Monday, November 17, 2008

If I Was Bud Selig...

A couple days ago I did a post of the things I would do if I was Stan Kasten, focused on the things he can do to better promote the team and enhance fan experience at the game. Today, I'm following that up with a post with some changes I would make if I was Bud Selig, commissioner of baseball:

1. Limit mound visits

This step would be one of several that I think are needed to speed up the game. Coaches, catchers, and even infielders visit the mound way too much. To me, the only legitimate reason why anyone should ever have to visit the mound is to check on a pitcher's health. Pep talks are totally unnecessary. Discussions of strategy should happen before the game, and then during the game the players should just compete. Smarter pitchers will be better--so be it. So I would limit every team to one mound visit total per pitcher, to be done only to check on health. If the pitcher needs a second visit, he would have to be taken out of the game. I would ban catchers and infielders from ever visiting the mound entirely. I would also bar managers from visiting the mound for pitching changes. There's no need for that--managers don't visit home plate to chat with pinch hitters. If you have some coaching to do--that's why you pay a bullpen coach. All this stuff just slows the game unnecessarily.

Some other things I would do to speed up play: stop batters from ever calling time-out, force batters to stay in the box between pitches, don't allow pitchers to wander off the mound once the at-bat starts, and set a time limit for how long the pitcher can hold the ball before delivering the next pitch.

2. Tighten and enforce rules against plate-crowding

There's a delicate balance between pitchers and hitters that has since time immemorial been enforced by the players themselves. If a hitter crowds home plate--thereby giving himself the advantage of making it easier to hit pitches on the outside corner--the pitcher can brush him back. If that doesn't do it, the pitcher can plunk him.

But in recent years, the league has put a big thumb on the scale of the hitters. Now, pitchers face quick-trigger warnings and ejections for pitching inside. Every HBP is treated as intentional. Brushing back plate-crowders isn't considered a legitimate part of pitching strategy at all anymore. And in the meantime hitters are wearing body armor a la Barry Bonds so that even getting plunked isn't such a threat anymore. This trend is a much-overlooked component of why offense is up over the last two decades of MLB.

I support the effort to protect players' health, so I wouldn't want to get rid of the protective gear, and I agree the league should have little tolerance for intentional HBPs. But there needs to be some way to reduce the hitters' plate-crowding advantage.

Here's the answer for how to force the Chase Utleys of the world--guys who literally stand in with their front elbow in the strike zone--to back off. The league needs to clarify a zone around home plate--maybe 4-6 inches, though I don't really know if that's the right distance--where the hitter may not stand. If the hitter crosses that line before the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, it'll be treated like encroachment in football or a zone violation in basketball. The penalty would be that the pitch would be called a strike, regardless of where it's thrown or if it's hit or not. That penalty--like the balk--would be rarely enforced because hitters would just learn to back off. But with this solution we could tip the hitter-pitcher balance back to even while still preventing injuries and fights.

3. Stop tinkering with the rules of the draft

MLB created the June amateur draft in 1965. Now, 43 years later, they're still tinkering with the rules in a constant effort to put more money in the owners' pockets and less in the players'. Keep in mind that the amateur draft has always been incredibly effective at depressing player salaries. The draft is a monopsony, a market where there's only one buyer, which drives prices way down; it's the opposite of a monopoly, where there's only one seller, which drives prices up.

In 1992, in an effort to bring down bonuses and get even richer, the owners unilaterally gave teams who drafted a player five years instead of one year of exclusive negotiating rights. The idea was to take away the players' "I'll just go to college if you don't pay me" leverage. The Players' Association sued, and an arbitrator threw out the change.

In 2007, the league moved the signing deadline from one week before the next year's draft to August 15. This change was supposed to create more predictability and force negotiations to proceed faster (while also undercutting the players' leverage and making the owners richer of course). This year, the first crack in the dam of the August 15 deadline emerged when the league allowed the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pedro Alvarez to keep negotiating weeks after the deadline for no apparent reason except that Bud felt it should be so. (Nitpickers will say there were other reasons, but I regard them all as total B.S.)

At the same time that the league moved the signing deadline, they unilaterally created the so-called "slotting system," where every player drafted would receive a league-recommended low-ball signing bonus. It was essentially an attempt on Selig's part to collude with the other owners to screw the players, but since the slot recommendations were just that--non-binding recommendations--the collusion failed and bonus inflation has continued apace.

Here's the biggest problem with all these changes--by constantly messing with the rules of the game, the draft is in a constant state of unpredictability. The players are always trying to figure out new ways to leverage their talents for fairer bonuses. But because the league keeps playing with the rules, the market never finds equilibrium. If there was more predictability, snafus like the Alvarez situation and the Crow meltdown would be less likely. Once the market found it's level, player values would be more or less set--the same way the prices of more or less every other commodity in the U.S. economy is determined.

But because the owners still think they aren't rich enough, there's once again talk of creating a "hard slot" system, which would have to be negotiated with the players' union in the next collective bargaining agreement. But if I was Bud, I would just stop tinkering. You have a system that gives you enormous leverage over young players so that you can pay superstars like Cole Hamels like they are fringe bench guys. In no other sport are rookie salaries so depressed. Just be happy you've ripped off these young players as much as you have, and let the system be.

