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Thursday, November 25, 2021

New rule to consider with pitchers likely done hitting after Series

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ATLANTA — The 117th World Series so far is two meh games and one broken leg. We are again discussing games that are too long and national TV ratings that are too small.

We need late-inning tension and/or controversy. Or else there is a chance we are heading toward a 2021 Fall Classic where the last reason to care (outside of Atlanta and Houston) is to see a bit of tradition vanish this weekend.

Game 3 is Friday, the same day that the MLB Players Association and MLB will bargain once more in New York. No signs have emerged yet of progress on the core economic issues with just more than a month until the collective bargaining agreement expires. But there is little doubt that whenever a new deal is struck, it will include a universal designated hitter.

Fittingly for 2021, the NL team will be using a bullpen game in Game 5, the final one in an NL park this year. The Braves do not have a stretched-out healthy starter, so they will offer reliever after reliever, which also probably means pinch hitter after pinch hitter for the pitcher’s spot. Therefore, the odds switch to an AL starter, Framber Valdez, taking the last pitcher plate appearance ever. Dusty Baker, whose first four managerial stops before becoming Houston’s skipper were NL teams, will likely be the last to ponder the double-switch.

Then as Monday morning arrives, a piece of the game from the outset, but part of just the NL (and interleague games in NL cities) since 1973, will probably cease to be.

“I think it’s definitely going to be pretty special that this could be the last pitchers ever hitting in baseball,” Braves Game 3 starter Ian Anderson said. “We’ve definitely brought it up.”

Max Fried
Braves pitcher Max Fried hits during the division series against the Brewers.
USA TODAY Sports

The debate to save even half a league from the DH appears done. The universal DH is among very few items that both MLB and the union are in concurrence. Those favoring tradition and/or the strategy — bunting, double-switching, working around the No. 8 hitter, etc. — will lose, like they did when the Yankees’ Ron Bloomberg took the first DH at-bat ever in 1973.

The best hope to inject strategy into the universal DH would be to apply what has come to be known as the “Double Hook.” Essentially, that ties DH usage to the starting pitcher. The moment the starter is removed, so is the DH. The hope would be to encourage teams to stick with starters longer, so as not to simultaneously lose their DH.

But I have doubt that the union will support this because while it promotes starting pitching, it instantly de-emphasizes the number of DH at-bats in both leagues — and, thus, their compensation. Clubs that use openers, in particular, could start an inferior hitter likely to get zero or one plate appearance and keep better offensive options for later. It also would expose pitchers who are hitting less regularly to have to take at-bats in both leagues, which could promote injury.

There are other ways to encourage longer starts in tandem with the universal DH, and if you thought I wasn’t going to offer my own rule, then you haven’t visited this space often. I am work-shopping it as the “FourPlay.” But if it ever gets applied (it’s too radical, it won’t), I am totally fine with “The Joel Sherman For Commissioner Rule.”

The basics: If your starter goes six innings, your team gets a fourth offensive out once between the seventh and ninth innings.

This instantly disadvantages any teams that use an opener because they can never get this benefit. It should encourage organizations to develop starters who they trust to navigate a lineup more than twice because gaining a timely 28th out in a game is a huge benefit.

There were 3,198 starts of at least six innings in the 2011 season and it has decreased in every full season (so not including the 2020 pandemic campaign) since — down to 1,789 in 2021. More frequent pitching changes have factored into longer games. It also has deprived the postseason of the kind of starters who dominate October and resonate with national audiences.

MLB
Pitchers Max Fried (l.) and Ian Anderson likely won’t have to hit for the Braves next season as MLB will likely have a universal DH.
AP

Could big-market clubs try to buy the best starters? Don’t they already, and this year, yes, the Dodgers (with 84) had the most starts of at least six innings in 2021. But the next three were the A’s, Rockies and Brewers. Too gimmicky? Well, everything is gimmicky. All rules are made up, not handed down from a mountaintop. Is this really more gimmicky than, say, starting extra innings with a runner on second?

That rule has nothing to do with tradition, this is trying to restore the primacy of starting pitching, which both the union and MLB want. They also like increasing strategic debate points. And imagine the decisions this would provoke.

Your starter is an out or two into the sixth and wobbling. Do you go to the pen or do you stick with your guy to get that extra offensive out? When do you use that extra out? I would stipulate that the offense must to declare its intention to use a fourth out or not before there are two outs. For if you wait for two, then a defense would have to try to turn double plays for the third and fourth outs in the inning, just in case, or throw home to prevent a sacrifice fly with the third out of an inning.

Do you bank the fourth out until the final inning? Do you use it to get your best hitter up, especially if a runner(s) reach with one out? The four-out save would take on a greater meaning.

It’s different. But everything is different initially. The DH was different in 1973. Now, it is about to become universal. Why can’t a little “FourPlay?”

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