10 rule changes MLB could test during the shortened 2020 season, including universal DH and a mercy rule


Major League Baseball is on indefinite hiatus because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) threat and, if baseball does return this year, the season will be unlike any in the sport’s history. It’s going to be shortened, it’s likely to be played without fans, and it might take place in its entirety in a neutral location. There’s no sense in pretending this will be anything close to a normal season.

The rules will have to be altered to accommodate the unusual season whenever baseball returns. Teams could play doubleheaders on the regular to squeeze in as many games as possible and they’ll likely have expanded rosters to deal with the grind. There could be other temporary rule changes as well. Will mound visits be eliminated to maintain social distance? It is a distinct possibility.

Because this will not be a normal season, MLB has an opportunity to experiment with stuff it otherwise wouldn’t even consider. Baseball is steeped in tradition, more so than any other sport and perhaps even to its detriment at times, and MLB would have a chance to step outside its comfort zone this year. If something works, it could be considered for the long-term. If not, scrap it and move on. 

Here are 10 ways MLB (and the MLBPA, since the players would need to sign off as well) could experiment and treat the 2020 season as a testing lab. The items are listed in order of what I consider most likely to be implemented to least likely. Remember, commissioner Rob Manfred wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t consider every idea, no matter how ridiculous.

1. Universal DH

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A universal DH would allow the Mets to easily put both Pete Alonso and Dominic Smith in the starting lineup.
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Pitchers have never been worse at hitting than they are right now — pitchers collectively hit .128/.160/.162 with a 43.5 percent strikeout rate in 5,173 plate appearances (!) in 2019 — and it’s unlikely they’ll ever get better. It’s hard enough to do one thing well at the MLB level, pitch or hit. Doing both seems impossible. Pitchers hitting will soon go the way of the dodo bird.

MLB is likely to grant teams extra roster spots to ensure player safety during the shortened season. They don’t want to risk injury because players are overworked or because pitchers were unable to properly build up during the shutdown. Implementing a universal DH is more of the same. It takes pitchers out of harm’s way by not asking them to do something they don’t train to do.

Also, the Arizona Plan may lead to a schedule with greater variety (play a different team every day, etc.), in which case allowing pitchers to hit may not be feasible. Playing with different rules each day doesn’t seem like a good idea. Adopting a universal DH to limit injury risk and simplify things during the shortened season is a no-brainer.

How likely is it? Very likely in the short-term and inevitable in the long-term. I don’t know when it’ll happen, exactly, but I would be stunned if MLB goes into the 2030s with pitchers still hitting. The shortened season could give MLB the opportunity to rip off the band-aid and never look back.

Possible compromise: Let home team managers decide whether they want to use the DH prior to each game. Dayn Perry presented this idea back in February. My hunch is the managers would effectively implement a universal DH for MLB because no one would let their pitcher hit if given the choice.

2. Eliminate instant replay

I am pro instant replay because getting the call right is the most important thing. At the same time, lordy can the process be tedious. The play happens, the players involved point to the dugout for replay, the coach calls down to the video room, the manager stalls then asks for a replay, the umpires walk over and get on the phone, and all the while we wait. We wait and wait and wait. I hate it.

Streamlining the replay system should be a top priority going forward. In the short-term, eliminating instant replay would improve the pace of play and also help combat sign-stealing. The Astros have already been punished for their improper use of video equipment in 2017 and 2018 and the Red Sox were punished for similar infractions in 2018. No instant replay would avoid such a scandal in 2020 and, frankly, the last thing MLB needs right now is another one.

How likely is it? Somewhat likely. Spring training ballparks in Arizona (and Florida) are equipped for instant replay, so that wouldn’t be an issue, but who knows where games will be played in 2020? Could be all different places. I suspect MLB will want to do as much as possible to improve the pace of play though, so don’t rule out instant replay being shelved for a year.

