Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Solution to MLB Schizophrenia

Baseball, long our national pastime and America’s oldest professional sport, has had an identity crisis ever since the start of the 1973 season – a split personality, if you will.

The Grande Olde Game was but four seasons removed from a year of Denny McLain’s 30 wins, Bob Gibson’s outrageous 1.12 ERA, and one lone .300 hitter in the junior circuit. The Stewards of the Game opted to lower the pitcher’s mound (by a full five inches) for the ensuing season. This physical alteration to the playing surface was utilized throughout all of Major League Baseball.

The schizophrenia set in when it was decided, purportedly on an experimental basis, that a pitcher would no longer be required to trudge to home plate, bat in hand, and attempt (quite futilely, oftentimes) to “help your own cause.” The opening in the batting order would be filled by a specified (and surely far more competent) offensive player.

Power – the decision-making kind, not the home-run-hitting kind – was wielded differently back then. Doubt not that the Tom Yawkeys of the baseball world made the decisions. But policy was decided separately at the league level. Baseball’s expansion to ten-team leagues and a new 162-game schedule was implemented by league over two seasons in the early ‘60’s.

The same year the mound was adjusted, each league had additionally approved two expansion franchises, a split into geographic divisions and the invention of the League Championship Series.

But when it came to a change in the sacred line-up card, National League owners clung to tradition.

And while baseball has undergone its share of growth and change over the ensuing four decades – some of it decidedly non-traditional, including the consolidation of governing Power under the aegis of MLB …

Even as inter-league play has become a daily occurrence, not just an occasional gate attraction …

The jury has not yet reached a verdict in the case of Old-School Baseball v. The Designated Hitter.

Consequently, in every single game of the last 41 World Series, one team has been required to adopt a condition of play it utilizes rarely during the regular season, and not at all during the opening rounds of the post-season.

Which Side Ya On?

Essentially, there are four positions one can hold on this matter: one may aesthetically favor one style of game over the other; one may have no such preference, but simply desire uniformity across MLB; you could be a “Variety is the Spice of Life” guy or gal.

T’would seem that whatever action (or inaction) MLB and new Commissioner Rob Manfred choose to undertake, some certain subset of the fan-base will be entirely dissatisfied.

There may exist, however, a viable option that can provide a little bit of “whatcha want” to everyone – and return seven-game procedural consistency to the Fall Classic.

From the Sandlot …

A player’s right to a turn at bat is a cherished, indeed protected tradition at many stages of play, even at the championship level (e.g. Little League, Inc.). Since line-up manipulation can be rather clumsy and confounding at times, common practice for a lot of youth and/or recreational ball allows “batting the roster” and free defensive substitutions.

The encouragement of full participation becomes a bit more nuanced and subjective as the competitive juices are amped up. There emerged a line-up card for ten players, one designated for defensive participation only (DEFO) and listed tenth, one of the first nine a designated hitter (DH) – pretty much what we get under AL rules. On the path to stardom in the bigs, though, many of the pitchers are among the better hitters as well. Consequently, the DEFO becomes one of the position players.

Overall participation gets increased by one player, but “full” participation drops by one player – and that right to a turn at bat is lost. (Legislating the defensive participation of the DH and/or offensive use of the DEFO varies by jurisdiction.)

Another common practice that likely evolved from the attempt to balance greater participation with genuine competition is the re-entry of players. Typically, when utilized, all starting players may be re-inserted into their initial position in the line-up one time. A situational substitution – quite often for the purpose of negating a player’s weakness – does not disqualify a starter from further participation. (A subsequent removal of that starter does incur such exclusion from play.)

One Game for All

A more limited use of this re-entry concept might well be the path to the uniformity that the Big Leagues have lacked for far too long. Eliminate the DH and use a nine-man batting order. But grant each team one re-entry per game – only a starting player may be re-entered and must return to his original position in the batting order. In its simplest application, a manager may pinch-hit for his starting pitcher with impunity one time. More subtly, the option impacts how an opposing pitcher may choose to work a seventh or eighth batter.

Above and beyond starting pitcher re-entry, such a change in practice offers an increased level of flexibility in matters of substitution (platooning, defensive replacements, instances of minor injury and the like).

Strict traditionalists may well cringe at the notion of a ball-player re-entering a game … but hasn’t this faction been cringing all along?

The Players’ Union will offer knee-jerk opposition. However, no roster spots need be sacrificed. The specialized skill of a David Ortiz or Edgar Martinez (why is this man not in the Hall of Fame … but I digress) will be outweighed by the flexibility brought by the player with a diversity of assets. And that which is valued in the quest to win will always get paid.

High falootin’ offensive fireworks seem to be what motivate the rule-tinkering we are witnessing with our games in recent times. Consequently consistency, when it finally returns to MLB, will more likely have been achieved through the NL’s adoption of the DH.

Unless they think out of the box … and take a look at the game’s grassroots.