Walk This Way

Last week, Major League Baseball approved of a dugout signal instead of the traditional four-pitch walk when a team wants to grant an opposing batter a free pass to first base. Essentially, the manager will signal his decision to the umpire as the batter will walk to first.

Really?

There’s not a lot to say in defending the intentional walk rule. It’s basically a boring play that’s rarely used. It won’t make that big of a difference since there was only 932 intentional walks last season, and that’s basically saving about 45 seconds of game time. However, it feels as if baseball is trying to address the issue of changing a play like this will have some impact to the game itself (it really won’t) but more changes could be coming.

Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director, Tony Clark, saw no real need for any substantive rule changes. MLB Commissioner, Robert Manfred, has been pushing to “improve pace and action“. After discussions with the union about potential rule changes, Manfred was extremely disappointed that the union was uncooperative during the discussion as they have resisted many of MLB’s potential rule changes.

Nevertheless, under baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement, management can alter playing rules only with an agreement from the union or unless it gives a one-year notice. Angry and frustrated that the players union will not accept any rule changes, Manfred intends to give the players association the required one-year notice that will allow management to unilaterally make changes for the 2018 season. Manfred will send a letter of notification to Clark this week in hopes of reaching an agreement.

Clark certainly took exception to Manfred’s comments and said rule changes already are expected to be implemented this season. There are plans for a two-minute limit this year for instant replay reviews.

Among the proposed changes, the League would like to introduce a 20 second pitch clock to reduce time between pitches, limiting the number of times a catcher can conference with a pitcher, and perhaps tweaking the strike zone as well.

There are mixed feelings about the strike zone. MLB has long studied whether or not to restore the lower edge of the strike zone. As stated in the rule book, the strike zone should be “hollow beneath the kneecap” of the batter midpoint between the top of the shoulder and the top of the pants. The new proposal would  raise the bottom zone to the top of the batters knees, about two inches higher. Interestingly enough, umpires have been increasingly calling strikes below the knees on so many pitches that redefining the zone would help hitters and hurt pitchers. It could produce more balls in play, more base runners and more action.

A 20 second pitch clock would be ideal to pace up the game. It’s been used in Triple-A and Double-A baseball for the past two seasons. This alone, would drastically change the pace of baseball.

The urgency is there to make changes. But it’s a one-sided urgency to change the rules. If anything, any MLB  rule changes, especially the ones non-baseball fans would think of as minor or irrelevant, will set off many baseball fans. From 1932-1968 there were no significant changes to baseball. It wasn’t until 1969-1973 where changes were made: lowering the mound, adding the save, batting helmets became mandatory, plus the designated hitter was introduced in the American League.

Since the American League has been playing with a designated hitter for 45 years, people continue to argue about it to this day.

Though the speed of play needs adjustments, it’s important for the League to understand that the game’s roots need to be preserved. Meaning if the pace of the game is going to be improved, the rules cannot have a lopsided effect on the offense or defence. Maybe, in time, change will be accepted by everyone. Perhaps if these rule changes are implemented over time, allowing them to first be tested in the minor leagues, they’ll be easier to digest for players and fans.

With some players welcoming the new intentional walk rule, players continue to resist Manfred’s intentions. Particularly, Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin made a sarcastic remark to the new intentional walk rule, and Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant commented that MLB could be going down a slippery slope with the rule changes.

More changes appear to be coming as MLB  has assigned Rawlings to produce a stickier ball with natural tack on the leather for the 2018 season.

Manfred will have a bigger fight on his hands in 2018. He’s facing challenges as he is trying to do what he think has to be done for baseball’s future generations: quicken pace of play.

While the current future looks bright for maintaining baseball’s traditional rules, it’s no secret that Manfred will continue to do what he can to speed up the pace of play. Neither side is certain how things will play out in regards to the new proposals, but they are expected to explore various ideas to pace the game. Manfred is simply trying to get what he wants.

Go home baseball, you’re drunk.

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