Possible compromise: Instant replay but teams aren’t allowed to watch the video first. It has to be an instantaneous call from the dugout. The manager’s gut decision, basically. That would improve the pace of play — I suspect it would lead to fewer reviews in general — and also reduce the risk of illegal sign-stealing because there won’t be any approved electronic devices in the area. 

3. Automated strike zone

Robot umpires have never been closer to a reality. The automated strike zone — MLB calls it ABS for “automated balls and strikes” — was set to be used at some minor-league levels this season. That won’t happen now because of the shutdown. ABS was tested in the independent Atlantic League and in the Arizona Fall League last year, and it is slowly making its way toward MLB.

Using ABS during a shortened season would allow the home plate umpire, typically an older gentleman whose age puts him more at risk of dangerous complications from COVID-19, to maintain social distance with the catcher and hitter. He wouldn’t be needed at all, really, though it’s worth having someone in the vicinity for plays at the plate. That’s the benefit of using ABS in 2020.

The downside? ABS is not close to being perfected. The system is still a work in progress and I don’t think MLB will want to rush this if at all possible. It could go so poorly that implementing ABS permanently in the near future may not longer be possible because there’s so much backlash. Imagine something like this happening in an MLB game. It wouldn’t go over well:

How likely is it? Somewhat likely in 2020 and inevitable long-term. MLB is so dead set on adopting ABS that they already got the umpires to sign off on it. In a perfect world, ABS would still be a few years away. In our current reality, MLB may be forced to use the system earlier than anticipated following the shutdown. They’ll do it if necessary, but I don’t think it is their preference.

Possible compromise: Maybe they could only use ABS during blowouts? MLB set a new rule this year stipulating position players can only pitch when the score is separated by at least six runs (or the game is in extra innings), so they’ve essentially deemed a six-run lead a blowout. They could turn ABS on at that point to speed things up and give the home plate umpire some distance.

4. Pitch clock

MLB wants a pitch clock to improve the pace of play. The MLBPA does not because the union is fundamentally opposed to adding a clock to baseball. Manfred could have unilaterally implemented a pitch clock in 2020 but decided against it to maintain labor peace. It is something MLB will continue to push for in the future, however. The league cares about pace of play too much.

The ballparks in Arizona are already equipped with pitch clocks — the pitch clock is used during the Arizona Fall League — so, under the Arizona Plan, it would be as easy as flipping the proverbial switch. Pace of play would improve and let’s be real, MLB will have to work hard to lure fans back following the shutdown. Less standing around and less downtime is one way to do that.

MLB’s initial pitch clock proposal last year called for a 20-second pitch clock with violators getting slapped with automatic balls (for pitchers) or strikes (for hitters). The average pace was 24.9 seconds between pitches within an at-bat in 2019. That’s up from 22.7 seconds five years ago. It’s getting out of control. The shortened 2020 season is the perfect time to experiment with a pitch clock.

How likely is it? More likely than not, I think. MLB wants to improve pace of play, and with no crowd, players may be more willing to live with less time to collect themselves between pitches. These seems like a perfect low-risk time to try it. Nothing about this season will be normal. Might as well see whether a pitch clock sticks.

Possible compromise: Use a 20-second pitch clock with the bases empty and no pitch clock with runners on base. That will improve pace of play to some degree while still giving the pitcher and catcher time to cycle through signs and get on the same page in critical moments. Seems like a sensible middle ground.

5. Ties

There comes a point in every extra innings game where the experience shifts from “woo bonus baseball!” to “can we please just get this over with already?” MLB doesn’t need long extra innings games during a shortened season. That’s more wear and tear on the players in a condensed schedule (regular doubleheaders, etc.) and also more potential exposure to COVID-19.

Ties are not unprecedented in baseball but they are rare — the last tie was in 2016 — and during this one chaotic season, MLB could embrace ties to avoid unnecessarily long (and dangerous) games. Remember, the Arizona Plan calls for games in open air spring training stadiums in the summer months. It’s going to be crazy hot. Running players out there for extra innings will be dangerous.

