Sunday, January 17, 2010

A long list of thoughts on Jeff Sullivan's ten ideas to fix baseball in the next decade

Jeff Sullivan wrote about ten ideas he had to improve baseball in the next decade. It's a well written article with plenty of ideas: Read and enjoy. There are parts I agree with and parts I don't agree with.

Ideas of his I like:

- Phase in replay and robots. I say this knowing a lot of people, friends acquaintances and the like, who make the argument that the umpire's human element is a valuable part of the game. I personally can take or leave the human element concept, and to a greater extent I'm tired of the biases of an umpire swinging the outcome of games. There is a reason Curt Schilling busted up a Questec machine in frustration during its trial period a decade ago: A machine can't be swayed by Schilling's Star Veteran Status into calling strikes on pitches out of the zone that a typical pitcher would not receive.

And on the flip side, with automated strike zones a young pitcher isn't going to get screwed in a pressure situation against a popular team's star hitter by having all his borderline pitches automatically called balls by an umpire favoring the star team and player. Having an automated system call the balls and strikes would ensure every pitcher a fair, equitable opportunity to get batters out that they currently don't have.

Umpires still can be used on bang-bang base and slide calls, as well as be on hand to back up in case the strike-zone system fails. So they won't lose their jobs: You'll still need four umpires: The home plate ump still needs to act as crew chief and make miscellaneous on-field decisions as well as base calls at home plate and out calls on nearby balls in play. It's just that the ball and strike counts will be handle mechanically, perhaps with an automated system relaying the call or the umpire relaying it from a headset or something.

One added advantage: Ball-strike bickering will virtually disappear, since who will argue with an in-discriminative machine? The only situation where I can see a need to argue balls and strikes is if either side thinks the machine is off-center and needs to be recalibrated or something.

- Quicken pitcher pace on the mound. I'd even go as far as to take a page from other sports and institute a pitch clock. Limit mound visits to 60 seconds from the moment a manager/coach calls time, or 30 seconds from when the coach/manager reaches the mound, or even 15 seconds from when the catcher reaches the pitcher. For the pitch clock itself, I'd say 20 or 30 seconds, and after a pickoff attempt, make it 15 or 20. Throwing the ball to the plate is not rocket science nor a rocket launch. Pitchers are only taking time because they're nervous, tired or stalling.

- Resolve the payroll problem. It's clear that several MLB teams will never have a realistic chance of making the postseason or even posting a winning season while some teams can always buy their way into contention every year as long as they aren't stupid with their money. A salary cap would create parity but the MLBPA would flip out (though to be honest they would flip at any attempt to regulate payroll spending) and as we see with the NFL it could overdo parity and make every offseason a near-total reshuffle of the balances of power. Revenue sharing has not worked as many lesser teams simply pocket the extra money without spending it to improve their teams as intended.

I would suggest a strict limit on draft pick bonuses and maybe even a player salary maximum. Before you question the ethics of a salary maximum, keep in mind most businesses and governments have a set salary structure for every listed position, with minimum and maximum salaries that are subject to cost of living increases as well as negotiated raises in union positions.

- Condense the playoff schedule. Sullivan makes a great argument about the excessive number of off days turning the playoffs into a different situation where teams can lean on top pitchers more than in the regular season, which conversely emphasizes depth over a long haul. Cramming the series into consecutive days forces teams to go deep into their rotations and bullpens as they would in the regular season, ensuring that the teams we see in October resemble the teams we saw from April to September.

- Take measures to reduce take-out slides and home plate collisions. I totally agree. Maybe ejections are a bit harsh, but you can just award a team with outs or runs as applicable. 1) If a player slides spikes-high in a double play situation, both the slider and the batter are automatically out, an auto double play. 2) If a catcher's foot impedes an oncoming baserunner's path to more than half of home plate, the runner is automatically safe and a run will score. Any baserunner in transit to a base at this time will automatically be safe at that forthcoming base and play will end.

Institute those rules and the problem will solve itself.

- Penalize the HBP. Efforts at this time to crack down on beanball wars allow too much room for them to carry on as usual despite the warnings and ejections. Sullivan's proposed penalties are also a bit harsh here, and added to it is the fact that beanball wars usually happen in garbage time of a rout when the outcome's in hand or when the bases are empty, so adding an extra base penalty doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot. The best approach is to go with Sullivan's ejection/suspension proposal: If you as a pitcher headhunt or otherwise go after a guy, you're gone and suspended, no exceptions. The automatic suspension itself is a deterrent: You can make it stiff too, like 10 games, and not allow the offending team to replace the player on the 25 man except with special permission from the Commissioner's office (in unusual cases such as injuries to other players, but these can be rare to prevent loop-holing). Let umpires use their discretion as to whether a HBP was intentional or not: This goes back to the HP Umpire still having a use even if the ball/strike calls are automated.

I'm ambivalent about these:

- Limit or penalize mid-inning pitching changes. I too find most mid-inning pitching changes superfluous and annoying, but I also think managers who over-manage are penalized properly for their over-management in the status quo through overworked relievers wearing down during the season, and a lack of available relievers in later situations when they could be more useful. The inherent lack of modularity such a manager has is also a proper penalty, as he often loads the bullpen with one-dimensional specialists who are limited against other batters and thus have limited application... over more typical relievers who can work a full inning because they can face more batters in more situations.

There may also be situations where a mid-inning pitcher change is practical, not just when a guy is hurt but when a new pitcher clearly isn't able to pitch, as in a guy who walks back to back to back batters. At that point bringing in a new guy isn't about over-managing but about making sure the game doesn't get away due to a wild reliever.

