MLB, Union Consider Which 2020 Rule Changes to Renew

Barry M. Bloom
·6 min read

The Major League Baseball players and owners have opened up preliminary discussions about renewing or replacing some of the controversial rules that were adapted for the just concluded 60-game season abbreviated by the coronavirus, Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLB Players Association told Sportico.

Those rules include the universal designated hitter; a runner at second base to start any extra inning; seven-inning games at each end of a doubleheader, and the three-batter minimum for almost every relief pitcher. Extending playoff eligibility above the usual 10 teams is also in the hopper. This year that number was 16.

“I can offer you a few things, but I still need to get feedback from players,” Clark said the other day. “Even if I wanted to, I can’t offer anything definitive.”

Ditto MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.

“I haven’t decided what rules I’m going to personally advocate for continuing, but I will [talk] about the feeling within the industry,” Manfred said during an interview at the World Series.

The union is having a virtual executive board meeting the first week of December to discuss the rules and a number of weighty issues facing the sport as both sides try to configure a 2021 season. The owners, who’ve already canceled their fall meeting, also will conduct business via video conferencing.

Designated hitter

The rule has been the mainstay of the American League since 1973 and prior to this season had been normalized for the All-Star Game, interleague games during the regular season and World Series in AL ballparks.

For health and safety reasons, this was the first year it was utilized in the National League and throughout the World Series for the first time. And after initial grumbling from some traditional fans, there seemed little issue with no longer watching pitchers hit.

“No, people didn’t complain about it in the context of a unique 2020 season,” Manfred said. “But that’s a different question than if they want to live with it for the long haul. The DH debate will go on. I think giving NL teams a chance to play with the DH was interesting. It may change some minds.”

With collective bargaining to replace the current Basic Agreement beginning next year, the hit is the universal DH is here to stay. The current five-year agreement expires on Dec. 1, 2021, and the DH doesn’t seem to be a real matter of contention. Afterall, the only professional league in the world still utilizing it is Japan’s Central League. And there’s some question about that.

“The DH and having one set of rules to me still makes sense,” Clark said. “But like the expanded playoffs, it might be something that’s unique to the 2020 season.”

Runner on second base

For the first time in Major League history games that went into extra innings started with a runner on second base. That was also a health and safety issue to spare the players from wear and tear.

Perhaps surprisingly, the players are interested in continuing this rule because of the stress that’s attributed to playing lengthy extra-inning games “on pitchers’ arms and position players’ legs,” Clark said.

To that end, MLB reported it played 78 extra-inning games this past season, none longer than 13 innings, which happened only twice. Previously and under the old rule, MLB never had a season without a game of 14 innings or more.

“The extra-inning rule had a lot of traction with players, fans and clubs,” Manfred said. “There was a lot of strategy associated with it. It was obviously adopted as a health and safety rule so games wouldn’t go on too long. But I just think it had appeal even to some traditional members of the media.”

The new rule was not utilized for the postseason.

Seven-inning games

This rule became necessary and was adopted during the season when a number of clubs had to postpone games because of the spread of COVID, making it impossible to play regulation games at both ends of a doubleheader.

For example, the New York Yankees found themselves playing three doubleheaders in five days from Aug. 26-30 because of a rainout in Atlanta and the New York Mets having players test positive for the coronavirus a weekend earlier. The St. Louis Cardinals lost two weeks of play dealing with their own COVID problems and had to male up all those games.

When the season ultimately returns to 162 games with fans in either 2021 or 2022, that rule will be scrapped as owners seek a return to playing split-admission, day-night doubleheaders.

“Seven-inning doubleheaders I see more as a 2020 one-time thing,” Manfred said.

Three-batter rule

This one was implemented by MLB and was supposed to have been phased-in during Spring Training 1.0. But that never happened before Manfred called what turned out to be a four-month pause in baseball March 12 as COVID began to spread around North America.

The short of it is that a reliever must face at least three batters when brought into a game, two if he ends an inning.

The rule irrevocably changed managerial strategy, but did nothing to shorten games, which is still an issue.

“We’re going to have to continue to look for ways to move play along,” Manfred said. “It remains a priority for us. It’s hard. Our lack of success in shortening the game is not surprising given that we operate in an institution adverse to change. And when we undertake change it tends to be smaller rather than larger. To reverse the trend on game time we would have to be more aggressive.”

That won’t happen until those who control baseball determine “how the game is played right now, and what teams value right now,” Clark said.

As far as the three-batter rule goes, managers learned to adjust. Some liked the rule, others didn’t.

“I see the three-batter rule in a different category,” Manfred said. “We had planned to adopt that rule and I think about it as part of the status quo landscape. That’s going to stay.”

Expanded playoffs

To recoup lost revenue, the union belatedly agreed to expand the playoff pool from 10 to 16 teams, adding a first round best-of-three Wild Card Series in home parks that immediately eliminated eight teams before the traditional three-tiered rounds began at neutral sites.

“I loved that first week of the playoffs with the two-out-of-three, that was really good for us,” Manfred said.

Eight teams in each league qualified—the top two teams in each of the three divisions and two Wild Card teams. It was wall-to-wall baseball every day for a week, but don’t expect it to be repeated.

“We view the expanded playoffs as unique to 2020,” Clark said. “We have a number of concerns about adding additional teams. We don’t want to have a structure in place that reduces the incentives of winning the division in the most games possible. We also don’t want to be in a place where we’re rewarding mediocrity.”

Manfred agrees 16 teams are too many.

“It wouldn’t be 16 teams,” he said. “It would be something more than 10, but less than 16. [The expanded playoffs] were really good for the sport.”

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