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Against endless tweaking: Keep baseball from becoming football

Position players pitching is a fun part of the game. Of course they want to change it

Yeah, sometimes a second baseman like Josh Harrison pitches. It’s all part of the elemental elusiveness of baseball.
| Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

George Will, for whom I have a soft spot despite my inimical opposition to the cornerstones of his life (Cubs baseball, Republicanism, General Dweebishness) has a really good line about how football combines the two worst aspects of American life: violence and committee meetings. He was quipping about huddles, of course, but he was also on to something particularly grim about the sport — the way every aspect of the game swirls around the rules.

Football is weird in that sense. While an ump calls safe or out on every play, most of the time it is academic. When a play is close, the ump is trying to decide what happened first in an eyeblink-quick, bang-bang sequence. But in football, not only can there be whistles blown on every play (including at terrible times, ahem), but the very idea of what a “play” is comes into frequent question.

What’s a catch? Essentially, no one knows. We can see a guy catch the ball, and then when the action is slowed down to Zapruderian exactitude, the parsers start to parse if the ball moved. If his foot was touching grass while his hands cradled the ball — ah, but where are the fingers placed? For the sake of accuracy, the sport has become legislated past the point of coherence. We all try to define the Platonic meaning of a “catch,” in all its forms. It’s maddening.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is a weird sort of tyrant/sycophant, protecting the owners while trying to make the NFL the 6th branch of the military, an unimpeachable institution, and in doing so wants to put his pecksniff rigitude everywhere. He wants to impose Order, no matter what that does to the product.

This brings us to baseball. Baseball has some weird rules — try describing the intricacies of the infield fly rule to someone who doesn’t know anything about baseball — but there is a simplicity to the game that frustrates the legislative approach. Throw the ball, hit the ball, that sort of thing. However, in commissioner Rob Manfred, baseball has its own pecksniff who wants to drain the weird from our weirdest sport.

From ESPN:

Under the new guidelines, leading teams have to be up by 10 or more runs in the ninth inning to let a position player pitch, but trailing teams can use a position player any time they are down by eight or more runs. Position players are also allowed to pitch anytime in extra innings.

Look, the game is almost never going well when a position player comes in to pitch. Things are generally out of hand, and bringing in a shortstop isn’t going to make it any closer. It’s a move to save a tired bullpen on one of those random baseball nights when nothing is going right. People laugh a bit, have fun, and go out and get ’em the next day. As Sox fans, we’ll always remember Yermín Mercedes’ bomb against Willians Astudillo — it was a gleeful high point of 2021 (and one that, sigh, very quickly turned sour).

So on the face of it, these new rule tweaks seem harmless enough. After all, it is very, very rare that managers will use a position player outside of these kind of blowouts. So there is probably very little actual impact that codification will have. It’s just cementing as rule what are standard best practices.

It’s like having a law against driving your car right into the grocery store: Unless the situation is going seriously sideways, I’m gonna avoid doing so on my own.

But what the hell? Sometimes the situation does go sideways, and you need to drive your car into the store. That sort of thing happens all the time in baseball, which is one of the reasons we love the game. It’s strange, and it contains endless permutations. Every game is unique, its own world. The game comes from a thousand different regions, from dusty southwest fields to corn-choked midwest ones, from the Caribbean and South America and Florida and California. It defies uniformity, and that is what makes it great.

That doesn’t work for Manfred, who is obsessed with perfecting an imperfect game, and wants to tinker with the rules in order to satisfy the demands of some ineffable marketing algorithm. He’s flattened the minor leagues and has tried to impose his bloodless will across the game. This rule change is a minor example of that, but a telling one.

When position players come in, a long game is usually made a little longer. It gets silly, and it gets pretty stupid. We all know this. It messes with Manfred’s average time of game. And yes, there are legit reasons to worry about more position players pitching — 132 were used last year, as opposed to 32 five years ago. It skews stats, and stats drive contracts.

I don’t know the reason for the explosion of position players pitching. Protecting arms during the pandemic, sure. But I think that specialization in the bullpen demands flexibility when the situation calls for it. If there’s no reason to use your highly-paid, 50-inning-a-year guy, then you don’t. If baseball is going to be pitcher-dominated, then sometimes non-pitchers have to pitch.

It’s the “sometimes” that drives energy vampires like Manfred crazy. They want everything to be controlled. They want to regulate the shift. They want to tell managers who to pitch, and when. They want baseball to fit into a comfortable little package, wrapped up neatly for advertisers in a predictable way. They want to manage business metrics instead of baseball. And it’s hurting the game through a thousand papercuts.

Chances are there will be very few times when a manager feels like they want to break this rule. But sometimes they will. And “sometimes” is what makes baseball fun and weird. It’s what makes baseball baseball.

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