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A conservative sport forced to adapt: the three-batter minimum and expanded roster

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A fantasy baseball analogy to help explain the new rules

The Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers play game four of the MLB American League Division Series Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Historically, Major League Baseball has been very conservative in its approach to rule changes. The game’s most ardent fans love to be able to draw a straight line back through 100+ years of history and say that “Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb played the same basic sport as Mike Trout & Bryce Harper”. The NFL, NBA, or NHL have no match for that sort of thoroughfare, as those sports have gone through momentous changes to their basic structures.

Of course, fans who really study baseball know that the above paragraph is almost purely fiction. Ruth and Cobb never had to complete against the best—or any—of the top black players. Mantle & DiMaggio didn’t have to navigate bullpens of fresh arms. Even the stars of just 10-20 years ago lacked the analytical or technological opportunities players have now to improve themselves.

Yet, the “myth of comparability” across the decades has remained so strong within baseball that any change is usually looked upon with extreme skepticism by owners and fans.

This year, however, MLB managed to enact two fairly significant rule changes for the 2020 season:

-The addition of a 26th roster spot, including a maximum of 13 pitchers.

-The mandate that hurlers must face at least three batters in an appearance (or until the defense gets the third out of an inning).

At first blush, I would have said I disliked these changes. I’m never a huge fan of arbitrarily changing the way team sport rosters can be configured or deployed. For example, I’d never ban player shifting on defense. I like the cat-and-mouse game too much. But the more I thought about the above revisions, the more I began to see them as necessary for the sport right now. In large part, I came to this conclusion via a parallel to fantasy baseball:

For many years, I have participated in a fantasy baseball league. One aspect of team-construction within it is that each owner gets four bench spots. The first year or so, those BEN slots were filled with pitchers and position players in equal measure. It didn’t take owners long, though, to realize that stacking the bench with pitchers to rotate in and out would provide a competitive advantage. As such, every bench spot on every team quickly became 100% arms (if not, you’d fall behind in key stat categories). Seeing this, as commissioner of the league, I mandated that one bench spot must be used for a position player, a strategy which made the league more enjoyable and less focused on simply “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Essentially, MLB is doing the exact same thing with the new rules for ‘20. In recent years, teams have discovered that loading up on pitchers—but having them pitch in minimal capacities—is a competitive advantage. CTRL-C/CTRL-V for all 30 teams. Unfortunately, this approach is perhaps antithetical to the spirit of team sport competition. It isn’t a “good look” to continually shuttle pitchers back and forth from AAA to the majors depending on who got the mop-up assignment the night before. A steady parade of minuscule-term relievers perpetuates an assembly-line approach to the back end of games, with players only excelling in specific scenarios. Great for making cars (Henry Ford figured that out), but people don’t buy peanuts and Cracker Jack to watch assembly line workers.

On the whole, I would still advocate for MLB changes to be made only after much deliberation and feedback on all fronts. Without that, the sport risks going the way of the NFL, where what constitutes a penalty or even a catch changes on a year to year (or sometimes seemingly game-to-game) basis. Football has become the cautionary model for how not to overreact to on-field events by over-legislating rules.

So, while the “baseball purist” in me still cringes a bit at the new changes, I ultimately feel that the extra roster spot and three-batter minimum are necessary (and hopefully positive) changes that baseball needed to implement. From one league commissioner to another, if you will ☺.