At various points in the year, you’ll hear various sportswriters or commentators bemoan how baseball needs fixing, or how it’s rendered irrelevant by football and basketball. Hall-of-Famer John Smoltz added his voice to this issue last August by proposing, among other things, a split schedule in order to prevent tanking.
I’m a baseball purist, but consider myself open-minded enough to allow that some things about baseball are simply outdated and need to be corrected. I’m not naive enough to believe all my suggestions about baseball would be implemented, or if they’re truly the best recommendations for the sport. But with that said, here’s my pitch to help the sport.
Big picture changes
Baseball needs a salary cap and salary floor
In 2018, the World Champion Boston Red Sox spent $227,398,860 on salaries per Spotrac.com; their divisional rival Tampa Bay Rays had the lowest salary, at $68,810,167. Actually, last year was a strange one as the Oakland Athletics made it to the playoffs with MLB’s third-lowest payroll (the team sandwiched in-between the A’s and Rays? Ouch, the Chicago White Sox).
However, when looking down from the top of the list, five of the eight playoff teams finished among the top nine in salaries. I’d like to see a baseball salary cap to prevent the highest-payroll teams from hoarding all the top free agents; however, that would come with a salary floor as well, to force teams to be more competitive. Of course, lower-payroll teams may just sign one or two overpriced players to meet the floor requirement while still possessing an abysmal salary structure overall. However, when looking at improving league competitiveness, it’s only fair that if the league stifles the higher-salaried teams in order to level the playing field, the league should ask lower-payroll teams to change their ways as well.
It’s been just 17 years since MLB added the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now Rays) via expansion. Why add more teams? If MLB adds two more teams, this would mean that MLB could have a balanced schedule — both leagues could have four, four-team divisions. This would mean that interleague play could be nonexistent for much of the year. Also, MLB could use the the additional revenue that expansion teams would bring not just for profit-sharing (which would go a long way toward increasing salary floors and caps), but also to help in other facets of the game (see below). A partial list of eligible cities that could be interested include Portland, Vancouver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Charlotte and Nashville.
Changes to the minors and draft
Better minor league pay
The way minor leaguers get paid (or, don’t) is a travesty. While some of the higher picks received large bonuses upon signing their first contracts, the majority of bonuses are four figures. When you throw in the fact minor leaguers don’t even get paid a minimum wage, it’s no wonder that some players leave the game early in order to pursue different occupations. MLB needs to provide better living wages for those players under its employment, and one way to give them that money is via partial proceeds from profit-sharing and expansion.
Give teams the flexibility to trade draft picks
Under current guidelines, teams can’t trade current draft picks until the World Series is over. Wouldn’t the MLB draft be much more exciting if teams could actually trade draft picks, either before or during the draft? A team like the Royals, for example, may be willing to trade their No. 1 pick to the to the White Sox for the third overall pick, a fourth-round pick, and the White Sox’s first round pick of 2020. The NFL and NBA drafts succeed in garnering more attention than baseball’s not only because their players have better nationwide recognition — but because of the unpredictable nature of the drafts themselves.
This would be more complicated, as it would involve unifying several different worldwide baseball organizations into the mix (Japan, Korea, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico). Multiple bonus-skimming scandals have rocked MLB over the past 10 years — including infractions from the White Sox, Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers. A unified international draft would help prevent such scandals from happening in the future, and allow teams other than the New York Yankees, Red Sox or West Coast teams to acquire a top international star for their rosters. If the NBA can draft Russian or other European stars, why can’t MLB do something similar?
I’m admittedly no expert on service time rules, but it seems a travesty to prevent budding superstars like Vladimir Gurrero, Jr. and Eloy Jimenez from entering the majors in September (if not earlier) solely due to service-time issues. This would take some time to figure out, and some sort of a compromise between MLB and the MLBPA to sort out. Sort it out they must, though, for the betterment of MLB fans.
Both leagues should have the same rules — either all-DH, or all pitchers hitting. Can you imagine the NBA permitting dunks in the Western Conference, but not allowing them in the Eastern? Perhaps I’m showing my American League bias (and disavowing my purist inclinations), but sticking with the DH is truly the best way to go. How many fans ever go to a National League ballpark with the sole intent of watching a pitcher bunt or strike out? Designated hitters extend the careers of aging and/or injured hitters, while making the game much more palatable for fans to watch. For obvious reasons, the MPBPA prefers to keep the DH as well.
