."
We're ready if you are, MLB. It's time to excite the fans and get their minds off what they will have just lived through. Your golden opportunity is right here...right now.