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Purdy: Forget the tinkering, let’s overhaul these baseball rules

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			Purdy: Forget the tinkering, let’s overhaul these baseball rules

One day last season — or maybe the season before — there was a rain delay at AT&T Park. The Giants’ locker room door was open. If the game was canceled, I would still need a column.  So I entered the room and improvised.

Visiting as many lockers as possible, I asked players to tell me one baseball rules change they might make, if given the power to do so.  Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt were very receptive, as was Joe Panik. Their ideas were thoughtful: Video replay should be tweaked to include certain plays. And on ground-rule doubles, maybe it shouldn’t be an automatic two bases for runners, and umpires should have greater discretion on runner placement. There were a few other suggestions. All worth examining.

Then I got to Hunter Pence. I posed the same question to him as to the others: What baseball rule would he most like to change? Pence looked at me as if I had just asked him to assassinate a poodle.

“Why … would I want to change anything about baseball?” Pence asked. “Why?”

I explained that I was not forcing him to make any changes. I just sought his input on the topic.

“I don’t understand why you’d want baseball any different than the way it is,” Pence said, still puzzled. “Baseball is perfect.”

As it turned out, the sun appeared. The delay ended. The game resumed. So I never wrote the column. But I’ve been thinking a lot about that rain-delay exchange ever since Major League Baseball announced over the winter that this season, at the lower minor league level, a new rule will be implemented whenever a game enters extra innings. When that happens, each team will begin its at-bat with a runner placed on second base. This will theoretically hasten the game’s conclusion.

It is also theoretically goofy, if you ask me. While covering the Olympics, I saw the same rule utilized in softball, which is famous for having pitching duels and low scoring. The rule worked. Games ended quicker. But whenever I saw a game end that way, it always felt like cheating to me.

And, wild guess here: I am pretty sure that Hunter Pence wouldn’t like it.

Rob Manfred kind of does. The baseball commissioner was a busy rules-fiddler and rules-tweaker over the winter. Manfred decided he wanted to make intentional walks automatic (with the pitcher just pointing the batter to first base rather than physically throwing four balls out of the strike zone).

The players’ contract gives them the right to vote down any immediate changes. And when Manfred also proposed a pitch clock, limited mound visits and strike zone changes, the players refused. So those changes may have to wait until next season, when after a year, Manfred can impose them unilaterally.

It’s all pretty jarring, although Manfred says the purists need not worry.  He has claimed that the extra-inning-extra-baserunner rule is only meant to save arms at the minor league level and that “we never expect it will make it to the big-league level.” But you can bet he will reconsider if the rule proves popular — and if it makes network television partners happier because MLB can promise way fewer 18-inning marathon games that cut into the late-night news. If that should occur, the purists’ heads might explode.

For the record, I say let the heads go boom. I believe that baseball purists get much too good a rap. They are often treated as sacred horsehide monks or something. The truth is, the purists can be just as annoying as the baseball rules disrupters. There’s nothing sacred about the rule book. And the game today hardly looks like it did when it was invented 180 years ago. Most rules changes have been helpful.

For example, you can hardly argue that the introduction of such radical ideas as “gloves” and “night games” were horrible concepts. Also, in the early years of the game, fielders could get baserunners out by throwing the ball and hitting them — anywhere. When that rule went away, I presume that the 19th-century baseball purists were outraged. I presume the baserunners weren’t.

The same goes for the new automatic intentional walk, which will kick in on Opening Day. Think about it. When a football team accepts or declines a penalty, it must do so immediately rather than go through the motions of lining up for a center snap and waiting for the 40 seconds on the play clock to run before making the decision. So why does baseball make teams go through the motions of pretending to pitch to batters with no intention of having any of those pitches be a strike?

To be sure, there is inherent drama in making a pitcher execute all four deliveries of an intentional base on balls to a batter, as the crowd hoots and anticipates what will happen when the on-deck hitter steps into the batters’ box. But if the mission is to speed up the pace of the game, this is a small and simple way to do so.