Modify the 10-Day Disabled List rule
While not the only team manipulating the system, the Dodgers have certainly been notorious for manipulating the new 10-Day DL rule. When teams have a plethora of major league and Triple-A options available, they can easily place somebody on the 10-day DL without any true injury in order to provide different matchups for upcoming opponents. My policy would be to limit the number of times a team can place players on the DL. Once they reach that limit, teams would be required to place players solely on the 15-day or 60-day DL for the remainder of the year.
Relief appearance minimum
An average baseball games lasts longer than three hours, in part due to the amount of times managers go to the mound to change pitchers. Managers do this in large part due to avoid second-guessing, but MLB can cut at least a few minutes off the average game length by increasing the time a pitcher must remain in a ball game. My recommendation would be to have pitchers pitch to a minimum of three hitters (barring injuries) before he is replaced; if a pitcher is removed prior to facing three batters, that pitcher must be promptly placed on the 15-day DL in order to prevent in-game roster manipulation.
Extend the trade deadline
With the advent of the wild card, fewer teams are unsure where they’re at when the July 31 trade deadline approaches, and fewer trades actually occur as a result. Extending the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline to August 15 would give each team two extra weeks to assess their teams and rosters, and hopefully inspire more wheeling and dealing.
When rosters are expanded in September, I’d be in favor of setting a maximum of 30 players to a team’s active roster each game. Presently, no such cap exists, so a team can theoretically have 40 men on their squad, in comparison to as few as 25 or 26 on their opponents’. The limit could be decreased to as few as 28 players, but September’s expanded rosters may be the best opportunities for some minor leaguers to get their one and only shot in the bigs.
It’s time for robot umps to start calling balls and strikes. Since the 19th Century, umpires have called balls and strikes, with varying results from umpire to umpire. Every year, the league asks for more consistency. To be fair, it’s not always easy for an umpire to get a great view of each pitch, with the catcher blocking his view. Robot umps would help fix this issue, and thereby minimize the need for catching framers going forward. Would the umpire’s union go along with this? Probably not. However, robot pitch calls wouldn’t eliminate the need for a home-plate ump. Plus, you could add umpires to the left and right field lines, if that’s the incentive needed to improve the game at home plate.
Get rid of the worst umpires
MLB umpires are a lot like Supreme Court justices — they have jobs for life. Nobody goes to a game just to watch an umpire ump; try telling that to guys like Joe West or Angel Hernandez, however. Umpires already are graded at how well they do their job, but those with the lowest grades (regardless of seniority) by the end of the year should either begin the following year in Triple-A or find themselves unemployed. By and large, umpires do a great job; however, it’s the lousy few who give the profession a bad name. Tighter performance goals will also give more good Triple-A umpires a chance to receive long-awaited promotions.
Too many times to begin the season, warm weather or domed teams either play against each other to begin the season, or else play at cold-weather ballparks. Enough West Coast, Southern and domed teams exist that East Coast and Midwestern teams shouldn’t be hosting games in the first week. It certainly can’t be fun for the players to play in arctic conditions, and it certainly isn’t any fun for the fans, which is a large reason why attendance is so down at the time of the season. This isn’t a perfect fix, since cold weather games of course occur in April’s second week, and later into the spring; however, this is simply a case of playing the odds.
I’m not a big enthusiast of interleague play. However, certain match-ups have consistently and greatly increased attendance, so interleague play here to stay. Expansion would at least allow for a more balanced schedule in each league. Teams should be playing intra-divisional games or at least intra-league games, as opposed to playing teams in a different league, if they’re in a divisional race. Midseason interleague play, perhaps just before the All-Star break, makes the most sense.
In the postseason, games should begin at 7 p.m. EST, with any pre-game festivities beginning well before that time. With postseason games lasting even longer than those in the regular season, more fans nationwide would be able to watch. The postseason is baseball’s time to shine, and appeal to old-times and youngsters alike; currently, these games often last beyond midnight.
Also, shorten the commercial breaks between innings — three minutes is way too long. If picture-in-picture images appear on television once the game resumes, the commercials could still continue for another 20-30 seconds. Shave 30 seconds off each half-inning break, and that remove six to nine minutes of dead time. If you combine that with reducing in-game bullpen changes, MLB would provide a much better-quality viewing experience.