Keep in mind ties would change strategy. Would the road team use its closer in the bottom of the 9th in a tie game if it knows there won’t be a 10th inning? I’d hope so. Right now road managers can get away with saving their closer for the save situation in extra innings. That won’t be the case with ties. We can call the added strategy a fringe benefit. It’d make things more interesting.

Calling games ties rather than playing extra innings would require a points-based standings system. Two points for a win and one point for a tie with wins serving as the first tiebreaker. That sort of thing. Matt Snyder already made a case for ties in 2020. I’m not a fan of ties, personally, and I suspect most fans aren’t. During these unprecedented times though, they’re worth considering.

How likely are they? I’d call it 50/50 for 2020. Long-term, ties are not impossible, though I’d bet heavily against them. I could see the MLBPA pushing for ties at some point to lighten the load on their players. They’re already pushing for a return to the 154-game season to reduce workloads and cutting out extra innings is the next logical step.

Possible compromise: Rather than call a game a tie after nine innings, they could play a 10th or 11th or however many innings and try to decide the game before calling it a tie. They wouldn’t be able to go too long, that’d defeat the purpose, but playing at least one extra inning before settling on a tie is an obvious way to compromise.

6. Mercy rule

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Are those last two innings really necessary?
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Let me start by saying I am against a mercy rule. These are professional players. Play until the game it’s over, and if the other team is running up the score, too bad. Stop them if you don’t like it. That said, a mercy rule could be beneficial during a shortened season with a condensed schedule. It eliminates low-leverage innings and reduces wear and tear, and possible exposure to COVID-19.

The International Baseball Federation mercy rules ends the game when one team is up 15 runs after five innings or 10 runs after seven innings. World Baseball Classic games are called when a team is up 10 runs after seven innings. The NCAA occasionally uses the IBAF mercy rule during the regular season, but not at all during the postseason. Those are possible mercy rule guidelines.

Similar to ties, a mercy rule could change the way a team approaches the game. Imagine if you’re up 10 runs in the seventh. Would you use your closer there to protect the 10-run lead and nail down that seven-inning mercy rule win? Or do you roll with your lesser relievers and hope for the best? I am pro on-field chaos and I feel like a mercy rule would be unintentionally chaotic.

A mercy rule equals fewer innings and fewer ads on television, and less time for fans to roam the ballpark and spend money. The latter won’t be an issue with empty ballparks. The former? That could be a deal-breaker. MLB will want to make as much money as possible and ending games early would be counterproductive. Still, anything that potentially prevents injuries has to be considered.

How likely is it? Not very likely for the reasons just mentioned. Ending a game early takes money out of MLB’s pocket and that is the last thing they want to do after the shutdown. I don’t think it’s completely impossible though. The players will want to get out of the Arizona sun and they could maybe sell MLB on the idea that a very small percentage of games will be affected.

Possible compromise: Ten-run lead after seven innings already feels like a pretty good compromise, honestly. I guess you could give the losing team’s manager the option to invoke the mercy rule, though I doubt anyone would actually use it. They won’t want to look like they’re giving up, which of course they would be. I get it. Ten-run lead after seven is like a good comprise already.

7. Ghost runners

Alright, now let’s get really crazy. The best way to lower COVID-19 exposure is to stay away from each other, and ghost runners, or invisible runners as they’re called in some circles, help accomplish that. No need for tag plays, no need for the first baseman to hold the runner, nothing like that. Ghost runners allow for social distancing and hey, that’s a good message to send to the public. MLB is doing this and you should too.

Ghost runner rules vary but generally speaking, once the batter reaches base, he leaves the field and his ghost runner advances at the rate of the batter. For example, if the ghost runner is on first and the batter doubles, the ghost runner goes to third. If he’s on first for a single, he advances to second. If he’s on second for a single, he goes to third. So on and so forth. No stolen bases allowed.

