By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
“Did you hear what they are doing in the Atlantic League now?” said the veteran baseball fan with more than a little disgust in his voice.
“You can steal first base!”
He is correct. The Atlantic League is trying a variety of rule changes this season as experiments, and one of them is that you can steal first base – sort of.
If any pitch gets away from the catcher at any point in the count, the batter has the option of taking off for first base. Fans are used to batters taking off for first if a third strike is not caught, but this is different. It can happen at any time in the count, and the batter doesn’t have to go anywhere if he doesn’t want to go.
It’s not scored as a stolen base, by the way. It’s a fielder’s choice, so a player’s batting average would actually drop if he is thrown out at first.
The Atlantic League, comprised of independent teams, has a variety of other experimental rules in place this season. A batter gets to foul one third strike off on a bunt without being called out. Electronic devices are calling all the balls and strikes now, and the pickoff rule has been changed. Pitchers must face three batters unless they reach the end of an inning.
It’s still one-two-three-strikes and you’re out, but it’s a little different than what your father and grandfather and great-grandfather watched.
To which I say, it’s about time.
Something’s gone wrong
Let’s face it – baseball has some problems, especially on the major league level. The smart guys in the front offices have come up with all sorts of studies on how to win games. They discovered, for example, that home runs are the most efficient method of scoring runs. Therefore, they are willing to accept having players who strike out 200 times a year as long as they hit 35 homers. Rob Deer clearly was born several years too soon.
On defense, baseball executives have figured out that batters tend to hit baseballs in the same direction over the long haul, so they move as many fielders in those places as possible. You might have noticed that everyone shifts their infielders these days, sometimes between pitches. Meanwhile, the pitchers all seem to throw about 95 miles per hour, resulting in plenty of strikeouts as long as they can find the strike zone.
In other words, the game has tilted to the side of what is called “The Three True Outcomes” – home run, strikeout, walk. Those are the plays in which you don’t need anyone but a pitcher, catcher and batter.
And when you have a game filled with those Three True Outcomes, the other players stand around waiting for something to do. When you are in the entertainment business, this is a problem – because the way baseball is being played at times right now isn’t particularly entertaining.
Baseball has a unique problem in this area, though. Its true believers think the rules came down the mountain with Moses just after he brought the Ten Commandments, and shouldn’t be touched under any circumstances. Some writers can turn downright poetic about the 90-foot distance between bases.
No other sport is so inflexible when it comes to its rules. New regulations are introduced to football, basketball and hockey all the time, and everyone accepts them quickly. The designated hitter is still the subject of a disagreement between the American and National League, and it’s still the subject of debate. Yet the three-point shot in basketball and the elimination of the center line for passing in hockey didn’t need much time to become accepted, and it probably did more to alter the way their games were played more than the DH did to baseball.
If you can identify the problems of the game, you can take steps to try to fix them. Think defensive shifts hurt the offense? Keep all infielders on the dirt portion of the outfield when the ball it pitched, or keep two of them on each side of second base. Believe that extra-inning marathons can mess up pitching staffs while forcing fans to hang around until midnight for an outcome? The International League already puts a runner on second in each half of every extra inning. It seems to be working, and might not have to be used in the postseason. After all, the NHL allows overtimes to be played in the playoffs until a goal is scored.
Full disclosure here – I’m one of the pitch clock timers for Buffalo Bisons’ games. I can report that I don’t miss batters stepping out and pitchers stepping off constantly, and I don’t miss endless mound visits. If I’m playing a microscopic role in moving the sport along, I’m good with it.
Tradition is part of baseball’s charm, of course, and I’d still want to watch a baseball game that my grandparents – who were watching the sport more than 100 years ago – would recognize. But if tinkering with the rules can make baseball a better and more popular game, I’m all for it.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)