A New-Look Ninth Inning? No Thanks.
I feel like I should start this out by saying that I am definitely a baseball traditionalist. I am against new rules or fundamental changes to the game most of the time, and I have found myself incredibly frustrated in the past year or so. There have been so many ideas for rule changes floated around that make me want to scream. There have been proposals to add a pitch-clock so there is less time between pitches, in order to speed up games. There have been proposals to start extra-innings with a runner on second base, in order to ruin extra innings. Now, there is a new proposal that is being floated around, and I am starting to think that the people who are in charge of professional baseball are starting to lose their freaking minds.
On Tuesday, on The Rich Eisen Show, on CBS, Eisen said that he heard rumblings about a rule that would completely change the way the ninth inning is played for the rest of time. He said that several executives have been considering a rule change that would allow teams to send any three hitters up to bat during the first three outs of the ninth inning, regardless of where the team is in the batting order. Eisen went on to explain the rationale behind he rumors, explaining that in all other major sports, the best players are in the game during crunch time, and they are not on the sidelines. In baseball, your best hitters could find themselves powerless on the bench during the ninth inning.
I have several problems with this potential rule change, as you might imagine. First of all, I do not understand the reason for even considering this change in the first place. Baseball has been played on a professional level since 1869, and as far as I'm concerned, the ninth inning has always been fine. The ninth inning has been home to some of the most spectacular moments in baseball history, and from some of the most unlikely sources. To show you all an example of this, I will provide a clip from one of the most exciting World Series games of all time. In 2011, the Texas Rangers were one strike away from winning the Series in game six, with David Freese at the plate, and he lined a triple off the right field wall to tie the game, send it to extras, and he proceeded to hit a walk-off home run to win the game, and extend the series. The Cardinals then won the World Series in game seven, and if this rule had existed back then, would they have won the 2011 World Series? Nope.
Need another moment to help remind you why the ninth inning is great, regardless of who is hitting? Here’s another: In game five of the 2014 NLCS, the Giants were leading the series three games to one. With one out in the ninth inning, and runners on first and second base, Travis Ishikawa, a career .255 hitter with 23 home runs, launched a three-run walk-off shot to send the Giants to the World Series. How would this moment have changed if this rule existed then? Again, like before, it would not have happened, and the game would have gone to extra innings, and maybe the Giants would have lost, and then see the Cardinals pull off a miraculous 3-1 comeback to make it to the series.
The whole idea that the ninth inning sucks because the best players aren’t always hitting is one of the dumbest things that I have ever heard. Baseball is a game that is full of surprises, and if you send out the same player every night in the ninth inning, you remove the surprise. What would end up happening is that we would see the same three players hit in the ninth inning for every team and we would have the magical, unexpected game winning moments taken away from us. Also, what happens after the third hitter that is chosen hits? Who hits next? Is it the next batter in the order after him, or is it where the last inning left off. Either way, this could be incredibly problematic, with the same hitter potentially being able to get two at-bats in a span of four outs in the same inning.
I am also starting to think that the MLB and it’s executives are against having elite closers and back-ends of the bullpen being successful. Part of the reason that a team is great is because of its’ manager and the manager’s ability to use his pitchers strategically in order to win a game. Bruce Bochy, one of the best bullpen managers in baseball, well, until the last couple of seasons in which the Giants’ bullpen consisted of glorified BP machines. He was able to dispatch the Tigers and Royals in the 2012 and 2014 World Series thanks to his masterful management of his rotation and bullpen. He would use the right pitchers in all the right moments. With this new rule change, you make all the other eight innings of the game completely useless. A pitcher can only pitch in a game once, and once he is taken out, he can’t come back in. So, as the game progresses, and a manager uses his specialists in the bullpen to get key outs in crucial matchups, he ends up depleting his options later in the game, which is all a part of the mental game between the two managers, and it is inarguable that bullpen management and strategy is one of the most important parts of baseball. If you burn your entire bullpen because your starter was terrible, and somehow make it to the ninth with a lead, then what are you going to do in the ninth inning. You are going to be forced to send out your closer to face the other team’s best three hitters, and you have no opportunity to play matchups. All of a sudden, the MLB’s best closers, and some of professional sports’ best players under intense pressure, would be given the ultimate disadvantage.
I mean, let’s be honest here, do we actually expect the MLB to implement this rule in a way that would make the game better right away? No, we can’t. They bungled the really simple concept called replay review. Replay review was meant to be able to be used in order to overturn blown calls by umpires on actual plays, and to give the teams a chance to move past the blown call instead of just getting a manager ejected and a team losing and protesting the game. Instead, replay review turned into a way to slow down the game and nit-pick and make outs out of plays that wouldn’t normally result in an out, because they will slow things down to a frame-by-frame look at a player sliding into second and because a player sliding into second base on a stolen base attempt was off of the bag for 0.000001 seconds while popping up after sliding, he is out because we don’t use replay the right way. I guarantee you that this rule would end up being just absolutely abused constantly to end up giving guys like Bryce Harper three at-bats in the last two innings of a game.
I truly don’t understand the urge to change the game in such dramatic ways all of a sudden. There are many other reasons for a lack of viewership other than the pace of play. Maybe it is because that the MLB doesn’t do a good job of marketing its’ stars like the NBA does, or maybe it’s because things like the infield shift are completely unregulated, or maybe it’s because you made your all star game meaningless like all the other leagues. If you truly want to make your game a more widely-viewed television product, market individual player matchups, make your superstars more universally recognizable. Maybe when trying to increase offense, you should regulate things like the infield shift, instead of juicing the baseball to break the single-season home run record and have players who would have never sniffed more than 20 home runs all of a sudden be able to hit 30. Maybe make your all star game mean something again, I mean is it a coincidence that this year (the first year the all star game was meaningless), you drew less viewers than every year other than 2016? It feels like the MLB is trying way too hard in all the wrong ways. There are so many ways to make the game great, and to bring it back to the forefront of American sports, but changing the fundamental rules of the game is not the way to do that.
All of the recent rumors about potential rule changes have received significant blowback, and deservedly so, they are all just absolutely terrible. The game has been played the same way for over a century, and it has been fine for over a century. The only real difference now is that we have more technology, and better athletes, neither of which warrant any significant changes to the rules. I mean, if a pitcher throws the ball for a strike at over 102 MPH, should it count for two strikes? If a player hits a fly ball so high that he can reach second base before it is caught, should he be rewarded with a single? No, absolutely not, those rules are absurd, and the rules that are being proposed are absurd. They take away from one of the greatest sports on Earth, and would result in a much more confusing product that is harder to digest.
Like I said before, I am a baseball traditionalist, but I am not some 75-year old man sitting in his rocking chair on his porch drinking a budweiser complaining that they are trying to make the game much more complicated than it needs to be, and how they are ruining a game that was once great. I am a 20-year old man who has been in love with the game of baseball for his entire life, and is greatly concerned about the pure idiocy behind proposed rule changes that would ruin the game in the eyes of many of its viewers. Baseball is the most romantic sport there is, and part of that is due to its’ rich history, and the fact that the game has been played the same way for over a hundred years. There is an appropriate amount of strategy involved in the ninth inning already, and there is no need to change it in any way.