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August 26, 2004

Breaking Balls

Feedback on the Rules

by Derek Zumsteg

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My August 3 follow-up column debating rules changes generated even more e-mail, and instead of writing a follow-up I went on vacation. Time to make amends and work on the backlog of rules discussion I've been neglecting.

I got a lot of e-mails from readers about my contention that the rule stating players must try to get out of the way of a pitch was unenforceable and, further, that maybe we wouldn't want to enforce it. Many of them ran like this:

The solution to this problem is simple. Have the second-base umpire decide whether or not the hitter made an attempt to get out of the way. I don't think anyone would be against this. Right now, the first- and third-base umpires are consulted on check swings, so I don't think giving the second-base ump something to do would ruin the integrity of the game.

Take this idea a step further: the second-base ump could also be in charge of telling the home plate umpire if the ball hit the batter's protective armor. Combine this with a new rule stating that the batter will not be awarded a base for being hit on a protective piece of armor, and the issue over armor fades away. Let hitters go up to bat in full platemail if they like, however, doing so would mean that they won't be getting a free pass no matter where they are hit.

-- C.C.

It's a good idea, and if we're going to enforce the rule, this is the best way to do it.

And yet… I want to point out (again) that there are times when, through no fault of the batter's own, no matter how many times he dodges pitches, there are those that freeze a hitter up and keep him from reacting in time to get out of the way. If batters aren't given a free base, there's a huge new incentive for pitchers to throw retaliation pitches, because they get to stand up for their team without putting a runner on.

That in turn probably means more injuries from beanings and more brawls. I'm not convinced that enforcing that rule would end up solving any problem.

The other issue we've been talking about--whether players should get a base if they're hit on the armor--seems initially attractive. However, it offers players an incentive to super-armor as long as it doesn't affect their swing: if you have an elbow pad and you don't get a base when beaned just off the pad because the second-base ump couldn't make the call, next time you're going to go up to the plate with armor protecting the whole arm. The end result, as C.C. hints, may be players in full riot gear, laughing as thrown balls bounce off them harmlessly, If the end result is a reduction in injuries, that fufills one of the goals of the whole rule set: protecting the players.

To both points, a reader notes:

In the discussion of giving first base to the batter when he is plunked, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this is as much a penalty for the pitcher as it is a reward for the hitter. If guys had armor on, got plunked and didn't get a base, I'm guessing they would want some sort of revenge, so there would probably be some increase in bench clearing, which I would think would be worse for the game.

-- M.S.

This is entirely true, and that the wide view of getting a base has changed says much about how the rule's been taken advantage of and that we should be looking at whether it serves its intended purpose. No one ever thought batters would stand in to take a ball off their elbow to get to first intentionally, but padding makes it possible to do so without risking injury (well, to the elbow, anyway). At the same time, the brawl-reduction rules, like the warnings to teams and much quicker ejections, have made the penalties for pitchers much greater.

Further, on armor:

I think the simplest-to-implement rule re: armor on batters is this...you only get to wear armor if it's protecting an injury you spent time on the DL for in the current season.

No judgment required; you were either hurt enough that you were legitimately out of action (okay, Kazuhiro Sasaki's "bruised ribs carrying the suitcase" notwithstanding) or you weren't.

-- P.C.

This seems attractive, except I worry a little about it. Should the decision on whether a hitter's hamate bone is healed enough from last season be resolved in such a procrustean way? Once you allow appeal--a doctor's note, league authorization--you run into the same problem you have today with teams getting exceptions for everything their players want.

On the problem of getting a base when hit by a strike, TS suggests using QuesTec to call it. As much as I like the idea of having ball-strike calls automated, until that happens I don't think you can have instant replay for HBPs. When baseball has accurate ball-strike calling, this issue resolves itself, in a sense.

Several readers objected to the reader idea that a throw to a base to check the runner should be a ball:

If I'm a runner on first (or any base where I'd be forced), and there's a three-ball count, don't I just take off the moment the pitcher steps on the rubber? The pitcher can either A) let me steal the base, or B) throw over to a base to throw me out (as they do now), except this throw would then be ball four, making me safe in addition to giving the batter a walk.

-- Whet Smith

Uhhhh… well, that's an excellent point. We can abandon the idea, or make it more complicated. You could say "a pickoff move to first counts as a ball only when the runner is safe back to the bag" which would still allow the pitcher to pick off guys running on 3-0, 3-1 counts, as long as they got them.

Or you could say a pickoff counts as a ball unless it would walk the batter, like swinging fouls with two strikes. The pitcher is penalized most of the time, the batter's advantage is somewhat limited, and if teams want to give the hitter an edge in order to get to a three-ball count where they can throw over a lot, fine.

In both cases, the rule proposal would still have its intended effect of reducing pointless pickoff throws. However, I'm generally opposed to making things more complicated, and both of these fixes require an added layer of complexity, and pretty soon it's the new balk rule. And nobody wants another balk rule.

On park dimensions, L.L. points out an interesting parallel in another sport:

The only other such sport that springs to mind is hockey. In the NHL, the dimensions of the rinks are fixed, but other characteristics differ. Smoother boards with less bounce encourage carrying the puck into the zone, while irregular boards encourage a dump-and-chase offense. Softer ice encourages a rougher, more physical game, while harder ice encourages a faster, more skill-based game. Teams can adjust their playing surface and team to suit one another, and the same can happen in baseball.
I'd never considered that hockey teams might have any kind of ability to seriously alter their playing surface, but the more I've considered it, this is going to be true of any sport to some degree. The uneven hardwood floor at the old Boston Garden, for instance, drove some visiting NBA teams crazy. Football fields have different kinds of turf, and the dramatically different weather conditions in which games are played over thr course of the season affects the style of play.

The difference in fields has effects beyond those on the field, too:

The fact that every ball park is different has added to the allure of baseball. Part of the reason why so many have spent their vacations seeing every ballpark in America (and Canada) is because each park is uniquely interesting. When one attends a football/basketball/hockey game the only thing that changes are the players, which is one possible explenation for why sightseeing trips to various stadiums in those sports are less celebrated.

-- A.D.

A fine note on which to close this column. Debating the rules and what we want to see the rules accomplish has been a rewarding discussion for me so far, and as we get into more and more complicated ways to do things, it's only gotten cooler. I look forward to the future of this legalistic game of pepper.

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