Major League Baseball is exploring some rule revisions designed to quicken the occasional chess-match game that tends to plod at the pace of, well, a chess match.
One idea is silly, and the other is dumb. Neither poses a solution. But without silly and dumb ideas that don’t pose solutions, baseball executives might be criticized for their reluctance to exercise creative thinking — presaging the end of world as we know it.
Anyway, let’s take a look at the possible changes, beginning with the silly one.
▪ Waving a batter to first instead of lobbing four balls on an intentional walk. Considering how it takes about a minute to perform this most mundane of tasks, and that 932 intentional walks were issued over the course of 2,428 MLB contests last season, games would be shortened by a minute — once for every 2.6 games.
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Hoo boy, now that’s progress.
“Free Pass! An Illustrated History of the Intentional Walk,” doesn’t strike me as a particularly titillating concept for a coffee-table book. And yet a prevailing memory of the 1972 World Series was Oakland catcher Gene Tenace duping Cincinnati batter Johnny Bench on a 3-2 count. First base had just opened up after Bobby Tolan’s steal, and Tenace stood outside the box.
Bench expected ball four. Everybody expected ball four. Then Tenace returned to the crouch for a called strike three.
Former catcher Tony Pena executed a similar ruse twice in consecutive seasons. One of his victims was John Olerud, a smart hitter who should have known to not assume anything with Pena behind the plate.
On the flip side, Miguel Cabrera once saw an intentional-walk pitch lobbed within easy reach of his bat. He converted it into a run-scoring, line-drive single.
Mariners reliever Steve Cishek is an expert on what can go wrong during the drill of delivering four wayward pitches. Working out of the Marlins bullpen against the Mariners in 2011, Cishek’s first throw to Seattle’s Carlos Peguero sailed over the catcher’s mitt, enabling Dustin Ackley to score from third base in the 10th inning.
Eliminating the intentional walk would be akin to the PGA eliminating the two-inch tap-in putt. The putt is good more than 99 percent of the time, but there’s still a fraction-of-1-percent uncertainty.
And MLB is tempted to phase it out because the automatic walk will shorten every two or three games by one minute?
▪ There’s silly, and then there’s just plain dumb. Putting a runner on second base at the beginning of every half-inning of games tied after nine innings is just plain dumb, only more so. It’s spectacularly dumb, monumentally dumb, 10-cent-beer-night-on-a-hot-summer-night-in-Cleveland dumb.
Assigning leadoff runners to second base during extra innings will be implemented on a trial basis this season in two rookie leagues.
“Let’s see what it looks like,” Joe Torre, MLB’s chief baseball officer, told Yahoo! Sports this week. “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up playing until a utility infielder is in to pitch. As much as it’s nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time.”
Uh, Joe, do you know how many times a position player is summoned for bullpen duty in extra innings?
It happened once in 2016.
Of the 188 games that were extended into overtime last season, 122 games — roughly two-thirds — were decided before the 12th inning. And only once was a bullpen staff worn out to the point it required an emergency replacement.
Personally, I prefer baseball games resolved in nine innings and under three hours. But on those rare days when the afternoon dawdles into night, or the night dawdles into morning, a contrived tiebreaker method is the cheapest of cheap fixes.
Automatic intentional walks? A runner put on second base before the pitcher delivers his first pitch in the 10th inning? There are better ways to pick up the pace.
How about limiting baseball’s version of the timeout — those constant meetings on the mound — to, say, two or three a game? There’s no need for managers to perform that tedious, sixth-inning trudge before taking the ball from the starter and handing it to a reliever.
When it’s the eighth inning and there’s an unexpected threat afoot, the trip to the mound is a stall tactic allowing the reliever some precious moments to loosen up. A reliever gets no more than eight warm-up throws once he arrives from the bullpen, and that rule can be relaxed. Give him 12, which still makes the transition quicker than the ritualistic changing of the guard.
Managers can make that change from the dugout, by the way. They’ve got the better part of a week to sit down with the starter and discuss what went right and what went wrong.
There’s no need, either, for pitchers and catchers to adjust signals whenever there’s a runner on second. Suspect the threat of sign-stealing? How about arranging a Plan B beforehand, with a Plan C component?
Limiting conferences on the mound to two or three per game picks up the pace and preserves the integrity of every pitch. An intentional walk, as Steve Cishek can attest, is not automatic.
Nothing is automatic about a sport whose defending champions, at its highest professional level, are the Chicago Cubs.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath