San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy addresses a fan Q&A at the Giants’ FanFest on Feb. 9, 2019. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

MLB’s rule changes are necessary for game’s survival

Kolsky: A moderately disrespectful primer on MLB’s new rule changes

Major League Baseball announced this week that they will be implementing a number of rule changes over the next two seasons, likely with more to come after that.

The most ballyhooed of these requires pitchers to “pitch to either a minimum of three batters or to the end of a half-inning with exceptions for incapacitating injury or illness.” Put another way, any pitcher who enters the game has a three-batter minimum unless they finish an inning.

Any time a sport proposes relatively major changes like this, die hard fans revolt. It’s part of the process. In this case, though, baseball fans should realize the cliff they are teetering on — stay the course and fade from the national spotlight, or do whatever can be done to increase appeal and hope to stay relevant.

The decision is as easy as 1…2…3…

1. Baseball needs changes.*

*unless you want it to go the way of boxing and horse racing.

National interest in MLB is declining, period. The five lowest-rated World Series of all time are among the last eleven.

It’s somewhat hyperbolic to reference boxing or horse racing, because both of those sports’ struggles have some moral issues baked in. The point is simply that our national interest in and appetite for various forms of entertainment can change dramatically. The fact that baseball spent nearly a century being as American as Chevy and apple pie doesn’t protect it from falling into relative ignominy.

Local ratings are good — which does drive revenue via local television contracts — but that doesn’t make you nationally relevant. NCIS might be the most-watched show on TV, but nobody is ever talking about it. The capital-C Culture ignores it.

It’s obviously hard to pin down a solution to a problem whose root cause is itself tough to pin down, but those solutions have been needed for at least 10 years.

2. There’s no time for a Blue Ribbon Committee.

Baseball’s traditional pace on issues like this puts a tortoise to shame. Bay Area fans remember the asinine committee former commissioner Bud Selig assembled to explore options for his pal Lew Wolff to build a new A’s stadium in Oakland. To my knowledge, that committee — formed in 2009 — has yet to render a worthwhile ruling or in fact serve any purpose whatsoever.

Opponents of change will argue that adjusting rules won’t solve any problems; that no millennial is cutting short a Fortnite session to switch on the ol’ national pastime just because we cut 10 minutes off of the run time.

There must exist some rule change or pace adjustment that would have an effect, though, and since we already agreed that change is needed, you’re going to have to start somewhere. To those who would suggest that a variety of options be tested out at the minor league level, I say that’s a great idea — for 2008.

The decline in baseball’s popularity has gone from a paper cut to a festering wound over the last decade, and the bacitracin-and-Band-Aid double-team that might have helped then would be poor triage now.

If a three-batter minimum causes unforeseen problems, it can be changed or eliminated at the conclusion of one season, or even in the middle of the season. Major League Baseball makes the rules (obviously) and can change them at any time.

It’s time to start.

3. Your nitpicks are silly and meaningless.

It is a deeply held conviction of mine that there is virtually no intrinsic value to simply existing over a period of time, no matter how long. This is a critically important and hopefully obvious point in certain elements of life — only the silliest of us long for days before things like running water or refrigerators.

It’s central to baseball at this moment too, because it allows us to realize that “we’ve always done it that way” is not an argument to keep doing something. I don’t think many baseball fans will flip their caps over applying that logic to most of this week’s announced changes:Shortened inning breaks would only be disputed by those who stand to make money from the commercials, and they’re the ones making the change.

The single July 31 trade deadline should make for a busier and more newsworthy late summer.

The changes to All-Star Game voting are relatively innocuous.

Who’s against enticing bigger names into the Home Run Derby with an additional pay day?

Adjustments to active roster size, injured list stipulations and limited mound visits are pretty meaningless to the average fan.

The exception here is the three-batter minimum. It has the baseball purists in a huff because it’s not how things have always been done — but my first point is that this means nothing. I don’t care how it has been done in the past, and the notion that we wouldn’t do things better given the opportunity is downright absurd.

Another old bromide has been repurposed after years of use to argue against the inevitable universal adoption of the designated hitter: you’re taking strategy decisions out of the game!! This whine is particularly vociferous locally, where it comes paired with — you’re eliminating the greatness of Bruce Bochy, you disrespectful MONSTER!!

It is the complainer, though, that truly disrespects the three-time World Series champion manager. Do you mean to tell me that Bruce Bochy’s Big Brain couldn’t handle a small adjustment to bullpen management? Was his genius so narrowly specific that the inability to make a pitching change every other batter would have neutralized him? How dare you.

The strategic application of a bullpen under this new rule would be different, obviously — but less complex? Less worthy of viewership and analysis? Not unless baseball’s participants are far simpler and less creative than we think.

As for the elimination of relief specialists, it seems more than reasonable to ask a professional baseball pitcher to face at least three hitters in any given outing. The advent of one-batter relief pitchers is recent and wholly unnecessary.

*****

There are lots of reasonable changes to be made to baseball — some that would be more impactful than anything that has yet been announced. One of the most obvious would be changes to the league’s media policy, which doesn’t allow videos to be taken from the press box by non-rights holder entities for the sort of meme-ification or House of Highlights treatment that has helped make the NBA central to our culture.

Similarly, few things would be more helpful to the game’s cultural imprint than a concerted effort to promote the stars of the game, an arena in which MLB has fallen far behind its competitors in the NFL and NBA. The fact that Baker Mayfield (who wears a helmet to work and is not even a top five player in his sport) is more recognizable than Mike Trout (arguably one of the five greatest players of all time and in the prime of his career) is criminal.

Will a three-batter minimum have that level of impact? Doubtful; but every little bit helps. If you want baseball to remain one of our major national sports, it can use every reasonable change we can devise.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 5a-6a every weekday morning. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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