Rule Change No. 1: Decline the Walk
In honor of the World Series, I’m going to offer five rule changes that might be good for baseball. The key word here is “might.” Rule changes, by their nature, tend to lead to unforeseen consequences. I often think about how much the save rule has changed baseball. The save was added to the official rule book in 1969 — I don’t know that anyone thought the simple forming of an official statistic would fundamentally change the game.
But it did, though it took a couple of decades. In 1969, only about 23% of all recorded saves were one-inning saves. Relief pitchers simply were not used that way. More than 37% of the saves were two innings or longer. Of the few one inning saves, a substantial number of them were extra innings. The one-inning save simply did not exist as a concept — it happened for various reasons (pinch-hitting for the pitcher being the main one) but the idea of bringing in a dominant pitcher just to get the final three outs had not formed.
And it would not be fully formed for a long time. The one-inning save actually went DOWN over the first 15 years of the save rule. In 1975, for instance, only 16.1% of all saves were one-inning saves. Closers were generally expected to do what we now consider two or three jobs — get the team out of trouble, finish off the eighth inning AND finish off ninth. That’s why they were called “Firemen.” They were supposed to put out fires. That year, 1975, Goose Gossage led the American League with 25 saves. More than half were two innings or more. Do you know how many of those 25 saves he came in to start the ninth inning? Zero.
But over time, as we know, the one inning save started to take hold. Tony La Russa and Dennis Eckersley seem to have been pivotal in the transformation. Eck started closing games full-time in 1988. In 1990, Bobby Thigpen blew everybody’s mind with a record 57 saves (41 of which were one-inning saves). In 1990, three closers had 40-plus saves, a record. In 1991, there were five. In 1993, there were eight.
Look at the percentage of one-inning saves go up:
It kept climbing quickly … two years later to 63% … four years later to 70.%. In 2013, 87.6% of all saves were exactly one-inning saves. It was the highest percentage in baseball history.
Would this have happened without the save rule being crafted exactly as it was, giving a pitcher a save if he pitched one-inning with his team up three runs or less? I honestly don’t think so. The strategy catered to the statistic. It seems to me that the save rule gave everyone a big and dry umbrella to stand under. Managers now had a push-button system that would shield them from criticism or guilt about late innings — hey, I put my best pitcher in the ninth inning. Closers found that with this new one-inning strategy, they could pile up LOTS AND LOTS of saves, which led to bigger contracts and newfound fame. Fans of the game now had a ready narrative for every game — let’s bring in the big bad closer. And relief pitchers of all shapes now had a goal: Be a closer somewhere and become a star.
Is the one-inning closer REALLY the best use of the guy who is probably your best relief pitcher? People still argue it, but at some point, that question wasn’t even worth asking. It was the only way to go. The system funneled every bit of momentum toward the one-inning closer. And I think it was the save rule, written two decades before the revolution, that made it happen.
So, yeah, rule changes often (always?) lead into unexpected directions.
That said: Let’s have some fun and throw out five rule changes anyway. Let the arguments rage, starting with rule change No. 1:
Rule change proposal: Batters should be allowed to “decline” walks.
The problem: The intentional walk is a plague on the game. It is boring and anti-competitive and against the spirit of baseball. Nobody would argue that the baseball is a better game, more interesting, more exciting to watch and to play when teams cannot simply tiptoe around the game’s best players in the game’s most exciting moments. The walk was put in place to encourage pitchers to throw strikes — that is to throw pitches that potentially can be hit. That is at the heart of baseball. The fact that so many teams are now avoiding hitters (there were more than 1,000 intentional walks in baseball in 2013) suggest that the deterrent is simply not strong enough. David Ortiz this year was intentionally walked 27 times. That’s more than Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle were ever walked. That is not good to the game.
The rule change: I’m going back to an old Bill James idea — batters should be allowed to turn down walks. If the batter turned down the walk and was walked again, he would get TWO bases instead of one. So if you double-walked a batter with runners on second and third, the man on third would score. If you double-walked a man with a runner on second, you would have runners on second and third.
The problem: Well, I’m sure there are a lot of problems with this, but the one I kept having wwas that it seemed unwieldy. Would batters turn down walks throughout the game? That wouldn’t make the game better. My original solution to this was to make it so that batters could only turn down four-pitch walks … but there are problems with that too. The biggest one I think is that it’s not really consistent with the game. If you can turn down walks you should be able to turn down walks.
The solution: I was reading an old Bill James essay, and in passing he made a suggestion that I think makes perfect sense. The solution is to make the STRIKES but NOT the balls carry over if someone turns down a walk. So, for instance, if the pitcher walks a batter on a 3-2 pitch, then the batter can turn down the walk, but the next at-bat starts with the pitcher ahead 0-2.
It seems to me quite an elegant solution. Here’s what I think would happen: Nobody would turn down a two-strike walk — there would be no point in taking another at-bat down 0-2. I don’t think batters would take a one-strike walk either. Those things would just be in the background — not unlike the two-point conversion in football. Coaches almost always kick the extra point unless the situation DEMANDS they go for two. I think the same thing would happen with turning down a walk if you carry over the strikes.
Here’s what else I think it would do: I think it would strongly discourage pitchers from intentionally walking anybody. I would bet with this rule in place, the intentional walk would plunge into irrelevance, where it belongs.
On the surface, this seems to me like it would be absolutely fantastic. It would add strategy to the game (Take the walk? Turn it down? Would managers ever freely give up the double walk?). It would be a much stronger disincentive against walking a batter just to avoid facing him (and this would include teams trying to bail themselves out by walking down to the pitcher). And it would give the batter a fair chance to make a play.
There is nothing in other sports, in my mind, quite as unappealing as the intentional walk — it feels like a tax loophole to me. Sure there are ways you can TRY to avoid the other team’s stars in other sports. You can double team players, you can hack a Shaq, you can punt the ball out of bounds to avoid the return man. But there are counters to these — beat the double team, make both free throws, and let’s face it, it ain’t that easy to punt a ball out of bounds without giving up a lot of real estate. With the intentional walk, the pitcher can simply choose to skip over a batter and the batter has no counter. Heck, I could intentionally walk someone. Enough of this nonsense. This rule’s time has come.
But, perhaps — more than perhaps — there are unintended consequences of this rule change I’m not seeing. I fully expect you will let me know in the comments. And if you have any of your own rule changes, put those in there as well. I have my five rule changes but, to be honest, I’m not crazy about three of them. I suspect you have better ones.