Commissioner for a day: MLB edition

If you’re an avid sports fan, chances are you’ve made a comment at some point about how, if you were in charge of a sport or league for just one day, you change x. Granted, it’s fairly unrealistic that I might ever expect to become commissioner of Major League Baseball; if I were to somehow achieve that position, there’s some pretty strict checks and balances in place that would preclude me from enacting the sweeping changes I’d like to see made.

But, hey, here in fantasy-land, even FDR never had it this good. I’ve compiled a list of changes I would make to MLB under the iron fist of my rule, before benevolently stepping aside after 24 hours on the job.

Inter-league play

A few years ago, I would have swiftly abolished inter-league play. I used to think the idea of playing division opponents 18 times a season was pretty cool, but now I’m not so certain. I mean, as a fan of a team that’s been more successful than not over the past 20 years, you’d think I’d love watching my team beat up on inferior opponents. But while that’s all fun, an 837-650 record (.563) against a division that, until the past few years, has been more lightly-regarded than others in baseball doesn’t always translate to postseason success. Since 1996, the Cardinals have a winning record vs. the NL Central 15 times against one .500 record (2010) and four losing records (1997, 1999, 2006, and 2008).

I would actually expand inter-league play, such that every team would play at least one series against each of the other 29. The NBA, NHL, and MLS all match up every team for at least one game every season (the NFL, of course, can’t unless it wants to play a 31-game schedule, but I hear they’re having enough difficulty getting players to sign on for 18). Furthermore, fans will be able to see teams from the opposite league every other season, rather than once every six years. Cardinals fans, wouldn’t it have been cool to see Albert Pujols and the City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California Angels of Anaheim, Orange County, California visit Busch Stadium in 2012 or 2013 instead of waiting all the way until 2016? Imagine the vitriol we could have summoned in the year or two after he spurned us! Now, it’s just general indifference… the Cards have made the postseason every year without him, he sucked (by his lofty .300/30/100 standards) for a couple of years to make us happy, and, most importantly, the Angels were swept out of their only postseason appearance in his four seasons by the Royals in 2014.

My other argument for increasing the number of series between the AL and NL is so that it’s just more equitable. One of the difficulties in handicapping a team’s postseason chances is that, even over 162 games, not all records and statistics are equal. When MLB began inter-league play in 1997, each division squared off against its opposite for all contests; this format continued through the 2001 season, before baseball decided to at least rotate the annual divisional match-ups. I wondered how NL East teams felt, having to play the Yankees every year while the NL Central got to beat up on the generally-abysmal Twins, Royals, and Tigers (not that the Pirates were any better over that stretch).

The designated hitter

If you’re going to expand the number of contests between the two leagues, I may as well establish the same set of rules for both leagues. Pretty much the only difference between the AL and NL anymore, now that there’s 15 teams in each league and umpires work for MLB and not just one league or the other, is the DH. And as a fan who grew up watching National League baseball, I cannot and will not support the abomination that is the designated hitter.

Imagine if Shaq, .527 on his career from the charity stripe, got to select any teammate to shoot free-throws. Yes, it would have put a stop to the Hack-a-Shaq strategy pretty quickly if Kobe, .837 for his career, shot for him. But FTs are a part of that game, so it’s absurd to give a player a pass because he isn’t as good at that part of the game as he should/could be.

Let’s say you’ve got another player who’s superb in the field but dreadful at the plate? Let’s create a designated fielder position (or a second DH, as it were), so that we can keep him in the game for the full 9 innings, while still allowing another player to hit for him.

To me, the absurdity of those two scenarios outweighs any “but the pitcher’s an automatic out” sniffling you hear from American League fans. Likewise, the talk of injury concerns with pitchers hitting is even more foolish. It came up when Adam Wainwright ruptured his Achilles leaving the batter’s box last season, but the truth is that pitchers are infinitely more likely to get hurt pitching than they are batting or running the bases. Just because they specialize in throwing the ball doesn’t mean they’re not as athletic as their teammates (for the most part).

Really, football is the only major sport that allows players to only play on one side of the ball/puck. In hockey and basketball, regular substitutions are made, but players who don’t contribute on defense in those sports are held in slightly lower esteem because of it. Soccer is more akin to baseball, insofar as a player can be substituted in and out of a game only once. As with basketball and hockey, forwards in soccer often need to assist on defense. Furthermore, a recent trend in the sport makes use of the ability of wide defenders to overlap midfielders on the flanks to help out on offense.

I also find the postseason strategy surrounding the DH silly. “Oh no, are we going to risk playing our long-ball-mashing-poor-fielding DH in the field when we travel to the NL city? Or should we play our light-hitting-solid-fielding 1B instead?” If the choice wasn’t there, then the DH would have been exposed years ago and, despite his steroid-aided ability to rake, would probably be playing in a men’s slow-pitch league back home.

Last note, on a more personal level: it reminds me of my youngest sister playing t-ball and throwing a fit because she had to play in the field if she wanted to bat. I was in my first or second year of playing baseball, remember trying to reason with her, to show her the logic of being required to play on both offense and defense. So, yeah, the American League is like my preschool- or kindergarten-aged sister was ca. 1992.

Season length

One hundred sixty two games is a lot. Too many, especially when players aren’t allowed to take amphetamines or steroids to assist their performance and focus anymore. So baseball can either legalize “greenies,” or decrease the schedule length so players aren’t completely worn down when the postseason rolls around. For almost the entire first six decades of the 20th century, both the AL and NL played a 154 game schedule.