Also, the ghost runner can be forced out as long as the ball reaches the appropriate base before the batter crosses first base, so double plays can still be turned. Tag outs on ghost runners don’t exist, but that’s life. The entire point is limiting direct contact at a time when being in close proximity to another person carries significant health risks. Outside the box? Yeah. Sensible? I mean, yeah, kinda. 

Strategically, ghost runners would eliminate the running game and baserunning can be a lot of fun. Taking speed out of the game makes it less interesting, and teams built around speed would be hurt. At the same time, teams that are station-to-station stand to benefit, or at least lose less than their speedier counterparts. Point is, it’s a way to keep players away from each other. 

How likely is it? Not very. Let’s call it … 95/5. The door is open a tiny little bit. Firm rules would have to be established on when ghost runners can (and do) advance, and even then managers will argue and teams will get upset. But, if MLB is told it needs to maintain a certain level of social distance to play, you can be sure they’ll consider ghost runners a viable alternative to not playing.

Possible compromise: The lead runner is a real live runner but trail runners are ghost runners. That way if a speedster like, say, Billy Hamilton or Byron Buxton reaches base with no runner ahead of him, he can steal a base. The lead runner can run wild while any trail runners are ghost runners to limit traffic and reduce exposure to COVID-19.

8. Seven-inning games

This is already being discussed to some extent. Minor-league doubleheaders feature two-seven inning games and there’s been talk MLB could play seven-inning doubleheaders this season. That would maximize the number of games played without overly taxing the players. Four fewer innings per doubleheader is a pretty big deal, especially in the Arizona (or Florida or Texas) heat.

In this case though, we’re talking about straight seven-inning games. Every single game, not only doubleheaders. Such a change would alter the way the game is played and managed — horses like Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom would still get theirs, but most other games would become bullpen games — and some teams are better quipped for that than others, as R.J. Anderson explained.

The upside is two fewer innings per game and thus less wear and tear on the players and less exposure to COVID-19 while on the field. That applies to the umpires, managers, and support staff too. The less time they’re around each other, the less risk they face during the pandemic. Also, MLB cares a great deal about the length of game. This is one way to shorten it.

The downside is financial. Television networks are not going to want to pay nine innings worth of carriage fees for seven innings of baseball. The owners would have to be willing to accept less revenue and the players would have to be willing to accept a pay cut, because the financial burden of the pandemic should be shared. Hard to see the two sides being okay with that, but who knows.

How likely is it? For seven-inning doubleheaders, I’d say 50/50. I think the chances are better than you may realize. For seven-inning single games, small. I’ll go with 97/3. The MLBPA would love the idea of two fewer innings per day, especially in the summer in Arizona, but not at the expense of nearly a quarter of their salary. The money almost certainly makes this a non-starter.

Possible compromise: I guess the compromise would be a mercy rule, right? Rather than play the full nine innings no matter what, call the game early if one team has a huge lead. Or seven-inning doubleheaders. That would be another possible compromise to seven-inning single games. Shorter games under certain circumstances.

9. Quick Counts

A few years ago the MLB: The Show video game franchise introduced the “quick counts” feature and it is glorious. Quick counts allows the game to generate a random count before each at-bat. 1-1, 3-0, 0-2, whatever. It’s the luck of the draw. It made the game more realistic because it was impossible to draw walks or push the pitcher’s pitch count up otherwise, and it speeds things along.

Bringing quick counts into the real world would be a massive shift and everyone would hate it. Every single player, hitter or pitcher, would believe they’re getting the short end of the stick. They’d all believe the system is being unfair to them because it keeps spitting out unfavorable counts. Look how much they complain about borderline pitches. Imagine throwing a random count at them?

