9:45pm: The Athletic’s Jayson Stark sheds some more light on potential changes to be discussed (subscription required). Chief among them is that the league and MLBPA are discussing the formation of a joint committee to study the potential impact of lowering and/or moving back the pitcher’s mound in an effort to curb the growing advantage pitchers face as velocity ticks upward league-wide. The study would be conducted throughout 2019, with a report on the findings delivered by the end of the year.
As Stark explores at length, further topics to be discussed include changes to the definition of the strike zone — which have been discussed in the past, as recently as 2016 — as well as alterations to the manner in which draft order is determined and the potential to award compensatory picks for revenue sharing teams that make or narrowly miss the postseason.
7:53am: Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark have recently been discussing a series of potential rule changes centering around pace of play, roster size and roster construction, writes Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription link). ESPN.com’s Jeff Passan and Joel Sherman of the New York Post (Twitter thread) add further details, characterizing the dialogue as something of a thaw in relations.
The two most notable changes that’ll jump out to readers are surely the Union’s proposal for a universal designated hitter — possibly beginning as soon as the 2019 season — and the league’s proposal that all pitchers must face a minimum of three hitters per appearance (barring an injury). Other especially notable concepts under discussion include expanding standard rosters to 26 players and shrinking September rosters to 28 players. Both were proposed by the league with an eye toward the 2020 season.
Obviously, the mere fact that the two sides are discussing various scenarios is far from an indication that a significant number of the ideas being bandied about will come to fruition. However, the game has generally had at least a handful of new rules implemented in each recent season, with restrictions on the number of mound visits per game and automatic intentional walks among the most recent alterations that have come into play.
The addition of a designated hitter in the National League for the 2019 season would not only lead to a great deal of pushback from many fans — though that’s true of all rule changes — but could lead to some unrest among both teams and agents. Perhaps all parties were quietly made aware of this possibility back in November, but if not, there’d undoubtedly be an advantage for teams that held off on activity early in the winter. Conversely, a player such as Nelson Cruz would be understandably irked to only now be learning that his market might’ve included 15 other teams.
It’s not a surprise that the MLBPA would want to push for a designated hitter in the NL with this level of immediacy, though. There would be clear ramifications on the player market, which could help a few more players find jobs late in the winter. Names like Evan Gattis, Lucas Duda, Adam Jones, Carlos Gonzalez and others could all find increased interest, and the added lineup depth in the NL would likely have some degree of impact on the markets for the game’s top two free agents: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Perhaps this wouldn’t lead to entirely new suitors emerging, but the prospect of having the increased flexibility of a DH could make it easier for Harper to fit onto a team with a crowded outfield mix or for Machado to fit onto a roster with a perceived infield logjam. And the long-term outlook for any premium hitter would change with the ability to utilize a DH slot.
All of that said, though, it still seems likelier that a rule change that impacts the very manner in which a team constructs its roster is something that would need to be known to all months in advance. The Union may be proposing implementation of the rule in 2019, but it seems more plausible that it’d come into effect in 2020 at the earliest.
Those factors have led to doubt in some quarters that the DH will indeed come to the NL this year, as Andy Martino of SNY.tv reports (Twitter links). Even if the commissioner’s office decides it would like to move ahead, Martino cautions, the owners may well be slower to come around. And even if they are open to a quick turnaround, the expectation is that there’ll be an expectation of concessions on the part of the union. Whether the players will be amenable to giving value back for the DH — a rule change that would hold out at least some promise for enlarging the overall pie by bringing more offense to the National league — remains to be seen.
Turning to the three-batter minimum, that would all but wipe out the so-called “LOOGY” role — the left-handed relief specialists who are oft called upon to face just one or two lefties before being swapped out. That minimum could also come into play for teams that have been most aggressive in utilizing the “opener” role; the days of Dan Jennings and his southpaw peers facing just one batter to start a game before departing (a tactic the Brewers did indeed use this season) would be instantly wiped out. Per Passan, this proposed change came from the league side; the players “did not strongly oppose the idea” but suggested waiting to deploy it until the 2020 season.
