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Murph: New three-batter rule change makes baseball better

© Ed Szczepanski | 2018 Sep 30

As one of the last baseball fans in America, I support the demise of the one-out specialist in the new rule change.

I’m jesting, of course. I imagine there might be two or three other baseball fans.

My beloved sport is baseball is easy to mock — too slow, too ponderous, too “boring” for the younger generation. It’s an NFL world, and a college football world, and an NBA world, the haters say.

Maybe that’s why MLB seems so — what’s the word? — desperate to change these rules? It does have a whiff of desperation. I mean, you either love the game, or you don’t. Will shaving a few minutes off a ball game bring a stampede of kids off of Fortnite and to the ballpark?

Not bloody likely.

But that doesn’t mean MLB shouldn’t try to put the best product out there. And that’s how I see the new rule taking effect in 2020 requiring a reliever to face at minimum of three batters. It’s an attempt to improve the product.

The product is still great. It is intricate, strategic and compelling for those who love the game.

And yet, it can get better.

Eliminating an insane parade of relievers on the mound makes it better.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment MLB culture shifted to a one-out specialist-then-change-pitcher-to-another-one-out-specialist-then-change-pitcher-lather-rinse-repeat mode, but I suspect it was propagated by Hall of Famer Tony La Russa. He liked to strangle games with pitching changes. And he could surely give you outstanding analytical reasons why.

But in the process, something got lost.

Flow. Theatre. Memories. did a nice piece, isolating an inning from a July 23 White Sox/Angels game in which Sox manager Rick Renteria made three pitching changes to produce a shutout inning. (You can read about it here.) The result was a 17-minute inning, in which over 10 minutes went by with no baseball action.

I’m of a certain age where I remember this not happening. I remember pitchers working deep into the night, and drama ensuing. Would John Montefusco throw another complete game? Would Bill Swift get through the seventh inning, to get to Mike Jackson and Rod Beck? Would Madison Bumgarner get through eight innings in Texas in Game 4 of the 2010 World Series?

Oh, wait? You’re young enough to remember 2010? So surely you are screaming at your phone: “BOCHY WON CHAMPIONSHIPS WITH ONE-OUT SPECIALISTS, MORON!” And you’re right. Sometimes I can be a moron. Usually only on days ending in “y”, though. And you’re also right that Bochy used Javier Lopez expertly. And I cheered all the while, just like you.

But I am willing to sacrifice the Lopezes of the world for a larger goal: fewer stoppages of play for over-managing, and more showdowns of pitchers working longer innings. Pitching changes are at an all-time high in baseball. I don’t like it. If anything makes the game boring, it’s that.

To confirm my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me, I randomly called up the boxscores from the 1979 and 1986 World Series games. It did not play tricks. Some random factoids:

— Game 1 of 1979, Orioles 5, Pirates 4 — Mike Flanagan threw a complete game for Baltimore. Nobody on Pittsburgh pitched less than an inning, with the exception of starter Bruce Kison, who was so bad, he coughed up four runs in 1/3 of an inning and got the hook.

— Game 2, 1979, Pirates 3, Orioles 2 — If any game calls out for over-managing, it’s a one-run Series game. Not for Earl Weaver and Chuck Tanner, though. Weaver’s Orioles went Jim Palmer (7), Tippy Martinez (1), and Don Stanhouse (1). Tanner’s Bucs went Bert Blyleven (6), Don Robinson (2), Kent Tekulve (1).

— Game 1, 1986, Red Sox 1, Mets 0 — Another one-run game. And yet, Boston went with Bruce Hurst (8), and Calvin Schiraldi (1). The Mets, Ron Darling (7), and Roger McDowell (2).

The temptation to over-rely on a one-out specialist was not there. Pitchers flourished or fell on the big stage, and you knew their names and their styles and their performances. It was part of the grand theatre.

I can’t guarantee the three-batter minimum will bring back the Bruce Hursts and Tippy Martinezes of my youth. But I can guarantee it will eliminate a parade of anonymity, as detailed in that White Sox-Angels inning.

The constant pitching changes strangled the game.

Baseball is better when it breathes.


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