Suggest a tweak in baseball's rules, and you might as well propose changing the stars on the American flag. It's downright unpatriotic.
Part of baseball's appeal derives from the stability of its rules; this ain't the NFL monkeying with its pass-interference rules every five minutes. Baseball today would be recognizable to any fan from 100 years ago. But that doesn't mean it's perfect. For example, Sandy Alderson, MLB's operations czar, has taken steps the past several years to cut out dead time from games, and finally brought some sanity to the strike zone by forcing umpires to call it properly.
Other rule changes would make similar sense. Here are 10 to consider as the season approaches:
1. Four-pitch walks
Other hitters in baseball history have been feared and avoided from time to time. Babe Ruth. Ted Williams. But what's happening with Barry Bonds is ridiculous -- when he comes up with runners in scoring position and a base open, and even in less threatening situations, he either gets walked intentionally or receives no pitch anywhere near the strike zone. Bonds has, in effect, become so good that he gets precious few chances to show it, sapping his at-bats of their proper drama.
Limiting the number of intentional walks a batter can receive per game won't work, because it would be impossible to determine which walks were intentional. But how about this:
A four-pitch walk advances runners.
If four straight balls advanced runners one base, you can bet that no hitter, Bonds or not, would be sidestepped so easily in key situations. He would get at least one somewhat hittable pitch. After that, the pitcher is off that hook, free to tuck the batter in at first base if he pleases.
This would increase offense markedly, less through the advancement of runners than from more strikes being thrown. The rule would have to be accompanied by an enlargement of the strike zone -- there would have to be difficult-to-hit strikes, rather than the current (though improving) system where pitchers have to groove pitches to get one called.
The results would be appreciable: Top hitters would be pitched around less often, walks overall would decrease and games would be more taut, probably as long but with considerably less mind-numbing inaction. However smart strategically, the modern emphasis on taking pitches has stretched at-bats to tedious lengths; the cat-and-mouse game between hitter and pitcher can be preserved while encouraging the pitcher to at least once put up his dukes.
2. Mid-inning relievers
It's the eighth inning of a tight, 3-3 game. Right-hander walks the leadoff man with a righty on deck. Manager ambles out the dugout. And so the dance begins.
All too often, innings like this get bogged down in Matchup Mania, with relief specialists coming in for one batter at a time before the manager appears again, stalling for time and plotting his next move. Next thing you know, it takes forever for this key inning to stagger to its fate, two minutes of action diluted in 20 minutes of mound conferences, commercials and warmup tosses.
Acting on matchups is all fine and dandy, but it has gotten out of hand. Baseball demands versatility from its batters -- in general, they must play defense and run the bases as well as hit -- but too many pitchers are developing into one-dimensional specialists, to the drama's detriment. Particularly in the American League, where the DH leads to more mid-inning pitching changes.
I propose the following: If a pitcher enters the game in the middle of the inning, he must finish that inning, barring injury. If this is too strict -- and it probably is -- then this rule could apply only in innings not begun by the starting pitcher. (If the starter tires after one batter in the seventh, it's tough to tell the manager he has to pick one reliever the rest of the way.) What happens if the "final" reliever is getting lit? That's an issue, but shouldn't a major-league pitcher be able to get a few outs?
Nothing is perfect. Perhaps something more simple, such as requiring relievers to face at least two batters instead of one, would do the trick. But something should be done to expect more out of relievers, and to keep important innings from slowing to a crawl.
(One side note, by the way -- can't managers and pitching coaches at least make an effort to jog to the mound, for heaven's sake? I know Johnny Armchucker needs time to warm up, and Bobby Cox has no knees. But the pitcher's mound isn't the gallows ... unless, of course, you're Grady Little.)
3. HBP warnings
Rule 8.02 (d) of baseball's official rules discusses how umpires should handle the suspicion that a pitcher is throwing intentionally at a batter. The umpire may either eject the pitcher immediately or, as commonly occurs, warn him first. The problem is the following sub paragraph (2), which says the umpire "may warn the pitcher and the manager of both teams that another such pitch will result in the immediate expulsion of that pitcher (or a replacement) and the manager."