What else, then? While still respecting the Hunter Pence “perfect game” worldview, let’s take a pragmatic look at some things baseball could do to make the “perfect game” even more perfect:

Recalibrating the strike zone — regularly

It’s interesting how “zone creep” happens. For instance, everyone agrees that over the past decade or so, umpires are generally calling more “low strikes” than ever and that the zone is a couple of inches closer to the dirt than it was.

This is a big advantage for any pitcher who can hit that spot, because odds are, batters will either take the pitch for a called strike or hit the ball into the ground. So the instructions have gone out to bring the zone upward. That should increase offense.

Technology today would allow for automated balls and strikes calls. But no one wants to lose the human element of umpiring. My question: If video officials from MLB are watching every game for replay purposes — and they are — then why not have them monitor the strike zone and alert an umpire between innings if he’s allowing too many low (or high) strikes?.

Quicker video replay reviews

Self-explanatory. This includes forcing managers to make their challenges quicker, without the ridiculous kabuki-theater stalling as they wait for an assistant in the clubhouse to watch a broadcast replay and advise the dugout what to do.

Likewise, there’s no reason for umpires to view a replay longer than 60 seconds before issuing a ruling. Manfred’s rule, which with the players’ approval will take effect this season, gives them twice as long. I guess we can live with that.

A real pitch clock

Ever since a 2014 directive, umpires have been good about making pitchers and batters stick to business. But it’s not uniform. Some pitchers still get away with dawdling — and batters still can be slow getting to the box.

There’s no reason a scoreboard clock — with a buzzer — couldn’t be used to force a pitcher to deliver the ball within 20 seconds if the bases are unoccupied. I can totally see fans getting into this, even counting down the seconds for a slow opposing pitcher. Wouldn’t that be fun? That would be fun.

Revamp commercial interruptions

We all know the main reasons games are longer. It’s the time spent between half innings on advertising, promos and whatever. Once, that stuff lasted a single minute. Now, it’s two or three times that long.

Meanwhile, people at the ballpark are waiting, waiting, waiting. Sure, bills have to be paid, but what would be wrong with using picture-in-picture for the last 30 seconds of each break, even if it bleeds into the first pitch or two?

Or how about a trade-off, with advertisers allowed to buy space for their logos on uniforms as a substitute for a 30-second advertisement that could then be eliminated? I know. No chance.

Ground-rule double discretion

Just as described above by Crawford, Belt and Panik. So many times, a runner at first base winds up being held at third base by the umps on a ground-rule double when everyone in the place knows he would have scored if the ball had not bounced over the wall. Give the umpires a choice whether to allow the runner to score.

Designated hitter in both leagues

I know, I know. It’s the third rail of all baseball discussions.

But if Manfred’s goal is to pick up the pace of games and have more balls put into play, as he claims, then one way is to eliminate so many at-bats where pitchers go to the plate and stand with the bats on their shoulders.

According to MLB’s own statistics, 40 years ago the ball was in play for 77.2 percent of plate appearances. Last season, that had dropped to 69.2 percent of plate appearances. Also last season, a ball was put into play once every 3 minutes, 25.2 seconds. That’s 23.4 seconds more than 10 years ago. There were 9,287 fewer balls in play last year than in 2006.

More specialized relief pitching is to blame for some of this, as well as the strikeout-or-home-run plate approach of more batters, but I do know that designated hitters put more balls into play than pitchers who bat .074.

Quieter between-inning scoreboards

This is a personal pet peeve. Believe it or not, kids, the between-innings activity at the ballpark once included just pleasant organ music. Now, it’s loud video and loud music and loud advertisements and loud, loud, loud everything.

In the old days, people could converse between innings about the game and strategy and whatever. Now, they have to scream to make themselves heard. If some sponsor decided to pay for a “silent intermission” break between innings, I would order a case of whatever that sponsor was selling.

I’d settle for just one or two of these changes, but it’d be terrific if all of them were adopted, don’t you think?

Just have someone else break the news to Hunter Pence.

 

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