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How Selig Panel Can Fix Baseball

The Selig committee, announced in mid-December, is supposed to review all aspects of baseball with an eye toward making it a better game (or at least a more marketable one). In no particular order, here are some proposals for the panel to consider, whether or not they have a chance in hell of being approved:

No More One-Batter Pitchers. Baseball games have two different rhythms, one at the beginning of the game, and another when things get serious and the pace slows to a crawl. Frequent mid-inning pitching changes are the worst culprit: first there's the mound gathering, then the reliever's walk in from the bullpen, then his warm-up pitches, finally he pitches to a batter - and then the process starts all over again. Under current rules, a pitcher must stay in the game for one completed plate appearance. Thomas Boswell, writing in the Washington Post, suggests making it two. This would get managers out of the habit of knee-jerk platoon matchups, reward teams with a balance of lefty and righty hitters they can alternate in the lineup, and favor pitchers who can handle both sides. It's a good idea that will speed up the game. (Tony La Russa's on the committee. As I said, I'm not going to worry about a proposal's chances of passage.)

Resolve the Damn DH Already. I still hate the DH. Others love it. Can we all agree that it's stupid to have it in one league and not the other, so that every World Series game involves a team playing under different rules than it faces for most of the season? What other sport would play its championships that way? Adopt it or ban it; it's been thirty-seven years now.

Make the Division Titles Meaningful. Under the current system, a team that makes the playoffs as a wild card faces only a slight disadvantage compared to the division winners. We also lose pennant-race drama - the single best thing a baseball season can give us - when two division rivals know that they'll both be in the postseason. The solution: expand the playoffs by having two wild card teams in each league instead of one. Then put them in a one-game playoff to determine who moves on to the first full round.

As I've written before, this proposal, first raised by Tom Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, has something for everybody. Even after you've clinched a playoff spot, you'll keep playing hard until you're sure to avoid that play-in game. More teams will be in the playoff hunt, yet the 162-game season will be even more important than it is now. The leagues and the networks get something more to sell, but because it's only one game per league it will have a minimal effect on the playoff schedule. One game isn't a fair way to end your season? Tough; next time, win your division. What's not to love?

Pay for the Body Armor. It's understandable that hitters want to wear more protection (and I'd also make the new, high-impact-resistant helmets mandatory). But there should be a tradeoff when the protective padding on your arms lets you lean in without fear. I'd keep it simple: wear whatever you want, but if a pitch hits you on the armor it's a ball, not a base.

Keep the Game Moving. Batters, you can't step out of the box between pitches. Pitchers, you can only step off the rubber once per pitch; do it twice and it's a balk. Coaches, no more mound conferences; as Boswell suggests, wire the pitcher like a quarterback in the NFL. Hell, wire the whole team to save time on signals on offense and defense. (With major penalties for wire-tapping.)

A Little Big Change. Baseball began as a game of action. The most exciting part is when the ball is bouncing and runners are circling and everything converges in a climactic moment. Its dullest eras are those dominated by home runs and strikeouts and little else.

In today's game, much attention is paid to what Baseball Prospectus calls the "three true outcomes": walks, strikeouts, and home runs. Batters are prized for their ability to hit with power and get on base; teams "work the count" not just for the advantage on one at-bat, but to wear down the pitcher and hasten his exit. The strategy works, it's smart - but is it the game we want to see? We want batters to swing the bat, not to take close pitches in the hopes of working a walk, knowing they can always waste a good pitch by fouling it off when the count goes to two strikes.

Eleven decades ago, foul balls counted as nothing - not strikes, not balls. Then the National League adopted the foul-strike rule - a foul ball is a strike, unless the batter already has two strikes on him -- with the American League joining a few years later. Is it time to revise the rule?

Let's put a limit on the number of "free" two-strike fouls for each hitter. Let's give him two (one might work even better, but would be too big a change); after that, one more foul results in a strikeout.

At first, this will cause an increase in strikeouts. Then batters will adjust by trying to put the ball in play before the count gets to two strikes. They'll take fewer pitches. They'll shorten their swings. The game will keep moving. Pitchers will be able to use more of the strike zone. Starters will last longer in the game while throwing the same number of pitches, because they'll never have to throw more than eight to any batter. There'll be fewer time-consuming pitching changes.

When baseball was young, the job of the pitcher was to serve the ball to the batter so he could put the ball in play and get the game going. Walks existed only to ensure that the pitcher threw fairly where the batter could do his part; it was not intended to be part of offensive strategy. To create a more interesting and quicker game, we need to get the bats off the shoulders and the runners in motion. Isn't some modification of the foul-strike rule worth an experiment in some minor league or perhaps spring training games?

The Commissioner says that everything is up for discussion. Shifting the foul-strike rule is a subtle change that would nudge the game in the right direction.

 

Jeff Neuman is a sportswriter and editor, and co-author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf. His columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday.

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