Here's the upside: if the draft wasn't such a vomitous annual exercise in greedy, capitalist ugliness, you might have a chance of drawing more fan interest in the draft and... get this... make more money!!

4. Allow the trading of draft picks

Here's something JimBo and I agree on, although the idea of Bowden himself being able to ship out draft picks for crappy, fading veteran outfielders would terrify me.

But setting aside the fact that this rule change would screw the Nationals by further exposing Bowden's weaknesses as a GM, I think overall that allowing teams to trade draft picks as they do in other sports would increase upward mobility of teams. It wouldn't necessarily increase parity (which shouldn't be the goal, BTW--the goal should be upward mobility, not total vanilla league-wide averageness like in the NFL), but it would allow teams that decide to commit to rebuilding to get better faster. If a team like the Nationals could ship off guys like Tim Redding and Ronnie Belliard to trade up in the draft, it would be another way to cut our losses on the now and bring in more blue-chip talent for the future. And it would be fun.

5. Make raw pitch f/x data more easily available

I know, Mike Fast, Eric Seidman and the dude from Cubs F/X have all figured out how to download this data from public sites and do all kinds of fun things with it. But I'm not a computers expert, and for the life of me I can't figure out how to do it. These stats have the potential to revolutionize how we understand pitching and hitting. MLB should just put it all out there in easily downloadable spreadsheet format that my pre-2003 Excel program can handle, and let the fans go wild.

BTW--if one of you out there is more of a computers geek than I am and has figured out how to do this and wants to start emailing me spreadsheets of data, I'd be willing to pay for at least a round of beers at the Red Porch.

6. End local MLB.tv blackouts

I don't even understand what they're thinking. In case you're not aware of how this asinine system works, if you pay for the MLB.tv subscription, you get to watch every game nationwide EXCEPT YOUR LOCAL TEAM. You can watch the Royals play the Mariners and every other game that you have no possible interest in, but not the hometown nine.

Why? At first, the deal was that you were blacked out from watching the home games, on the theory (I'm told) that the league was trying to force people to go to the ballpark by preventing them from watching on their computers (as if anyone ever actually goes to the game because they can't watch on their computers). But last season, all local team games were blacked out, regardless of whether they were at home or not. WTF?

In what business school do they teach you that it's smart business to make it nearly impossible for fans to consume your product? I guess the answer is that I'm supposed to get cable and watch on MASN. But MASN's going to get their audience anyway. The people who pay for MLB.tv are the baseball obsessed fans who 99% of the time have cable anyway. Most people get MLB.tv so they can watch from the office cubicle or while travelling. The tiny number of people who would consider subscribing to cable JUST to watch the Nationals AND who aren't sports fans enough to want ESPN anyway? Well, however many people fall into that category it can't be worth the money they are losing from reducing the exposure of local teams in their home media markets.

7. Get rid of first and third-base coaches

In the NBA, they don't allow the coach to stand under the basket signalling to the point guard where to pass the ball. In the NFL they don't allow the offensive coordinator to stand in the backfield to help point out open receivers. Why is baseball the only sport that allows coaches onto the playing field to direct the moment-by-moment action in this way? Why can't runners decide for themselves whether to go for home or when to steal? Smart runners would benefit and dumb ones would be exposed. Fun! No one goes to the game to watch the fat guy next to third base. We watch the players, and the players should decide for themselves when to run or not.

8. Allow every team to carry 13 pitchers and expand the active roster to 26

Given what we've learned about pitcher usage and injuries in recent years, the league should do this to help managers cut down on the number of innings each pitcher throws in a season. Guys like Luis Ayala, Gary Majewski, Chad Cordero, and Jon Rauch just get chewed up and spit out throwing in 85-90 games a year, year in and year out. Of course, managers will still tend to over-rely on their best arms, but this would help by at least giving teams more options for junk time.

9. Ban collisions at home plate

Baseball is not a contact sport. The only part of the game when bone-jarringly physical play is accepted is in collisions at home plate. Whether you thought Chase Utley's diving hit on Jesus Flores was cheap or "old/good school," it undeniably exposed Flores to injury. These collisions almost always leave the catcher's body exposed and defenseless. Ray Fosse's career was ended this way, and I'm sure there are many others. There's just no need for it. The hook slide is more effective anyway. The only reason to destroy the catcher is to live up to some outmoded macho code that also encouraged head-hunting, going into second with spikes high, and all kinds of other practices that have gone the way of the St. Louis Browns. Just change the rule so that if there's anything other than incidental contact the runner will be out at home, and at the same time ban catchers from intentionally blocking the plate. The play should be decided based on when the throw arrives.

10. Get rid of the DH

No explanation needed here, I assume. For me, it's less that I relish the opportunity of seeing pitchers hit, and more that I hate the fact that hitters who aren't athletic enough to play the field can start. An alternative to just getting rid of the DH would be to require that DHs appear a minimum number of innings in the field somehow. This would be kind of a mess to implement though, so I would prefer to just get rid of it (even though it seems it'll never happen).

