Every fan has a slightly different problem with the expanded-roster September setup currently in use across MLB, but the game between the Rockies and Dodgers on Tuesday night brought everyone together. There was the sense of differentness, a version of baseball not quite the same as the game played from April through August. There was a note of absurdity. There was a feeling of artificial prolongation, as the game dragged into 16 innings and the Rockies used 13 different pitchers to strand 11 Dodgers and keep the game going until Nolan Arenado could crack a game-winning home run.
Yes, there are aesthetic and competitive and even logistical problems with the practice of allowing teams to carry their entire 40-man rosters for the month of September. There are a few good things about it, too, and, more importantly, there are legitimate, not-to-be-disdained obstacles to changing the system. Just for today, then, let’s set aside our hang-ups and list the five real arguments in favor of the status quo.
The Players’ Union
Presumably, any arrangement that limits the number of players a team can list as active for a given game would preserve for the players full rights to rack up service time and be paid for all games, all days, whether they make the active list on a particular day or not. Still, any rules modification that keeps players from being fully available at all times could run into union resistance. Players have provisions in their contracts for days on an active roster. Many of them have vesting options that turn into guaranteed money at a certain threshold for innings pitched or plate appearances, and will therefore suffer from any lost opportunity to pick up even garbage-time appearances. Any player going through arbitration makes money off of virtually every home run, run batted in, or pitcher strikeout. There are reasons for players to dislike the prospect of any new limitation on active participants in any game.
Priming the Pump for October
When you get down to it, the things that set September baseball apart from baseball played in the other months—more matchup-oriented strategy, more pitching changes, more pinch-hitters, more pinch-runners—are the things that also set October baseball apart. It might not be fun to watch, but the things managers do in September tend to be closer to the optimal choices (and optimal uses of their benches and bullpens) than the things they do the rest of the year. (There are, of course, exceptions.)
Maybe it’s for the best, if professional pinch-runners and pop-up relief arms are going to play roles in the Postseason, that they get some exposure in September without taking away any other player’s opportunity to impact a game.
Back in March, Ben Lindbergh wrote a good piece on the seasonality of pitcher injuries (and especially Tommy John surgeries). In it, he included a graph showing the incidence of injuries to all players over the course of a season. Unsurprisingly, in all cases other than Tommy John surgeries, the incidence rose late in the season. That’s under the current rule set, of course, but it’s hard to imagine that taking away options that allow managers to rest players more in September would do anything but exacerbate that problem. It’s a very, very long season, and without relief at the end, players would probably get hurt even more often as it winds down.
Spring Training is an utterly insufficient analog of regular-season baseball. For bad teams, and even sometimes for good ones, there’s value in allowing a young player to break in by playing in a low-pressure environment that nonetheless counts, and therefore will draw the best efforts of an actual big-league player. That sounds like a thin, trite defense of a bizarre rule, but it’s not an argument completely without merit.
This one really might be a thin, trite defense of a bizarre rule. So be it. Here’s the thing: Baseball isn’t always and only about the business of making money and winning games. Sometimes baseball leaves room for stories to develop and be told where they would have no chance to be told in other sports or other arenas of public life. There are guys who struggle for 10 years to reach the majors, guys who hang around years after their prime in order to get one more shot, and guys who fight valiantly to come back from injuries that would lead many to walk away from the game forever. There are ancient rookies and phenoms who might not have as long as we think they do.
Without the ability to have a full slate of 40 players available every day, we’d lose a lot of those marginal moments. Many fewer old men would be able to show their grandchildren a picture of their lone big-league appearance. Adam Greenberg would never have gotten a chance to demonstrate admirable persistence, but also remind us that baseball is cruel. These are small, unimportant things, but some unimportant things matter. If schedule imbalance and the muddled systems governing amateur talent acquisition and admittance to the playoffs hadn’t already made a tangled mess of the competitive integrity of the long season, we could have a different conversation, but for now, there’s a real argument that the status quo is worth preserving.