Baseball is far from a crisis point, but the best businesses are forward-looking enough to make necessary changes long before reaching any kind of crisis. So, whether you think a lack of interest in the sport among young people, in particular, is a serious problem right now or not, it does threaten the lifeblood of the sport long-term.
To that end, some people are of the belief – I count myself among them – that there are two issues that merit serious discussion when we think about how to improve the health of the sport: the pace/length of games, and the diminishing offensive environment. Those aren’t the only issues, of course, but they are the ones that have gotten the most attention in recent years. I know that they are controversial, especially among hardcore baseball fans, so I’d rather save the merits of those specific issues for a debate another day. Let’s just agree that they’re on the table and being discussed right now, and many folks inside baseball believe pace/length needs to be improved, and offense needs to tick back up a bit.
Accepting that premise, we could get into a host of possible solutions to the issues (including the idea offered by the new Commissioner earlier this week, which was widely panned (and, again, he merely said he was “open” to the idea of banning extreme shifts, not that he was pushing for it)). MLB is working various pace-of-play fixes as we speak, and folks regularly debate the appropriate contours of the strike zone, as it impacts offense.
One idea discussed by Ken Rosenthal today caught my eye, in part because it is simple and clever, and in part because it was apparently originally offered by none other than Cubs President Theo Epstein: require pitchers to face more than one batter.
At first blush, I think I really like this idea. On its face, it certainly seems to accomplish quite a bit with a relatively small change. By forcing pitchers to face at least two batters, you might see fewer pitching changes in the middle of innings, and thus cut down on pace interruptions (and shrink the length of the game). Further, by curtailing the ability of teams to rely on one-batter specialists, you might also see an uptick in offense because a LOOGY is suddenly forced to face a righty, or is prevented from coming into to face that tough lefty batter in the first place. (And imagine the excitement if there are two outs, the bases loaded, and a top lefty coming to the plate (with a huge righty behind him) … does the manager go with his top bullpen lefty to try and get that one out? What if he doesn’t? Oh, crap, he’s gotta face the righty now? The gamble didn’t pay off! Storylines!)
The more I write, the more I like this idea.
On the flip side, I don’t want to understate the potential impacts of this kind of change. Sure, it’s a “small” change in that it doesn’t fundamentally alter the way the sport is played. But it could have an enormous impact on the way bullpens are constructed and utilized, and thereby could also impact the way starters are employed or the way positional players are rostered. It’s easy to see how full-inning (or more) relievers would become much more valuable in this setup, and bullpens might then require one fewer reliever. That could mean an extra position player on the roster, and it could mean that starters who can go deeper into games become more valuable.
(Obligatory cynical comment: being that the Cubs don’t have a sure-thing lefty specialist identified just yet, and being that they have one of the best contingents of young, power righties in the game, this kind of change would seem to benefit the Cubs, at least in the short term.)
Your thoughts? It’s going to take a little time to digest, and I recommend reading Rosenthal’s piece for more thoughts on how it could play out.