While that seems reasonable, it doesn’t quite achieve my goal of reducing the length of the regular season by one week (six or seven games) and giving teams more days off throughout the season. The 2015 season lasted 26 weeks (give or take a day) which means roughly every four weeks a given team would play every day in the week. Reducing the schedule to 25 weeks with six games a week and an additional two days off for the All-star break (e.g. Monday-Wednesday open) yields a 148-game schedule.

I suppose the loudest complaint here would come from players chasing single-season and career records. After all, Cal Ripken, Jr.’s 2,632-game “iron man” streak would take about 16.25 162-game seasons to break, but a full season and a half longer (17.78) with a 148-game schedule. But you know how many players played every game last year? One–Baltimore’s Manny Machado. Furthermore, only 83 position players exceeded 148 games played–not even three per team.

Postseason

Part of the reason for decreasing the length of the regular season is to ensure that the Fall Classic doesn’t spill in to November. The World Series should always end in October. That said, I do want to expand the postseason. But before you post angry comments threatening my family, allow me to state I am in no way advocating for the watered-down b.s. you see in the NBA and NHL.

Rather, I’ve decided I don’t mind the second wild card, but would like to see that series expanded to a quick best-of-three set. End the regular season on a Sunday, reserve Monday in case you need any single-game playoffs to determine which team advances, have the wild card games Tuesday-Thursday, then begin the division series with games 1 and 2 Friday and Saturday. This way, you place the winner of the wild card series at a disadvantage against its LDS opponent by forcing them to play, potentially, five games in five days (or nine in nine, if they play Friday-Sunday to end the season, Monday in a playoff, Tuesday-Thursday in the wild card series, and Friday-Saturday in the division series).

As for the remainder of the postseason, I understand the need to schedule the games the way they are with TV and ticket sales, though I’m not a huge fan of the break between the LCS and World Series if both league champions win the former in four or five games. In 2015, for example, the Mets played their final NLCS game when they destroyed the Cubbies on October 21; they had five full days off before beginning the World Series on the 27th. Now imagine if the Royals had finished off the Blue Jays that same night–five days with seemingly endless conjecture about the World Series. True, it’s not as insufferable as the two weeks between the NFL’s conference championships and the Super Bowl, but it does seem like too much downtime for a sport that plays practically every day for six months.

Ultimately, though, by concluding the regular season a week earlier, the postseason also wraps up safely by Halloween, even in preserving the current format with breaks between series and travel days.

The All-star game

No “rules I’d change” post is complete, of course, without undoing the most horrific deed Bud Selig enacted while holding the post: home-field advantage in the World Series tied to the All-star game result.

2002 was a great summer. Star Wars Episode II and Spider-Man were popular choices at the box office; St. Louis’ own Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” plus Eminem’s “Without Me” and “The Middle” from Jimmy Eat World, were blowing up the Billboard Hot 100; and baseball’s Midsummer Classic bore no impact on that season’s World Series.

Until, that is, Joe Torre (AL) and Bob Brenly (NL) ran out of pitchers after 11 innings in a 7-7 tie. They decided, along with Selig, to call the game if the NL failed to score in the bottom of the 11th, which is precisely what happened, despite Tom Hanks’ warnings to the contrary a decade prior.

In a prime example of duorum injurias non recte, Selig decided that the winning league of the All-star game, beginning in 2003, would be awarded home-field advantage in the subsequent World Series. As I first chronicled a couple of months ago, the team possessing home-field advantage has won the World Series (now) 30 times since 1969, against 16 series losses. I admit, the alternating method employed prior to 2003 wasn’t perfect given the dominance of the home-field team, especially beginning with the so-called expansion era in 1969, but tying the reward to the performance at the All-star game is every bit as arbitrary.

For starters, employing fan voting for roster spots can, in some instances, detract from the quality of players starting the game and, in theory, the overall quality of the game. Some fans vote solely for players on their favorite team, some vote for the biggest names regardless of their play on the field during the first few months, and some stuff the ballot box by creating numerous email accounts and voting an obscene number of times for their favorite players despite said players’ lack of merit on the roster.

On the other hand, you’ve also got players competing in the game who know full well their team isn’t going to be making any surge for the postseason. And, frankly, I wonder how many players actually have it running through their mind that, “hey, I need to get a hit here because my team could potentially earn home-field advantage in the World Series” and not “hey, I need to get a hit here because that’ll make me look better than Clayton Freaking Kershaw.”

Simple solution: the team with the best record playing in the World Series is awarded home-field advantage. The easy way to circumvent the logistical problem with tickets, hotel room blocks for media, etc. is to ensure they’re available for all potential dates in advance. That means all teams still in the postseason (except, of course, for the one with the worst regular season record) can put tickets for games 1-7 on sale and refund fans when they go unused.

It’s really no different than what would happen for a team advancing to the LCS–and being logistically prepared to host at least two World Series games, should they be so fortunate–only to lose the championship series and cancel any ticket sales and reservations. You’re essentially just expanding the number of days on which the World Series could be contested in certain cities. Best of all, there’s a reward for the team which fared better during the regular season at a time when, as recent history shows, home-field advantage matters quite substantially.

—–

That feels like enough for now. Others came to mind as I was typing, but fortunately we’ve still got a couple of months until pitchers & catcher report.

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