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Change To Strike Rule Would Help Solve Multiple Problems For Baseball

July 17, 2017
Prior to this season, baseball's two hottest topics were length of the game and the shift, and how they impacted the game, both on and off the field. As if that wasn't enough, this year we've added the "Foul Ball Curse" to the conversation.

In this space a month ago, I offered what initially was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that adopting an old sandlot "four fouls and out" rule would speed up the game. The reaction provided enough positive vibes to double-down this month and go for a trifecta: a revised foul ball plan to speed up the game and beat the shift. 

Since the 21st is the only century in the history of baseball in which the strike rule hasn't been changed, maybe this is as good a time as any for baseball to prove it's not as behind the times as many would have us believe. It's not generally known, for instance, but foul balls didn't count as strikes in the 19th century. It wasn't until 1903, when the American League adopted a rule the National League instituted two years earlier, that foul balls became strikes. Before that they were nothing more than an exercise in futility, which is about the only thing they have in common today.

But there are still discrepancies in how the "foul strike" rule is interpreted. And it is here where baseball could consider a bold move that would a provide a three-pronged attack on the hot-button topics. As the rule now stands, foul balls count only for the first two strikes, with one exception.

As long as the batter is taking a full swing, any foul balls on the third strike are no different than they were back in the 19th century, when some dude named Roy Thomas is reputed to have fouled off 22 straight pitches, no doubt leading to the rule change. If you can foul off that many now, go at it -- no miss, no strike, you get credit for a quality at-bat, running up the pitch count and prolonging the game.

On the other hand, a batter deemed to have been attempting a bunt is saddled with a one-and-done "foul strike" on the third attempt, presumably because that's easier than hitting, though some might wonder about that. 

So here's this month's proposition: Make all foul balls equal, put the swingers and the bunters under the same restrictions -- and after the second strike, make it three fouls and out. The bonus to a rule like this, in addition to helping speed up the game, is the added weapon it provides to combat the shift, something that's been an ongoing concern the past few years.

Just about every team using analytic alignments exaggerate them to great lengths once a hitter has two strikes. Given the added advantage of attempting a two-strike bunt could encourage more "little ball" -- and help keep the defense honest. 

It's a suggestion, not necessarily a solution, but given the fact that commissioner Rob Manfred's primary concern is improving pace of play; that research has shown foul balls account for roughly 17.5 percent of pitches thrown; and that the shift is dominating baseball strategy, I'm guessing the "Foul Ball Curse" is high on Manfred's list of items to be addressed.

In the 19th century, foul balls didn't count. In the 21st century they are being counted ... too often.

***

I'm not sure what happened to MLB's revolving interleague schedule, but it seems strange that the last time the Chicago Cubs were in Baltimore, the Boston Red Sox were still trying to break the "Curse of the Bambino." In theory every team in baseball faces every other once every three years, which would seem to make six years between trips the norm.

But the only other time the Cubs had ever been to Camden Yards before their July 14-16 series this year, Andy MacPhail was still running the show -- in Chicago. That was in 2003, when the Red Sox were a year away from breaking the 86-year jinx that is now so far back in the rear-view mirror their fans forget it ever happened. The Orioles were in the sixth year of what would become an agonizing 14-year losing streak. Sammy Sosa was still "The Man" in the Windy City, and the Cubs were en route to a division championship -- one that would only produce more heartache and prolong a World Series drought that would last more than a century.

I can't quite figure out why it took so long for them to get back to OPACY, (probably has something to do with five-team divisions), especially given the fact that the St. Louis Cardinals seem to show up regularly. But to have the Cubs in town as defending World Series champions may be the biggest perk in the second half of the Orioles' home schedule.

***

My feelings weren't any different than most others when talk started about Orioles third baseman Manny Machado or Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper, or both, lining up to become baseball's first $400-million player. Even over 10 years, it all seemed somewhat premature, not to mention extravagant at $40 million per.

Then somebody pointed out that those max contracts the NBA hands out like hall passes are worth $210 million each (at the top end), for five years -- or $42 million annually. Exactly how does that salary cap work?

***

Do you sometimes get the impression that "fastball command" is the answer to every postgame baseball question? It pretty much sounds like the explanation for everything that happens on either side of the ball.

Even though we hear it every night, somehow or other I don't think all of the Orioles' pitching problems can be attributed to "fastball command." It would be nice if it was that simple, but even though a lot of fastballs ended up in places they didn't belong, I think it can be attributed to more than command, or lack thereof.

***

Judging by the way the New York Yankees and Orioles have played once they got out of intradivision play, it makes you wonder if the AL East is really as deep -- and as strong -- as the occupants would have you believe.

***

When a pitcher unexplainably spins as much out of control as Orioles left-hander Wade Miley did during the first half of this season it usually means one of two things: either something's hurting or he's developed the kind of phobia that affected the careers of some players, like Steve Blass (the Pirates' dominant World Series Game 7 winner against the O's in 1971), and second basemen Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch.

Miley's last start seemed to provide enough evidence that he's not hurting, and while his control -- "fastball command" if you prefer -- wasn't exactly spot on, there was enough progress for manager Buck Showalter to believe he hadn't been affected by the phobia, which at one point seemed to have invaded the clubhouse. •

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.

Issue 235: July 2017