Recently, Jeff Passan reported that the MLB and MLBPA have discussed the possibility of major rule changes. These include a universal DH, a three-batter minimum for pitchers, and many more possibilities that would greatly alter how the game is played. While none of those rule changes are likely to be implemented within the near future, that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate on some other possible changes the MLB could (and, potentially, should) make to improve the product on the field, and generate increased fan interest. This is Part 3 of my “Modest Proposal” series, where I will examine several unorthodox ideas that might add a spicy new layer to Major League Baseball. Check out [link Part 1] and [link Part 2] here.
Baseball is a game often defined by its rigidity. Inside the lines, players adhere to meticulously crafted superstitions, some as simple as avoiding stepping on the foul chalk, and others as, um…unique…as peeing on their hands. In a larger sense, discourse surrounding the game also seems to generally be adverse to evolution. Former players often nostalgically harken back to “when they played,” and every analyst and their mother seem to be in a fervor about the shift, reliever usage, and the rise in three true outcomes. Even fans have a tendency to romanticize the history of baseball, and fear that a change in rules or style of play might take away from the essence of the game (hint: it’s about the cones). Casually ask anyone about the DH, and you’ll be handed a 239-page thesis, bound in leather, with a foreword by Jack Morris, detailing why the National League is so much more pure than the American League. This is still a debate even though that rule was introduced the same year as Watergate. I asked my 13-year old sister what she thought about Watergate, and she said, and I quote, “Who?”
Yes, baseball often feels like a historical relic. Whispers of these new rule changes have most people upset over at least one proposal, with the ultimate fear being that baseball will be tarnished. It’s understandable, to an extent. In a game driven so much by history, tradition, and routine, even minor modifications feel like drastic overhauls. The bases are 90 feet apart, and the mound is 60’6’’ away from home plate because that’s the way it has always been, and if we change it now, then we might as well be digging up Babe Ruth’s grave and urinating in it.
There’s something to be said for reveling in the history of the game, because it certainly is a big part of what makes it so beautiful, but there has to be a balance between celebration of the past, and forward-thinking. While adjustments to the game are usually met with initial pushback, most of the tweaks don’t end up redefining the game. Instead, they fix a part to make the whole much better. And thirty or forty years down the road, the new generation of baseball fans won’t be able to imagine a version of the game without such rules. (They also won’t be able to imagine headphones that aren’t implanted into your skull at birth, people smaller than 5’10’’, or the New Orleans Pelicans.)
So, for the final portion of my Modest Proposal series, we’re going rapid fire style, examining several rule change ideas that might, at first glance, seem “ridiculous,” or “flat out dumb,” or even, as the New York Times put it when I emailed them this list, “worthy of the writer being incarcerated. Please do not contact us again, or we will be forced to take legal action.” But I promise you this: while today you may ridicule these proposals, it won’t be long before they’re as integral a part of the game as the basic rules that make up baseball’s DNA.
Switch to aluminum bats
I’m sure you’ve seen the various stats about how incredible Barry Bonds’ on-base percentage would still have been even if he never ever got a hit. Similarly, I’ve often wondered how many home runs Bonds would have had using instruments other than a baseball bat. How many could he have hit with a wiffle ball bat? A golf club? His bare hands? A dead fish he caught in McCovey Cove before the game? The guy was so insane, he probably still would’ve been the most fearsome power threat in the league even without a bat at his disposal.
Put an aluminum bat in his hands, though, and we’ve got a show. Put an aluminum bat in any batter’s hands, and the entire offensive side of the game is revitalized. I’m not a “math” expert, but based on my research, an aluminum bat allows a hitter to increase their bat speed by about five miles per hour. In turn, when facing a 94 MPH fastball, each one MPH increase in bat speed results in the ball traveling about eight feet further, so we’d be looking at hits traveling 40 extra feet (or more) on average. That’s some serious distance, which means a lot more of good things: more home runs, more extra base hits, and best of all, more of the most exciting play in baseball: a deep fly out to the warning track.
I understand that very real risks aluminum bats would put pitchers in, so it probably isn’t safe or practical to implement this rule for real game action. But at least let hitters use aluminum bats during the Home Run Derby, and let Barry Bonds participate just so we can watch and reminisce about what might have been.
Lower the mound…underground
The last time the mound was lowered was after the 1968 season, commonly known as the “Year of the Pitcher.” It now sits at 10 inches high, but it appears that it might be making the same mistake Anakin Skywalker did in his duel with Obi-Wan, and heading for lower ground; a part of Passan’s report included the news that the MLB would fund a study to investigate the possibility for such an action.
The basic logic for the idea is sound. Lowering the mound would, hopefully, decrease arm injuries, which have truly become an epidemic. Further, it would help out offenses that have seen strikeout rates soar in recent seasons as velocity has reached unprecedented levels. With the trajectory humans are on, getting more and more insanely athletic with each generation, and with scientists working on making the unhittable Mr. Clanky a reality, hitters have a near impossible task ahead of them. Jordan Hicks will be the new normal, and then, eventually, that speed will look like Jamie Moyer pitching. Lowering the mound, or even pushing the mound back, seems like a necessary step to save hitters from a lifetime of strikeouts. But lowering the mound completely underground would take it a step further, and make baseball a must-watch event.
