On Tuesday, the Pioneer League announced several rule changes for its upcoming season. The league will experiment with a variety of things including designated pinch hitters and pinch runners who can be used once per game without burning the player they are replacing. The headliner though is that extra innings will be dealt away with and in their place, games tied after nine innings will be decided by home run derby.
Here’s the reasoning and how it will all shake out:
To avoid the excessive strain on our pitching staffs, the Pioneer Baseball League will not have extra innings, but rather will employ a first-of-its-kind “Knock Out” rule that resolves tied games with a head-to-head, “sudden death” home run duel. Under the rule, each team designates a hitter who receives 5 pitches, with the game determined by the most home runs hit. If still tied after the first “Knock Out” round, another hitter is selected for a sudden-death home run face-off until a winner is declared.
Games being decided by home run derby is something that people have advocated for both ironically and seriously, and why not? It sounds exciting. Take another look at the language the Pioneer League used in its press release: “head-to-head, ‘sudden death’ home run duel.” Nevermind that extra innings have always been exactly as ‘sudden death’ as the proposed home run derby structure is.
When the idea has been floated previously, it’s often brought up as baseball’s version of a shootout but it’s not a good comparison. A home run derby is closer to the NHL’s skills competition than it is to a shootout.
Shootouts aren’t universally loved, but a reason that they work in hockey and soccer the those sports is because they truly are head-to-head competitions. That isn’t the case with a home run derby. A shootout in hockey or soccer strips the sports down to their purest forms: a competition between a shooter and a goal tender. Removing additional defenders or strikers simplifies but doesn’t modify the game’s main conflict.
The goalie directly opposes the shooter and the shooter needs to get the ball or puck past the goalie using strength, accuracy, and deception much in the same way that a pitcher needs to get a ball past a hitter using velocity, movement, command, and unpredictability. Removing the pitcher from the equation fundamentally alters the game’s construction. It’s no longer a contest between a pitcher and a batter but rather a contest between two batters who don’t even occupy the field at the same time as one another. Simply put: it’s not baseball.
If this were just an independent league experimenting with a rule in order to draw more fans and to cut costs, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. Indy ball is supposed to get weird,but there’s a difference between the PL trying out a home run derby and the Portland Pickles playing a game under the future rules of 2050. One is for fun and the other is an advertent trial balloon.
The Pioneer League isn’t completely independent. It’s a partner league of MLB, the same as the Atlantic League where MLB has experimented with electronic strike zones, stealing first on dropped pitches, and later this year: moving back the mound. of MLB which means that the PL gets funding from MLB in exchange for providing a talent pipeline. MLB’s involvement in the Atlantic League has been more direct, and according to Pioneer League President Michael Shapiro, the league “didn’t get MLB approval nor did [they] ask for it.”
The Pioneer League may have acted alone, but it’s easy not to ask permission when you know the answer is going be ‘yes.’ It’s hard to imagine that Rob Manfred was anything but giddy when he heard the news. Fans hate the runner-on-second rule that’s currently in place and MLB no doubt wants to explore alternatives. It’s too soon for this to be under serious consideration for the upcoming CBA negotiations, but if the current rule dies a much-deserved death, I’d expect the home run derby to be part of the solution. In the light of Manfred’s comments about wanting to move away from pace of play rules because the slow pace is optimal for gambling, a derby where fans can bet on who will win and how homers will be hit is sure to entice.
It’s not the Pioneer League’s fault their gimmick is sullied by Manfred’s penchant for ways to make baseball worse in the name of increasing fan
gambling engagement. I’d like to think that there’s no way that this would ever make it to the major league level, but I thought the same thing about the runner-on-second rule. If it helps keep the lights on, then sure, the Pioneer League should do what it needs to do, but there’s no way this makes the game better.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.