- Even out the AL and NL. I also find the unbalanced league structure dumb (and can see why Bud Selig ill-advisedly tried to contract two teams a decade or so ago). But one obvious problem with going 15 and 15 is that you have to either a) play one inter-league series at all times or b) give one team in each league anywhere from 2 to 6 days off.

See, other leagues get around uneven league arrangements because they don't play series against each other. They play a team once, then immediately move on. Having one team idle at all times works because that team shouldn't be idle for more than a day or two. But in baseball, that's not possible because every team plays a 2 to 5 game series with an opponent (typically 3 or 4) at one time. If a team is idle, they're idle for several days. That opens up a can of worms with regard to competitive balance and rest periods.

If you're cool with eliminating the novelty of inter-league play and having one inter-league series at all times, then sure, move an NL team over (come on over, Rockies!) and make it 15 and 15. Otherwise, your best bet is to ignore the recession and somehow find two new viable markets for MLB teams in the AL, then split the divisions in four 4 team divisions. And good luck with that, because nobody with a remotely viable market has a suitable stadium or the money/financing to build one.

Forget about contraction: The MLBPA will choke a bitch if you even suggest eliminating 50 MLB player jobs (and hundreds of MiLB jobs), and there isn't an owner in MLB right now that would be cool with cashing out his organization: That ship sailed when the Expos were moved out of Montreal.

Ideas I'm not as fond of:

- Penalize intentional walks: I hate intentional walks as much as Sullivan does, and when I'm managing simulated teams I never intentionally walk a batter. But like a specialized bullpen for a micro-manager, the intentional walk comes with its own penalty: You just put an extra guy on base, and history along with pretty much any run expectancy matrix will show you that when you walk a guy, you just increased your opponent's chances of scoring.

That above all else is why I hate the IBB, and why I don't think anything needs to be done. If an old-school manager wants to shoot his team in the foot by intentionally passing a batter, then let him be stupid. Smart managers will pitch around a dangerous hitter and/or use defensive positioning to minimize the risk of damage, giving them an optimal chance of the slugger putting the ball in play and still getting him out, and the team out of a jam. To be fair, teams don't turn to the IBB all that often, even managers who like it more than others, and the leading targets of the free pass see maybe a dozen or so of them in a year.

- Resolve the PED problem. No, I'm in favor of addressing the PED situation and fixing the code for enforcing it. It's just that the definition of PED's problems as well as what the solution would be are each issues many of us see differently.

Whether or not they should be allowed has to keep in mind that Federal law bans most of these substances: Non-prescription steroids, Human Growth Hormone and several stimulants. Allowing their usage in light of their being illegal to possess or distribute in the United States sends a horrible message at best (an active defiance of Federal law by a major organization with a relationship with the U.S. Government) and is a P.R. black eye with a few other cans of worms unloaded on everyone's faces most likely. It would take a major fundamental upheaval of Federal law if you were to allow monitored roid and HGH usage, which FTR I actually would support if not for the existing laws.

As it stands, one of the great ethical issues is neither of the ones that everyone cites: The alleged performance advantage and the health risks. They're issues, yes, but manageable through regulation.

No, the real ethical issue with PED use is that, to use PEDs, you not only have to put your physical long-term health at risk but you also have to risk getting in trouble with the police and the DEA, which can lead to fines and prison time. It would be unethical to allow PEDs in light of the reality that acquiring them comes with a risk of jail time: Imagine telling someone that in order to keep a very lucrative and rewarding job, they have to rape and kill someone every week, and whether or not they can get away with it is their problem.

Extreme example, yes, but it gets to the root of what you're asking players to do if you blindly okay the use of PEDs. It's one thing to ask that a player put his health at risk... another entirely to send the message that he needs to risk going to prison or incurring serious sanctions otherwise in order to remain competitive.

Sullivan's argument that illegal things like fights are allowed in other sports doesn't really wash because the lines blur on the definition of basic assault (especially with consensual violence like tackles or in-game fights), and that not every case of assault is an arrestable offense. If I slap you in the face in a public place, for example, that may technically be assault and warrant legal action but if you walk away and don't file charges, or a cop shows up and realizes it's no big deal and walks away since both parties are cool with what happened, then it's not exactly a felony, is it?

However, possession of a banned narcotic is a fairly black and white, open and shut case. How many times does a cop find syringes and narcotics and walk away without issuing a ticket or arresting anyone? Save the argument about pot, Seattle and the I-75 decriminalization law: They can still cite you if they find it on you or pursue you for some other possible violation. They just can't seek you out solely for pot possession.

I'm not going to act like I know the answer to the PED problem right now. The problem's not solved: Hundreds of undetectable PED varieties exist (the chemical production of such PEDs predates BALCO by several years and continues today as BALCO takes the pariahic bullet on behalf of all such labs), HGH is undetectable in a drug test, and while steroids in particular may be nearly gone, cheaters are always a few steps ahead of the game, and it's very likely many players utilize some sort of otherwise illegal or dangerous PEDs today.

So it's still an issue. But MLB would take a great leap forward to give up the ghost and admit that many players used steroids during the "Steroid Era", that no they don't have much of an idea how many used or who, and that while they're making efforts to combat the problem now they accept that there will always be users among them all, all they can do is be vigilant and that anyone who uses does so at their own risk and will receive no mercy if discovered to be using something banned or illegal.

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