By John Hartsock
In Major League Baseball, as the old saying goes, “The times, they are a changing.”
Several significant changes have been implemented in the game this season and during the recent past, and several more could be on the immediate horizon.
The designated hitter is now in effect in both the National and American Leagues, there’s a new and better postseason format on tap beginning this October, and the radical defensive shifts that teams have used to cut down batting and run production could soon be significantly modified.
The inherited runner rule to begin extra-inning games has cut down on marathon contests and depleted bullpens across baseball, and starting next season, a drastically expanded interleague schedule will be in effect for all teams.
A pitch clock could also become a reality in Major League Baseball as early as 2023.
It’s a baseball traditionalist’s nightmare, but in the view of this traditionalist, most of the changes are positive.
Here’s an item-by-item look:
In the past, using the designated hitter in the American League only created a marked line of demarcation between the two leagues. Until this year, pitchers were forced to bat for themselves in the National League, for better or worse.
And as the game has evolved over the years, it has usually been for the worse.
Most pitchers today don’t bat near the Mendoza line, and bunting has become a lost art. Using the universal DH will level the playing field in both leagues, as well as create extra offense and excitement for the fans.
New playoff format
The powers-that-be in Major League Baseball have implemented a new playoff format beginning this year in both leagues that, pardon the pun, really covers all the bases.
It’s always been an MLB priority for teams to win their respective divisions in order to reap the benefits of postseason seeding, and, despite the new format, it still will be.
The playoff field in both the National and American Leagues will be expanded from five to six teams, with the two division champions with the best records in each league earning first-round playoff byes.
The team with the third-best record among the three division champions will meet the Wild Card team with the league’s sixth-best record in a best-of-three opening-round playoff series, while the Wild Card team with the league’s fourth-best record will meet the Wild-Card entry with the league’s fifth-best record in a three-game playoff series.
Gone is the onerous one-game Wild Card playoff game that bit the Pittsburgh Pirates in the backside in both 2014 and 2015, when they ran into ace pitchers Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta, respectively, in the winner-take-all showdown at PNC Park and were shut out both times.
That 2015 Pirates team won 98 regular-season games, and it would have been interesting to see just how it could have fared in a longer series.
Also under the new format, if teams end the regular season in a tie, the type of tiebreaker system that currently exists in the National Football League will be used to determine MLB playoff eligibility, rather than the special 163rd game playoff that has previously been used.
This new tiebreaker format, in which head-to-head records will be given top priority, followed by inter-division records, will also further ease the burden on pitching staff.
Under the new playoff format, more teams will have realistic chances later in each season to make the postseason. But that’s not the only carrot. Along with the exciting regular-season races for the division titles, there will be equally exciting battles for the Wild Card playoff spots.
This year, for example, the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals are currently, and have been, neck-and-neck for the final NL Wild Card playoff spot — while the Cardinals are still very much in the running for the NL Central Division championship.
It will still be important for division winners to not only win their division, but also, to win as many regular-season games as possible in order to try to secure first-round playoff byes.
There is nothing really not to like about the new playoff format for teams and fans alike. MLB hit the proverbial ball out of the park by instituting it.
I didn’t think much of this change when it was instituted during the COVID-19 abbreviated season of 2020, but now, I’m a big fan.
It creates a situation in baseball that is similar to the one that is used by the National Hockey League, where a five-minute overtime, and if necessary, a shootout, was implemented to break ties and expedite overtime games that might otherwise drag on forever . In extra-inning Major League Baseball games over the past three seasons, each team has started the tenth inning with an inherited baserunner on second.
The likelihood of that runner scoring — especially after advancing to third base with less than two outs in the inning — is very high.
As a result of this rule, games rarely last past the 11th inning now, and you’ll never see a situation where a position player is asked to take the mound in the 18th inning because a team’s pitching well has run dry.
Baseball wants quicker games, and this change gets a thumbs-up because it not only eliminates the five and six-hour marathons of the past, but it also keeps everybody on their toes as soon as the tenth inning starts.
In an effort to increase parity and balance, a drastic schedule change for all 30 Major League Baseball teams will take place beginning in 2023.
Next year, for the first time ever, every MLB team will be playing at least one series against every other team in baseball.
Instead of the 16 interleague games that exist for all teams this season, all teams will be playing 46 interleague games starting next season. Along with playing four games, two at home and two away, against their designated geographic interleague rival — for the Pirates, that rival is the Detroit Tigers — every team in baseball will play one three-game series against each team from the other league.
These three-game interleague series will alternate home fields from year to year, so if the Pirates, for example, play the New York Yankees in a three-game series at home in 2023, the two teams will play at Yankee Stadium in 2024.
Teams are currently playing 19 games against opponents from their own division, but that will change next season, when all teams will play only 14 games — seven home and seven away — against each of the four opposing teams in their division, in order to accommodate the increased interleague schedule.
This change will be met with relish from fans who lament that under the current and previous format, visits from opposing interleague teams could be as long as six years apart.
Starting next season, it will be possible for fans in Pittsburgh, for example, to see American League superstars like Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, and Shohei Ohtani, play at PNC Park every other season.
Over the past decade, Major League Baseball has increasingly become a game of analytics, spray charts, and predicting offensive tendencies.
But radical defensive shifts in which several players take one side of the field to defend against dead-pull hitters could well become a thing of the past in 2023, if the MLB players union and league can come to an agreement to have no more than two infielders on one side of second base.
There could be a maximum depth for outfielders on the field implemented as well.
This change will likely add more offensive production to the game, which fans generally enjoy seeing, and place an increased incentive for hitters to put the ball into play.
It’s already been in effect in the minor leagues, with favorable results in speeding up games. MLB pitchers are grudgingly accepting that its time may be here, and could arrive as early as next season.
John Hartsock can be reached at [email protected]