Wednesday, February 21, 2007

New Baseball Rules

As noted by Derek Zumsteg (thanks, Jason), baseball quietly let a few rules changes escape while the media was distracted by the imminent threat of Barry Bonds fighting Mothra in downtown Tokyo. The changes don't seem world-shattering at first, but a couple have the possibility to alter play drastically.

One of the new rules - the automatic ten game suspension for doctoring baseballs - can be seen as a direct reaction to the Kenny Rogers incident during the World Series. More specifically, it looks like a response to the popular wisdom that Tony LaRussa didn't call Rogers on it because his own pitchers were laying down enough gunk on the balls to have them eventually abducted by steroidal dung beetles. This way, when the first "Hey, Kenny's on the mound again! Guess what he did last year!" story of the year gets written, baseball can point to its new anti-cheating policy and claim to be doing something about it. Whether anything needed to be done, of course, is a moot question. Scuffing baseballs has been part of the game since Burleigh Grimes hocked his first loogie, and that sort of gamesmanship - as distinct from cheating - is part of the sport's tradition. Besides, I strongly suspect no manager in his right mind is going to call for an inspection of an opposing pitcher's ball, lest his guys be inspected in turn. That leaves it to the umpires to notice if the ball suddenly turns the color of bad chili and handling like a Fokker triplane, and I strongly suspect most of them won't bother.

More interesting are the "twelve seconds between pitches" and "keep your ass in the batters box" rules. Essentially, they've had enough of human rain delays, so in theory, the umpire now has the discretion to ladle out pitch calls on lollygaggers. Take too long to deliver? Automatic ball. Of course, if this means that umps are watching their stopwatches instead of, Deo prohibe, the game, I'm not sure that it actually improves things. To be honest, the whole "make games shorter" push still blows my mind. The ticket costs the same regardless of how long the game takes - why not get more for your money?

The rule about players not being able to chase foul balls into the dugout is actually commonsensical. Sooner or later someone's going to do a face-plant down the dugout steps and get a few hundred sunflower seeds jackhammered into his noggin by the concrete floor. The "Flip over the railing" catch is a staple of highlight reels, but sooner or later someone's going to do themselves a real injury by Mo Vaughning it down the dugout steps, and I'm of favor of anything that reduces the chances of that.

Similarly, catchers no longer have to chase batters who wander toward the dugout in case of a dropped third strike. This still leaves plenty of room for Pierzynski-esque shenanigans, but cuts down on the number of times we have to see catchers running per game. That, my friends, can only be a good thing. The fewer times a year I see a Molina stampeding toward an unsuspecting batter, mitted arm held out in best Frankenstein pose, the happier I am.

Frankly, most of the rules changes strike me as unnecessary, easily replaced with a little common sense. The one really tricky one is the pitch timing, and I have a hard time believing that will be enforced past, say, Mother's Day. If it is, however, it's probably going to have the exact opposite effect of its intention. Pitchers who work faster keep their defenses on their toes, or so we're told. Livelier defenders = better defense = precisely not the sort of increased scoring the owners seem to think sells tickets. Once they realize that, all bets - and all enforcement - will be off.
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