11. Determine World Series home field advantage by won-loss record

Again, this is a no-brainer. The All-Star Game thing is just silliness.

12. Make the All-Star Game a 9-inning affair with ties

The possibility of extra innings only risks injuries and forces managers to hold back guys whom the fans want to see play. And does anyone really care who wins the All-Star Game?

# #

So those are my ideas. I'm sure there are lots of other good ones, and there were some really good ideas in the comments on the "If I was Stan" post. So feel free to share your ideas here too.

7 comments:

Will said...

Steven, regarding #5, check out this great, but most of all, easy to understand guide on how to build a stat database:
http://statspeak.net/2008/11/building-a-sabermetricians-workbench-part-i.html

If you're just looking for the statistics, check out http://baseball-databank.org/
I don't know whether you can input it into Excel, but it certainly works for MySQL.

Harper said...

This alternate universe sounds great (except for you of course since you have to be Bud Selig)

regarding #7 - If we didn't have coaches we wouldn't have had Tommy Lasorda get hit by a bat. That alone keeps me in favor of it.

If I were bud, besides working out and getting Lasik, I'd have teams play some weekend day playoff games.

I'd also cut the season back to 154 games. The only reason it went to 162 was the 1961 expansion. Once the division came in and interleague play was added that became moot. Late October is not baseball weather and since they aren't going to cut a plyaoff round this is the next best thing.

Steven said...

@Harper--good ideas. The 154 game season actually was one thing I'd thought about myself, but figured it was too radical, and frankly I didn't really know the history. But you're right, the season goes way too late. And 154 games was a perfectly good season length. I thought about whether to call for a neutral site WS, but that would really suck actually.

Then again global warming should help reduce most of these problems, at least until Fenway, Dodger Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, the Trop, and Camden are all underwater.

Harper said...

Underwater domes! I can't wait till 2012.

You know what else I'd do - I'd kill interleague play. It unbalances schedules. It forces teams to play in a method their rosters aren't set up for. It's fun only if like one of 5 teams is coming from the other league. If you absolutely must - two games home and home v rivals. That's all people care about, but I'd prefer none.

Harper said...

oh oh! And two divisions - two wild cards. (if we must have WCs let's try to limit the chances of a 87 win team sneaking into the playoffs because their division sucks.)

Will said...

No first/third base coaches? Giving signs and stealing signs are as much a part of the game as home runs and hot dogs. Maybe first base coaches could be done away with, but third base coaches are critical. Players should be able to direct themselves on the basepaths? What if a guy's trying to score from second on a single to left? It's all about maximizing team performance.

Steve Shoup said...

A lot of interesting ideas Steven I esp. love the idea of the trading of draft picks. I think this is long overdue. It was implemented so big market teams couldn't "buy" top talented players but now instead, small market teams (this means you Pittsburgh) pass on the most talented players and instead go with the ones that will sign the cheapest and quickest. If a small market team doesn't want to meet a Matt Wieters or Rick Porcello's demands thats their peogative but they should at least have the ability to trade back and get compensation for passing on that talented player.

One area where I do disagree some is the not tinkering with draft rules. I may be in the minority but I like the idea of a signing deadline. Now I realize that meant it eliminated the draft and follow process that was a great tool for teams to take some late riskier picks, but overall I feel its for the best. I'm not saying the system is perfect now but I don't think its at the point where they should stop trying to make it a better system.

I don't know about you but I'm happy that we don't have to have daily articles about Aaron Crow negotiations. Under the old system the Nats would have had up until a week before the next draft to sign the player. The Crow situation shows how the deadline can help, I mean his bonus demand was $9 million up until 48 hours before the deadline, if their was no deadline it would be $9 million still today. I think thats a good thing. Also two other points you say baseball puts players in a tighter corner than the other sports I don't think thats totally true. I don't know much about hockey but in Basketball and Football once a player is drafted he can't go back to college he has no other options (outside of other leagues Europe or Canda ect). In baseball any player in college can go back until they are out of eligiblity (yes they lose a little leverage every year, and yes I realize that usually a player who goes to a 4 year university cannot go back into the draft for 3 years) or they can go to the independent leagues as well. A high school player that is drafted can go year by year in community college or go to a 3 year university. In MLB unlike the NFL or NBA they draft a player with little garuntee that they will have that player (look at Gerrit Cole) when is the last NBA or NFl player that didn't sign. Also NBA has a hard slotting system he can't negotiate a larger contract. This is why i don't have a problem with the advantages Selig uses to try and help keep bonuses down. When you draft a player in the NFL or NBA usually you expect that player to be helping your team pretty much ASAP, yes there are developmental leagues in the NBA and Practice Squads in the NFL but for all intents and purposes that player (esp. top picks) is a big part of your future. Thats not to say there aren't busted prospects (Akili Smith, Kwame Brown come to mind) but at least their picks are ready to play in the big league (or at least thought to be). In baseball that player has a less likely chance to ever see the big leagues. In my opinion baseball should have some protections to help keep costs down.