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We should not be afraid of trying to make baseball better

In defense of tinkering through rule changes.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

There's been a lot of skepticism in the last couple weeks toward MLB's current replay regime, skepticism that regime has wholly earned. Now in its third year, replay has proven to be something other than the unqualified improvement many expected it to be. Recently, one focus has been on the unfortunate prevalence of reviews like this one:

Specifically, that's Yonder Alonso coming off second base for a fraction of a second, despite beating Josh Thole's throw by a large margin; generally, it's a player being called out via replay who would have been safe for the first century of baseball's existence. Baseball Prospectus author Meg Rowley wrote an article citing this replay (and others like it) as a reason for all of us to doubt whether any proposed changes to baseball will work precisely as we want them to. In her words:

[W]e shouldn't invite robot umpires and an automatic strike zone with such abandon. It's not that it's not a solution to a problem, or to deny that there is a problem . . . Perhaps it will level the playing field between hitters and pitchers but what if, in attempting to solve problems, we unwittingly introduce a solution to our not-problems, too?

It's a great article and an important point. Replay has sharply reduced the number of obviously blown calls, but in doing so, it's created a totally new way for calls to reach an outcome other than the one that feels correct. While this problem might not have been totally unanticipated, if you believe Rob Manfred, I can't imagine that anyone who saw this coming would have advocated for replay, and it's a compelling reminder of our collective blindness. We should all probably be less confident about the outcomes of everything we do, as a rule.

But while some increased caution is a good lesson to take away from replay's infancy, we shouldn't conclude that any changes to baseball are destined to have unfortunate consequences. Indeed, in the last four years, the league and union have together prohibited collisions at home plate, enacted a host of initiatives aimed at speeding up the pace of the game, and introduced new rules governing slides into second and third base. While it's too early to judge the latter, each of the former two have been in effect in some form or another for at least a full season, long enough to be evaluated with some confidence.

And that evaluation shows that both have been, broadly, very successful. The creation of Rule 7.13 (now Rule 6.01(i)) was prompted by Buster Posey's grisly injury in 2011 after a collision with Scott Cousins, though it wasn't unprecedented by any means; it was notable primarily because of how high-profile the victim was. The rule prohibits the runner from initiating "avoidable contact" with the catcher, and the catcher from blocking the plate without the ball in his possession.

When it was rolled out at the beginning of the 2013 season, there was confusion over where exactly the line between legal and illegal slides into home was. The text of the rule wasn't particularly helpful, as it gave the umpire broad discretion to determine what was and wasn't legal. While that was a legitimate problem, the primary purpose of the rule was accomplished nearly immediately, with home plate collisions vanishing altogether. Runners can technically still hit catchers, so long as they do so without leaving their normal running path, but no one has done so for the more than three years of the rule's existence. It seems that the home plate collision is now a thing of the past because of a rule change. That's an incredible sentence.

After catcher safety was ensured, MLB and the Players Union sought to clear up the confusion with some slight alterations before the 2014 season. Notably, that clarification didn't take the form of making the rule less ambiguous, or more mechanical in its application. Rather, umpires were told that "common sense must prevail," and that only meaningful violations should lead to call reversals. In other words, umpires were encouraged to use their best judgment to selectively enforce violations of the rule.

The contrast between Rule 6.01(i) and the replay rules should be obvious. And, unlike replay, the home plate collision rule has largely fallen out of the discourse in the last eighteen months, which is primarily an indication of the lack of controversy around it. Everyone seems to agree that it's been a resounding success in making baseball safer and better.

The pace-of-play changes didn't involve topics as important or visible as concussions and broken legs but nevertheless had a major impact due to the breadth of their reach. Most fans view baseball's slowness as more of a feature than a bug, but there's no denying that baseball has more dead time than other sports. From 2012–2014, it was getting only slower.

FanGraphs has data on pitcher pace going back to the start of the PITCHf/x era in 2007, calculated from the timestamps on recorded pitches. In the first five years, league average Pace was extremely stable, never falling below 21.4 seconds and never rising above 21.6, but it rose in each of the next three years, culminating in a 23.0s average for 2014. An extra 1.5 seconds doesn't sound like much, but with over 700,000 pitches in a season, that worked out to over 291 added hours of game time. Even if you don't think baseball games are too long, those weren't hours of action, but extra hours of pitchers wandering around the mound and broadcasts stalling desperately. It wasn't good.

At the beginning of 2015, MLB (under the direction of new commissioner Rob Manfred) decided to do something about it. Hitters were required to keep a foot in the batters' box between pitches, and timers counted down the precise amount of time allotted between innings. For 2016, a 30 second limit for mound visits was added and the time between innings was cut slightly. Notably, enforcement mechanisms have been sparse; unlike the minor leagues, where pitchers can be assessed balls and batters strikes for breaking the new rules, players in the majors get only a gentle reminder from the league office, and perhaps a fine if they're a repeat offender.

Yet the impact has been pronounced. Pitcher pace in 2015 was at its lowest level since 2012, and average game time fell by over six minutes. Perhaps more importantly, baseball feels like it has regained some of its "crispness and flow," though that's obviously a harder thing to measure. While there are still some who feel introducing a clock of any kind is a blight on baseball's purity, this is another change that has been discussed rarely, due to its uncontroversial and quiet success.

I don't think either of these examples contradict the point Meg made. Both these changes, unlike replay, have substantial "slack" built into them, allowing the individuals tasked with enforcing the rules to make decisions based on their best judgments rather than strict applications of the rules as written. Replay is much more mechanical, and what Meg calls the "yada yada yada" can't be ignored like it can with pace of play or plays at the plate. Maybe the catcher was blocking the plate without the ball, for a brief moment; if the throw beat the runner by a full second, and the play was otherwise clean, the umpire can leave that technical violation of the rule in with the yada yada yada, where it belongs, and make the call that feels right.

What these examples should do, however, is indicate which changes might be less successful, or at least might come with unexpected and adverse side effects: those that don't leave any such slack. The examples Meg cites are firmly in the slack-less camp; robot umpires have no judgment to exercise, after all.

All this is to say that the adverse side effects of replay shouldn't be taken as a warning against changing baseball at all. There's no reason to think baseball is currently in its best form and that there aren't any changes that should be made. Indeed, the current replay regime could clearly use some serious tinkering. What replay and Rule 6.01(i) and the pace-of-game initiative together show is that changes should be made carefully and thoughtfully, and with space for the exercise of judgment. Baseball is a better game without home plate collisions and with slightly less dead time between every pitch. It's probably a better game with the current replay regime, too. It can be better still, and we should be constantly tinkering, trying to move it ever upward.

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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.