Where Rob Manfred should take contentious MLB rule changes in 2021: Sherman

Rob Manfred, in an appearance on MLB Network this week, lined up behind retaining expanded playoffs and indicated a consensus growing around him to keep the rule in which extra innings begin with a runner on second.

The commissioner mentioned positive feedback for the alterations made for 2020 pandemic baseball. That should be a reminder how the wheel works in this sport more than the others. Any change is greeted with fall-of-the-republic hysteria with warnings the game will never be the same and fans will exit in droves. And then once it is seen in action …

Is there much protest any longer about protecting fielders on pivots at second or collisions at home after the initial uproar? How about sending runners to first rather than tossing four balls for an intentional walk? Right, furor followed generally by crickets.

It accentuates that a commissioner should ignore the outside noise and do what he thinks is right for the game — for safety, drawing and retaining fans and making more money.

The big three rule changes implemented specifically for this COVID campaign were expanded playoffs, the extra inning rule and a universal DH. I suspect the commissioner has not publicly advocated for the universal DH because it is something the Players Association would like to see made permanent and, thus, becomes a negotiating point to perhaps get the expanded playoffs that owners desire. In fact, all of these items must be negotiated between the sides to be used in 2021. Haste is needed because, for example, teams might think of how they will roster build this offseason based on if more clubs make the playoffs and if all teams use the DH. The players will want to understand fully what that market is.

Some thoughts on these rules:

1. The playoffs this year expanded from 10 teams to 16 with an extra round. Manfred has indicated 16 is too much. But there was an MLB plan afoot already to try to get to 14 as part of a new collective bargaining agreement (the current deal expires after next season).

The balancing act is to grow the playoffs — and, thus, the payoff from networks — without degrading the regular season. My thought on how to do that with 14 teams is to give the team with the best record a bye not to play in a best-of-three first round. That means teams that can get that perk to avoid the two-of-three dice roll will play hard to the end of the regular season.

Then the other division winners in each league would receive: home field in all three games plus, if they win Game 1, they advance and if they lose Game 1, they can still advance by winning the next two.

This helps keep the integrity of the regular season because winning a division is such a benefit. No team is going to just concede it is a wild card with a few weeks left and not try to win a division. Players are concerned that if so many teams make the playoffs then many organizations will stop spending for the marginal upgrades to win a division — so making a division title so valuable gets the players on the side of this. It also increases the likelihood of an active trade deadline since you will have teams not only trying to get into the playoffs, but working to upgrade to win a division.

Plus, what networks love — beyond playoff inventory — are elimination games. In this format Game 1 is an elimination game for the lower seed, if there is a Game 2 it is an elimination Game for the higher seed and if there is a Game 3 it is an elimination game for both. There also would be one series — between the top two wild card teams in each league — that would just be straight best-of-three.

2. I liked the extra-inning rule more than I expected. But just to tether a bit more to the past my first recommendation would be to play a 10th inning and if it were still tied, then go to the runner on second to begin the 11th. Or one other modification to consider: start the 10th inning with a runner on first and if it is still tied after that, go to a runner on second.

I am trying to find ways to play fewer of those games because as dramatic and strategy high as it is to begin with a runner on second, it does feel extreme and I want to limit that extreme with other mechanisms if I could.

But, in general, the idea of games that stretch in time and risk to bodies beyond 11, 12 innings should be junked and so I am for including some form of placing a runner on base to get to a winner sooner.

3. I have long been for the universal DH, so nothing changes here. I know folks worry about the loss of strategy, but these playoff games have lent themselves to lots of questions about the proper deployment of players, specifically pitchers. It is just part of the modern game to use more personnel.

For example, the Rays never double-switched in World Series Game 2, but (among other things) they did use their closer (Nick Anderson) in the fifth inning, deployed two pinch-runners simultaneously with one out in the top of the ninth and removed Aaron Loup after he had retired three straight and with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. So, Rays manager Kevin Cash never had to do the mental gymnastics of figuring out where to hit his pitcher, but this was an awful lot for him and fans to contemplate and debate.

Look, you might be able to find a pitcher such as Madison Bumgarner or Zack Greinke who can hit — and, by the way, that is .177 and .225, respectively — but most pitchers can’t hit and don’t want to hit. At this point, it feels like asking your placekicker to play fullback — an unattractive not particularly healthy concept.

I imagine if it was announced that a full-time DH was being used from 2021 forward we would hear that it is ruining the game, fans screaming they are never coming back and by June — crickets.

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