Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Hammer for Major League Baseball

I love baseball.  Opening Day of baseball season is one of the best days of the year.  It's tangible proof that winter is over... and winter sucks.

As an affirmed baseball fan, it's my responsibility to defend the sport.  That means that when someone says baseball is boring, I have to insist that it isn't, even though it is.

The season is too long.  Playoff games start too late at night.  The game is too slow for today's short attention spans.  Pitchers and hitters waste too much time between pitches.  Pitching changes and visits to the mound make games last forever.

I happen to agree with this last point.  It irks me that relief pitchers are allowed to throw warm-up pitches from the mound after already warming up in the bullpen.  This would be like me showering and brushing my teeth to go to work, arriving at work, then showering and brushing my teeth again while my co-workers were waiting for me to get started.  Or, in sports terms, stopping a basketball game to allow substituted-in players to shoot practice free throws when that player had just spent ten minutes shooting free throws in a "free throw pen" located next to the court.

In the macro sense, the Major League Baseball's most egregious error has been their inability to really resonate within the sports news cycle.

There is nowhere near enough actual news occurring the in sports world to justify all the sports websites, blogs, tweets and the hundred or so ESPN channels that I pay for... not to mention the sports radio and internet message boards.  Sportswriters are like hungry arctic wolves fighting over a buffalo carcass or a pod of Orcas trying to knock a seal off an iceberg (By the way, I advise you to watch 'Frozen Planet' on the Discovery Channel).  The sports media will beat any story, no matter how mundane, to death.  Then they will revive the story with the clear intention of re-beating it to death.

To today's fan, following their team is as much about following the media coverage as it is about actually watching the game.  While baseball can match football and basketball in the off-the-field drama (free agency, trades, DUIs, steroids and trampoline injuries), the games themselves do not generate nearly enough controversy or arguments.

Football and basketball fans can dissect their coaches, evaluating their in-game decision making and second guessing every failed decision.  Baseball fans have very few opportunities to do the same. Managers set the lineup, handle pitching changes, and put in pinch-hitters or pinch-runners in certain situations.  When these decisions blow up (see Little, Grady and Brenly, Bob), the media and the internet ignite and baseball steals the headlines for weeks at a time.

At its core, baseball is a game of execution.  Pitchers pitch, hitters hit.  The outcomes are dictated by which side executes better.  This is a wonderful set-up, but baseball should take a cue from its counterparts and put more of an emphasis on strategy.

To that end, I propose that MLB throw the biggest wrinkle into their rules since the inception of the Designated Hitter: the "Roving Hitter".  Here's how it would work:
  • Under current rules, managers submit their lineup and their complete batting order (consisting of all nine players in a set order) to the umpire and the opposing team before the first pitch of every game.  Per the new rule, the submitted lineup will contain only eight of the nine players in a set order.  The final hitter will be listed as a "Roving Hitter" (dubbed "The Hammer" in honor of Hank Aaron) and will not have a set spot in the order.
  • Any of the nine starters (including a designated hitter) can be selected as the Roving Hitter. 
  • Managers can send the Roving Hitter up to the plate one time during each turn of the batting order and such hitter will slide in between the previous hitter and the hitter who would naturally follow in the batting order.  Once the eight hitter has completed their at bat, the lineup is considered "turned over" and the Roving Hitter may be utilized again.
  • In any inning where the Roving Hitter is inserted into the lineup, the Roving Hitter will maintain that position in the batting order until the inning ends.  Therefore, the Roving Hitter cannot bat twice in an inning unless all eight other hitters come to the plate between his at bats. To that end, managers have the option of holding back the Roving Hitter and not deploying him during a certain turn of the batting order in order to bat him at a later time during that inning.
  • The Roving Hitter will be considered to have batted at the moment he steps into the batters box. If a baserunner is picked off during his at bat, the Roving Hitter will be considered spent that time through the lineup and would not be allowed to lead-off the following inning.
  • After the Roving Hitter is announced, the opposing team will have the opportunity to change pitchers. 
  • If the Roving Hitter is removed for a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner or replacement fielder, the Roving Hitter's spot will become locked into the batting order at the spot where the Roving Hitter last batted.  


Let's see how this would play out:

The Yankees are playing on the road against the Red Sox during an important September game.  The Yankees submit their lineup with Alex Rodriguez as their Roving Hitter and the Red Sox submit a lineup choosing Dustin Pedroia as their Roving Hitter.  

In the top of the second inning, the Yankees put runners on second and third with one man out.  As the Yankees have not yet deployed ARod as their Roving Hitter, the Red Sox will think twice before intentionally walking the current batter to set up a potential double play, since that will likely bring up the Roving Hitter with the bases loaded. On the other hand, if the Yankees had batted ARod in the first inning, such an option would not exist and the Yankees fans would likely second guess the manager's decision.  

In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Sox are down by two runs and are sending up the bottom of their order (with their Roving Hitter still available).  Knowing that two runs are required to tie the game, will the Sox' manager send up Pedroia at the beginning of that inning?  Does he save Pedroia for a situation where there are runners on base and he could potentially tie the game (and risk losing the Roving Hitter that time through the lineup)?  Or do the Sox consider Pedroia's success facing the Yankees' current pitcher verses facing the Yankees closer in the following inning?

While longtime baseball fans will howl about such a significant change to the rules, this is no more of a change than than the DH rule.  The upside is that while the DH decreases the number of strategic decisions made in each game, the Roving Hitter rule will dramatically increase role of the manager.

From a fan's perspective, this is a win-win-win.

On the field, intentional walks will decrease, overall offense will increase, and every inning will have an increased sense of urgency.

Off the field, statheads will rush to analyze the new rule to a ridiculous degree.  Fantasy baseballers will be all atwitter evaluating how this rule affects their game.  Each manager's decisions will be dissected and will be a constant source of fans' discussions.

The media will be given something meaty to sink their teeth into.  Managers will essentially need to pick their best hitter each game, making some heads expand while bruising some egos.   The Roving Hitters themselves will be put under an extreme microscope.  Contracts for the game's best Roving Hitters will increase dramatically.  All of this will make the game more compelling.

Enjoy Opening Day.  I know I'll be watching... at least the first five innings.

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