All we’d need is a couple of shovels, and Shia LaBeouf in character as Stanley Yelnats from “Holes.” In the first inning, the mound would be perfectly flat. However, each subsequent inning, the mound hole would be dug one foot deeper, meaning that by the end of the game, pitchers would be working from nine feet under ground. They’d jump down to start the inning, and we wouldn’t see them again until they’ve gotten three outs. After every batter, a week’s supply of rations would be lowered down in a bucket, just in case they got stuck down there. And of course, after every inning, the official “Hole Getter-Outer” (Alex Rodriguez in a hard hat) would dive down attached to a harness to bring the pitcher back up.
The benefits are clear: velocity would drop sharply, essentially to the point where the players would be back in coach pitch little league. And the later we get into games, when relievers who throw the ball inhuman speeds generally enter, the deeper the hole would become, and the more challenging it would be to throw hard and accurate. As for extra innings, those would become the games of the century. Remember that 18-inning World Series Game 3? Nate Eovaldi would have been 18 feet into the barren Earth, throwing bullets from amongst the worms and dinosaur fossils (unless you’re Carl Everett, in which case they are fake bones planted there by the government). Enough with starting a runner on second base in the extra innings; this idea would be far more entertaining. What would you rather see? A boring human, standing on flat ground at second base before the inning has even really begun? Or a pitcher dressed as a mole (I forgot to mention, all pitchers must now wear this at all times), stuck in a hole, struggling with his control? If you didn’t pick the mole option…you’re a troll with no soul.
The only thing we’d have to worry about is if Chris Davis needed to talk to the pitcher during the game. He wouldn’t be able to, because the poor guy can never seem to find the hole.
Put slip and slides between the bases
Picture this, but during a stolen base attempt. The runner takes a single step towards second, followed by a headlong dive. He rides this momentum all the way to the base, and then, still on his stomach, he uses his arms to push himself towards third for the double steal. This is exciting baseball. And as an incredibly incentivizing bonus, this might pave the way for Major League Baseball’s first penguin player.
Jolt all outfield fences with a shot of electricity
One of the most exciting plays in all of baseball is the home run robbery. But as we saw last postseason, sometimes those plays are derailed by fans, leaving the game in a state of unrest and confusion bordering on Frankenstein-esque riots. The Astros fans might not have had pitchforks or torches, but their bloodlust was unrivaled, and their conviction that the Red Sox wouldn’t have won the World Series without that play is impressive. (Equally as impressive is the number of Astros fans I’ve seen saying the Red Sox cheated with this play when the Astros…literally were under investigation for cheating as this happened. Just a thought.) Adding some electricity to the fences might help jolt fans into staying on their side of the line. I’m not talking anything serious – just enough to give the fan a little reminder not to interfere.
And while we’re at it, there’s plenty of other changes the MLB should make to that area of the field that would make any play in that direction a game-changer. For one, the warning track should be dug out, filled with water, and inhabited by live sharks, piranhas, and that scary fish with the light on its head from “Finding Nemo.” Any ball hit into the water is a ground rule double, unless it is eaten by a shark, in which case it is an out. Outfielders can get a drawbridge lowered down to avoid the risks of these carnivorous fish, but only if they can answer the riddles posed by a guardian troll (Alex Rodriguez painted green and holding a club). Finally, every center field should have a hill like there used to be in Minute Maid, except it should be much larger and set up like a miniature park. Fans can pay extra to watch the game from this location, with the chance that they’re plowed over by a player chasing after a ball.
The next few seasons are critical for the MLB, not just because the world is going to end by 2050 so we need to get some good stuff in while we can, but because of the imminent end of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. How the league handles its pace of play initiative, the desire to increase offensive outputs, and rule changes over the next handful of years could very well define the future of the game – for better or worse. The players want changes, and if Rob Manfred wants to increase fan interest, especially with younger demographics, then he needs to make them.
In my Modest Proposal series, I’ve examined proposals the MLB could make that would be both macro (holding only a single season every four years) and micro (simple, logical, and reasonable changes like turning the warning track into a shark infested moat guarded by a magical troll who asks players riddles). The ultimate point I’ve tried to make here, in a hopefully silly way, is that changes are coming to baseball, and we ought to just embrace that. No, I don’t actually think that baseball should lower the mound underground or use aluminum bats. But sure, make the DH universal! Require pitchers to face at least three hitters, and to wear mole costumes! Overhaul the financial compensation system for players, change how the postseason works, and tinker with the draft! It might make the game different, but the way I see it, there’s only two ways we could react to that: we could angrily turn our backs on the game we love and fight the changes tooth and nail, or, like Corny Collins in the cinematic masterpiece that is “Hairpsray” (2007), we can rock out to it!
And I do love baseball, more than almost anything in the world, and while I don’t want it to become something unrecognizable, I also don’t want it to stagnate. The game is different than it was in 1900, and in 1950, and even than it was in 2010. Tomorrow, it will be different, too, but that isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t make any era of baseball better than another. I want this game to keep evolving, to turn into something I watch with my kids someday and marvel at how uniquely awesome it is. Maybe we try a few things along the way that don’t work out, but what’s the real harm in doing it for a few years, and then realizing it was a mistake and trying something else?
It’s possible to change baseball while still maintaining the spirit of the game, and honoring its tradition. So let’s do that. Otherwise, someday we’ll all be the Harold Reynolds’ and John Smoltz’s of our generation: mocked for our lack of understanding of modern statistics, our inability to construct coherent sentences like a television personality should absolutely be able to do, and worst of all, our apparent disdain for a game we’ve dedicated our life to. Don’t be like that. Embrace the change.
Featured Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons,https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hall_of_Famers_Frank_Thomas_and_John_Smoltz_chat_(22195768553).jpg