I am open to the idea that quick counts should be tailored to each player’s specific skills — Hyun-Jin Ryu (1.18 BB/9 in 2019) would get fewer three-ball counts than Dakota Hudson (4.43 BB/9), for example — but I say don’t bother. Making the quick counts system completely random and remove any semblance of bias. That’s the only way to do it, I think. Anything else could be a headache.

The single biggest issue with quick counts is that it reduces how much each player’s skill determines the outcome. Pitchers who attack the zone would have that skill marginalized to some degree. Hitters with a discerning eye wouldn’t be able to use it as often. That’s a big deal. Quick counts would make individual at-bat outcomes a little more random.

The upside is greatly improved pace of play, first and foremost. Quick counts also lower injury risk because pitchers are throwing fewer pitches. MLB could even implement, say, an 75-pitch limit for starters. That would help keep them healthy because they’re throwing less, and 75 real pitches can still take them deep into the game. Pace of play and player safety. There’s the upside.

How likely is it? Not likely at all, obviously. Let’s call this one … 98/2. MLB is looking at ways to curb the growing strikeout rate problem, however, and I supposed we can’t rule out a quick counts system designed to spit out fewer two-strike counts. That would be rather scandalous, but hey, crazier things have happened. The ball changes seemingly every year, doesn’t it?

Possible compromise: Start every at-bat with a 1-1 count. That still leaves three balls for a walk and two strikes for a strikeout, giving the hitter and pitcher some wiggle room, but it also means we start every at-bat with two pitches already in the books. That’ll improve pace of play and save pitchers two pitches per at-bat. Seems like the best middle ground between quick counts and no quick counts.

10. Let the 1-2-3 hitters bat every inning

In every sport except baseball, teams can force-feed the game to their best players. The Lakers can give the ball to LeBron James pretty much whenever they want. The Penguins can make sure Sidney Crosby is on the ice for every big moment. When they need a score late, the Chiefs put the game in Patrick Mahomes’ hands. Star players drive those sports.

That is not the case in baseball. Down a run in the 9th inning? If the 7-8-9 hitters are coming up, too bad, that’s who bats. You can’t send your best hitters to the plate there. The “everyone gets a chance” aspect of baseball is part of what makes it great. You can only hide your weakest links so much, and it’s damn near impossible to avoid them entirely. Maybe that should change though.

Rather than pick up the lineup where the last inning left off, how about starting each inning with the leadoff hitter? The 1-2-3 hitters start every inning. That means the best players have a greater impact on the game — imagine the Angels sending Shohei Ohtani, Anthony Rendon, and Mike Trout to the plate every inning? — and the stars get more exposure. That’s a valuable marketing tool.

Keep in mind baseball is going to have to work hard to draw fans back to the sport following the pandemic. When the season starts up, the NBA and NHL playoffs could be beginning at the same time, and the NFL season may be nearing as well. MLB will have to fight for attention and getting the best players on the field more often is a great way to get eyeballs.

There is some downside here. For starters, there would be far more offense because the best players are getting more at-bats, so much so that there could be diminishing returns. There is such a thing as too much offense, I think. We kinda sorta experienced it with the juiced ball. Also, fatigue could be an issue. The best players will get worn down batting that often.

How likely is it? Never say never, but … never. As close to zero chance without actually being zero chance. More like 99.99/0.01 than 99/1, I think. “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” is generally not a good reason to keep doing something, but, in this case, we’re talking about a seismic shift to the sport’s foundation. This strikes me as an extreme change that gets made only as a last resort. “We’re hemorrhaging fans (and money)” and need to do something or the sport will cease to exist kind of last resort.

Possible compromise: Tom Verducci’s “bonus batter” idea. Rather than start every inning with the 1-2-3 hitters, once a game each team could send any hitter to the plate to take an at-bat, even if that hitter has already been removed from the game. So, if you’re down a run in the 8th, you can send your top hitter to the plate with two on and two outs rather than let the No. 9 hitter hit. That way the best players have a greater chance to be involved in the game’s biggest moments without completely revamping the sport.





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