Bill Madden: Rob Manfred needs to end the mindless meddling with MLB’s rules

TAMPA, Fla. — Between watching these spring training games so far, or examining this latest set of rule change experiments for the minor leagues this year, it’s become abundantly clear that Rob Manfred’s geek patrol is running amok.

I know the commissioner has good intentions with all the safety precautions put in place for spring training, at the same time wanting to address the very real concerns about the length of games and lack of action on the field. But the institution of “rollover” innings for the first two weeks of the Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules was downright lunacy, and some of the “speed up” and safety experiments wreak of mindless meddling.

We’ll start with “rollovers” which thankfully ceased being part of spring games as of Sunday, hopefully never to resurface again. As part of their safety protocols for spring training, MLB announced that, up to March 13, games could be shortened to five innings or seven innings upon mutual agreement from both managers and that Baseball Rule 5:09 (e) would be relaxed, allowing defensive managers to end an inning prior to three outs providing their pitcher had thrown a minimum of 20 pitches. Supposedly this rule was put into effect to protect the health of the pitchers after a season of only 60 games in which they had limited innings. Plus the added concern that any extra relief pitcher called into a jam might be a low-level prospect making his debut and not ready to face that kind of a situation. At least that was the way Cubs manager David Ross defended it last week.

OK, we get it. They’re trying to protect pitchers’ arms. But if you’re going to treat these spring training games like intra-squad games, how do you justify charging upwards of $50 a ticket and more to the fans? Imagine sitting there watching your team load the bases against a pitcher struggling with his control and anticipating a big inning with your best hitter coming to the plate, only to have the defensive manager come out of the dugout, wave his hands and declare the inning over? The fans’ collective “what the heck?” has resounded throughout the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues this spring. According to the Elias Bureau, as of Friday there had been 130 “rollover” innings in 161 spring games, including six in one game between the Rangers and Mariners! There were better ways to protect pitchers’ arms — have more pitchers available and not worry about the circumstances in which a reliever is called in — rather than turning games into a travesty and still charging top dollar for it.

As for the experimental rules being implemented in the minors this year, some, like requiring all four infielders to position themselves on the dirt, have merit while others, like expanding the size of the bases in hopes of reducing injuries and supposedly giving an added edge to potential base stealers, seem to be a bit of a ... uh ... stretch. And limiting pitchers to two step-offs, or pickoff attempts, per plate appearance with at least one runner on base wouldn’t have any immeasurable effect on shortening times of games but could lead to confusion on both the pitchers’ and managers’ parts. If the pitcher attempts to pick the runner off a third time and fails, a balk would be called and likely touch off a furious protest.

Personally, I think the cat-and-mouse pickoff challenge between the pitcher and the runner at first adds a little extra drama to the game. At the same time, however, pitchers do need to work faster, which is why the 15-second pitch clock, which will be tried in the Low A West minor league, may be the best and most sensible of all the experimental rules. Ditto the automatic ball-strike system that will be used in some Low A Southern League games. While you never want to eliminate the human element in baseball, when it comes to the umpires, haven’t we all had enough of Angel Hernandez and the incessant strike zone inconsistencies?

Meanwhile, if you believe the shifts are a major source of the lack of “balls in play” action on the field, then four infielders positioning on the dirt is a good start. But it’s also a cop-out from the most obvious solution which would simply require only two infielders positioned on each side of second base as the pitcher delivers the ball. After all, wasn’t that the way the inventors of the game originally designed it?