A common practice in baseball for a good part of the 20th Century, traditional doubleheaders fell out of favor by the late 1980s, when rising attendance and escalating salaries led baseball owners to abandon them as unnecessary giveaways (since they amounted to a game’s being played free of charge). While players may not like doubleheaders, and owners certainly don’t, fans do, if only because it increases the bang for their bucks. Doubleheaders should be showcased on Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day; this would free up three extra days around the All-Star Break, or insert three additional scheduled off-days to combat the grind of the season.
For the Fans
Old-Timer’s games are primarily things of the past. I can still remember watching them on television, seeing players like Dick Allen or Tony Oliva hit homers in Wrigley Field. Who can forget when Luke Appling, the Hall of Fame White Sox shortstop with 45 career homers in 21 seasons, went deep.
While I didn’t attend the 1983 All-Star Game in Comiskey Park, the Old-Timer’s game may have even been more appealing.
According to the program, 55 Hall of Fame players were in attendance (should be 56, including Minnie Miñoso, yeah?), including Edd Roush, who played for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1919 World Series, and two Negro League Hall-of-Famers.
What a treat it was for the fans and the current the players to watch these baseball heroes in person — and it was probably just as much fun for the players themselves. These games aren’t as prevalent as they used to be, but fans old and young alike would love to hear about baseball legends. Adding one Old-Timer’s game in each team’s stadium each year would be ideal.
I remember as a kid going to White Sox and Cubs games early in order to watch the home teams take batting practice. Sadly, this isn’t allowed anymore, as it somehow interrupts the home team’s pregame routines. It would be nice, for at least one game each home stand, for fans to watch their favorite players swing for the fences — and perhaps grab a souvenir to boot.
Among several rule changes I grappled with, the only one I’d definitely pursue is the ground-rule double. If someone like Billy Hamilton is at first and the batter hits a ground-rule double, Hamilton is only advanced to third, barring interference. This isn’t right. Umpires should have some leeway to send a fast runner home if it was obvious that he would’ve scored had the ball had remained in play.
Rule changes I don’t want to see (for now)
Some suggestions I’ve seen include pitch clocks, extra-inning rules, split schedules, or removing shifts. I detest the idea of pitch clocks; baseball is the great sport it is partially because clocks aren’t factors in the games themselves. A split-schedule is way too radical an idea — it really didn’t work in the strike-shortened 1981 season, when the St. Louis Cardinals and Reds finished with the best overall records in their divisions, but neither qualified for the playoffs. An idea I’ve seen, which was initiated in the minor leagues last year and has often been used in softball, is to begin extra innings with a runner on second base in order to shorten extra innings, and perhaps decrease the risk of injuries. However, I just don’t like the idea of playing nine innings one way and then changing the rules in extras.
Removing shifts was the most debatable point for me. I can understand both sides, but to me, it seems like it’s analytics running amok. Shifts were relatively rare just 10 years ago, and were deployed 17.4% of the time last year (the Houston Astros led the way at 37.3%, and the White Sox ranked sixth, at 27.0%, according to Baseball Savant). The advantage is clearly on the defensive and pitching sides — opponent’s batting average (OBA) has decreased with shifts in play, although walks have increased; this may be attributable to pitchers working with the shifts by throwing breaking pitches instead of fastballs in order to entice a hitter to pull the ball. The disadvantage of the shift is that does take a bit more time for the players to move to their desired locations, and hitters are becoming more than ever three-true-outcome players as they focus on beating the shifts by hitting over them.
Perhaps shifting is merely a trend, like Tampa Bay started last year with openers; maybe, shifting would force an overall transition away from pull hitters like Daniel Palka to spray-hitters like Nick Madrigal. For now, I’d be OK with leaving shifts untouched; ask me in another five years and I may give you a different response.
There are a couple of miscellaneous things I’d like to see change in baseball. One is having MLB do a much better job in promoting superstars like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Shohei Ohtani. and others. NBA and NFL superstars are seen regularly in commercials or other ventures, but baseball stars are too often anonymous.
Also, if there is indeed collusion, it’s gotta stop! Collusion hurts the players and the fans, and will eventually hurt the owners in the case of a long-standing strike.