Left-handed relievers and their representatives surely wouldn’t be thrilled with the development, though it seems likely to reduce the number of pitching changes and conversely place a greater deal of emphasis on rostering and developing relievers who can throw one or more innings without glaring platoon splits. Players who fit that mold, naturally, would see the demand for their services rise even further. Perhaps the union imagines that there could be some other market advantages to a general de-specialization of relief roles, as there’d be slightly greater incentive to keep starters in for longer and a slight enhancement of the market value of the best overall relief arms.
Rosenthal notes that eliminating specialist roles could lead to fewer strikeouts by virtue of the fact that there’d be an increase of plate appearances in which batters held the platoon advantage, though it seems that such a reduction would be relatively minimal. While specialist relievers admittedly have higher strikeout rates against same-handed opponents, the general league-wide discrepancy in strikeout rate in platoon situations isn’t as staggering as some might think; right-handed hitters (excluding pitchers hitting in NL parks) struck out at a 22.3 percent clip against fellow righties and a 21.1 percent clip against lefties. Meanwhile, left-handed hitters fanned at a 23.5 percent rate against southpaw pitchers and a 20.9 percent rate against righties. There would be some impact, to be sure, but it’s unlikely that this change alone would curb stand in the way of yet another record-setting strikeout mark in 2019.
Ultimately, the batters-faced minimum and the theoretical slight downturn in strikeouts further gets into what has become the focal point of Manfred’s tenure as commissioner: improving the game’s pace of play. That, as Manfred has noted on multiple occasions, includes both length of game and the level of action within a game (more specifically, the number of balls put into play). Reducing the number of pitching changes and even incrementally increasing the number of balls in play could lead to small gains in both of those goals, though neither seems likely to bring about major change, and the advent of the “opener” strategy may even mitigate whatever pitching changes are eliminated by implementing a minimum number of batters faced.
To that end, there figure to be further tweaks to the game, be they in 2019, 2020 or beyond. Rosenthal reminds that Manfred does have the power to unilaterally implement the 20-second pitch clock that was proposed last offseason, even if no agreement is reached with the players’ union. Beyond that, there’s also been discussion of even further reducing the maximum number of mound visits a team can make, and the league apparently has interest in using Spring Training to experiment with runners being placed on the bases in extra innings.
Most of the foregoing has little to do with what is surely the union’s greater concern — the increasingly glacial pace of the MLB offseason and the rampant increase of teams tanking in order to increase their access to amateur talent in the league’s hard-slotted draft and international markets. Perhaps some concessions could be made to help appease both sides, though it still seems that an extraordinarily contentious set of negotiations is on the horizon when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021.
It does seem there are some relatively minor initiatives being pursued by the players on that front, with Passan adding a few items of note. In particular, the MLBPA has proposed the implementation of a single trade deadline to take place before the All-Star break, rather than the current system of a non-waiver deadline at the end of July and what is effectively an end-of-August deadline to acquire players that have cleared waivers. Eliminating later-season trade opportunities, the union seemingly believes, would force teams to be more proactive in their offseason investments. Likewise, Passan says, the union has proposed various concepts (still mostly vague in their details) involving gains or losses of draft picks and international amateur spending availability to incentivize greater spending by all clubs.
Finally, in another area that impacts overall player earning capacity in a complicated manner, the players have floated some ideas regarding service-time manipulation of top prospects. According to Passan, the concept seems to be that players could boost their service time through “performance, playoff appearances or awards.” Finding a workable arrangement will surely be quite complicated, but that is at least a creative approach to what seems from the outside to be rather a vexing problem to solve given the inherently subjective considerations involved in promoting a player.
Taken as a whole, there is obviously quite a lot to digest and for the parties still to discuss. We’ll see whether any significant changes are implemented in advance of the present season — and whether they can be settled in time to influence the final outcomes of this winter’s market.