For a sport that leans so much on familiarity and tradition, baseball seems to be changing at an unusually rapid pace. Whether it’s because of new technology, new strategies or new rules, the game could look a lot different over the next decade or so.
“I think the commissioner’s just trying to stay ahead of the curve, do what’s best for the game. There’s a lot of intelligent people thought this stuff over and there’s a lot of people involved,” said Jim Leyland, the longtime manager who is now a special assistant for the Detroit Tigers. “I’m a big believer that when you’ve had something in place for so, so long, any time there’s a change, there’s going to be a reaction. Some of it’s going to be pro, some of it’s going to be con.”
Changes in baseball tend to happen at the margins. Basketball added a 3-point line and a shot clock, so NCAA Tournament games on YouTube from 35 years ago can look noticeably different from the current product. As for baseball? Go back through the decades, and you’ll see the same basic battle between pitcher and hitter — with fielders positioned mostly the same way.
Now, under Commissioner Rob Manfred, it seems almost anything can be altered. Major League Baseball and its players’ union agreed recently to a deal that included rule changes for 2020. When a pitcher enters the game, he’ll need to face at least three batters or stay in until the end of the half-inning.
The commissioner’s office agreed not to implement pitch clocks before the 2022 season, but a joint management-union committee will study effects of possible changes to the strike zone, the height of the mound and even the distance from the mound to the plate.
Then there’s the DH, used in the AL since 1973 — but not the NL.
“We think the changes in the game, how the game is being played, some of the concerns that the other side continues to voice in relation to pace and activity during the course of the game warrants a discussion about a DH in both leagues,” union head Tony Clark said.
In the independent Atlantic League, computers will be used for ball/strike calls starting in late April, and the distance from the mound to home plate will be extended by 2 feet for the second half of the season. Infield shifts will also be limited in that league .
The 1990s were also a period of change in baseball. Within a few years, the sport realigned its divisions, added the wild card and began playing interleague games during the regular season.
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“I think that was a little bit of a shock to everybody’s system, but I think obviously it’s showed it worked out pretty good,” Leyland said. “Those type of changes are a little bit different than actual rule changes.”
Indeed, the wild card didn’t really affect the way the game looked on the field. More recent changes have altered the way the sport is actually played.
New rules have been added over the past few years to address collisions with catchers — and with infielders turning double plays. Baseball has allowed instant replay to review calls and limited the number of visits to the mound. That last crackdown turned out to be of little consequence.
Future changes may be more contentious. The union wasn’t a big fan of the three-batter requirement for pitchers, and the idea of pitch clocks has met resistance as well.
Pitch clocks have been used in the minor leagues. Toronto right-hander Clay Buchholz, who spent some time in the minors last year, said he actually benefited.
“Historically I’ve been, when the game starts speeding up, I’ll slow down, and you’re not allowed to do that in the minor leagues or it’s a ball,” he said. “I sort of brought that into the big league repertoire when I got called back up, and it really did help me. I thought less about different things within the game.”
So does that mean Buchholz would like to see the pitch clock brought to the majors?
“No,” he said.
The game’s new look goes beyond rule changes, of course. Baseball’s statistical revolution has transformed strategy, and technology offers more ways to measure performance.
“I look at it more like, instead of changing, it’s evolving,” said Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly, the 1985 AL MVP with the New York Yankees. “I think when you see the shifts, (they) are just part of the information age of being able to really be pretty specific with models. You get 10,000-ball models of what it projects out to be, where they’re going to hit it. So I think they’re getting more precise with all the information that we get on how to play guys.”
Defensive alignments are certainly different, and the pitcher-batter pendulum has swung in the direction of high strikeout totals.
“More guys throw harder,” Mattingly said. “It seems like every day, everybody out of those ‘pens that come into these games, I don’t care if they’re coming out of A-ball or wherever they’re coming, could get mid-to-upper 90s.”
Teams are increasingly cognizant of the idea that pitchers are less effective when facing the batting order for a third time in a game. Last year, Tampa Bay sometimes used an “opener” — a reliever who would start the game and perhaps pitch an inning or two, facing tough spots in the order. Then another pitcher — maybe a more traditional starter — could come in and take over.
While teams strive for an edge and push the limits of innovation, baseball’s decision-makers will continue evaluating how to keep the game entertaining and relevant. The result is a changing sport.
Where this all leads is anyone’s guess, but Leyland — who at times in his career seemed to represent the sport’s old guard — is hopeful.
“Personally, I think change is good,” he said. “Young people, today’s world, they want action. So you have to make those adjustments, because you need to get those generational fans. You need to keep that coming.”
AP freelance writer Mark Didtler contributed to this report.
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