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Jim Henneman: Baseball (Finally) Finds Elephant In The Room

March 15, 2019
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Considering all the bizarre proposals that have been discussed in the past, not to mention the radical moves being implemented in the independent Atlantic League, the rules changes announced by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association March 14 are relatively tame.

And, for the first time, somebody finally noticed the elephant in room.

Of all the things blamed for the rising average time of game, the most obvious has always been the last one addressed. The allotted time between innings will not be very noticeable for local games, but it'll be decreased by 25 seconds for national games beginning in 2019. A pimple on the elephant's butt perhaps, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

If baseball could ever figure out a way to get to 90 seconds between each half-inning, that alone would reduce the average time of game by more than 30 minutes, but the bottom line is those additional 30 seconds are worth a lot of money -- not only over the airwaves, but on all those high-powered jumbotrons that bring us Kiss Cam and other clever distractions that try to keep you otherwise occupied. 

In the millennial age of instant gratification, pace of play has too often been linked with commercial breaks when it comes to elapsed time -- and has been the target of all efforts to date to shorten the length of the average game. So, to help fill the time we have "walk-up" songs for the hitters, "entrance" music for the closers and assorted other dandy diversions that ultimately get us back to the game.

In addition to the shortened time between innings, there are some intriguing innovative changes, some that will directly affect the strategy of the game, much to the delight of "second guessers," who are the real backbone of the game. 

The change that most directly affects how the game is played is the one requiring every pitcher to face at least three hitters, barring a medical emergency (and yes, you can expect some attempts to exploit) beginning in 2020. It may effectively end the career of situational (translated: left-handed) pitchers like Donnie Hart, recently claimed by the Dodgers off waivers from the Orioles, but it is a step back toward the beginning, when the pitcher given the ball to start the game was expected to keep it until the end. That day might be gone forever, but once again -- you have to start somewhere.

Other changes are coming in 2020, too. The minimum time on the injured list will be returned to 15 days from the abbreviated version of 10, which will severely restrict the shuttle service of "optionable" players. Position players will be prohibited from pitching in games that don't go to extra innings. In 2019, visits to the mound will be reduced from six to five and there will be only one trade deadline, July 31. None of the changes should affect, or bother, anybody.

From the players' standpoint, the change with the overall biggest impact is one that won't take place until next year. That's when active rosters will be expanded to 26 for the first five months of the season and 28 for the month of September, effectively ending those late season games that take on the look of a spring training game -- or a mass tryout.

The good news is we're not dealing, at least not yet, with what the Atlantic League is promoting this year -- home plate umpires being "assisted" by TrackMan radar while calling balls and strikes, and a "no shift" rule requiring two infielders on each side of second base (I don't know if they will call technical fouls for violations). Moving the pitching mound back two feet is on the drawing board for the second half of the season. Stay tuned.

The only other "significant" MLB changes are marketing tools for the All-Star game, just in case you care. Starting this year (and who knows for how long?) traditional voting will end with a one-day, 24-hour period involving the top three players at each position. I wouldn't bet on two minutes between each half inning being in effect for the game.

To almost no one's surprise, the least important "change" for this year is the announcement that the winner of the Home Run Derby will get $1 million, with a total pool of $2.5 million -- a move designed to virtually guarantee there will be few, if any, rejections.

The irony of this new bonus pool is that baseball is desperately trying to find a balance between home runs and strikeouts -- by reducing each. In the meantime all levels of the game amp up a Home Run Derby, which is not conducive to consistent hitting, and just about every park in America has a pitching machine with a radar gun, encouraging youngsters to do the worst thing possible for their arms -- throw a ball as hard as you can, as often as you can, without a proper warmup. 

Go figure.

Jim Henneman can be reached at