This has done a lot to curb brawls -- I don't have hard data, but experiential evidence is strong -- yet has gone so far that umpires eject pitchers who probably weren't throwing intentionally at anyone, but put one too far inside after a warning was issued. How often do we see some young pitcher get ejected in a situation where he'd be an idiot to hit a guy on purpose -- with a breaking ball, no less?
Umpires should police these situations on a case-by-case basis. The warning hammer removes much of their discretion and forces avoidable ejections.
4. Body armor
We all know that many modern hitters feel comfortable hanging out over the plate -- helping them slam outside pitches -- in part because they wear plastic arm protectors and other armor. MLB's effort to restrict this was met with understandable resistance from the Players Association, because hitters with pre-existing injuries need to protect themselves. This will never change.
OK, fine. They're wearing it for protection. Then if they get hit on the plastic armor -- something umpires should be able to distinguish from flesh -- then they don't get first base as a reward. This wouldn't make armor extinct, but it would discourage its use.
5. Trade draft picks
Baseball's amateur draft has been broken for a decade. Every year, low-revenue teams near the top of the selection order have to pass on some of the best players because they can't afford their perceived price tags. The teams that need talent most wind up with second-tier players while the top prospects go to the richer clubs.
This can be ameliorated by allowing teams to trade their draft picks. (When baseball instituted its amateur draft in 1965, it prohibited the trading of draft picks to protect foolish teams from frittering away their future.) If clubs could trade picks before the draft or after, the value of a top pick is better preserved.
One of many examples: In 2001, the Twins held the No. 1 pick, followed by the Cubs at No. 2. Everyone knew the Twins wouldn't take the high-priced Mark Prior, and went with hometown prep catcher Joe Mauer instead. (Mauer has become a top prospect, but nowhere near Prior's value.) Had the Twins had the option of trading picks, they couldn't have gotten Prior, but almost certainly would have figured out a way to deal the No. 1 pick to the Cubs for their No. 2 and something else (player, cash, a third-rounder, etc.) They could have shopped around other clubs for a better offer, too.
Trading picks in baseball wouldn't be nearly as intriguing for fans and media as it is in other sports -- there, players are far closer to making an impact on the major-league club -- but it still would be interesting. The draft, like so much of baseball today, has become more about wherewithal than wits. This gives poor teams more options, and most executives are for it.
6. QuesTec: All or nothing
Several years ago, before Alderson revamped a horrible umpire situation, strike zones were like snowflakes -- no two were alike. Many were smaller than snowflakes themselves.
Whether you like its actual implementation or not, the adoption of something like QuesTec, the camera system that attempts to monitor whether umpires call balls and strikes properly, was a necessary step to bring some sort of quality control to these 300 important decisions umpires make every game. Umpires need a means of review, just like the rest of us.
The problem lies in how only 13 parks had it last year, raising the suspicion among many players (particularly Curt Schilling, who destroyed one camera in a snit) that umpires called games differently depending on whether they were being watched. Alderson himself cited how the fact that more strikes -- 32 percent to 31.6 -- were called in so-called QuesTec parks, suggesting that those numbers demonstrate the system's effectiveness.
Great -- we're all for more strikes. (Even if the difference last year actually was just one strike per 300-pitch game.) But if the idea is to foster a standard strike zone, you must standardize all you can around it; just as you don't want different umpires having their own strike zones, you don't want the same umpire calling his zone differently one day from the next. Put QuesTec in all 30 parks -- or none at all.
7. Team errors
Pop fly to left-center. Left fielder closes in. Center fielder closes in. Neither calls it. Ball drops. Neither is truly responsible, so no error is charged.
This isn't a huge deal as far as fielding statistics are concerned -- errors on their own are a silly way to judge defense anyway -- but ERA's are affected unnecessarily. A pitcher is protected if one of his teammates screws up; should two of them do so simultaneously, though, tough luck.
This is silly. The official scorer should be able to award a Team Error when blame can not be assigned to one particular player. (This idea has been around since at least Leonard Koppett in the '60s, and probably Henry Chadwick before him.) Statistics exist solely to assign credit and blame for what happens on the field. They do a poor job in this case, and the remedy is a snap.
8. Rework the waiver rules
The waiver rules, baseball's answer to the NFL's quarterback rating, are so complicated that almost no one outside the MLB transaction watchdogs could explain them to you.
They take up more than eight pages of baseball's official rulebook and contain all possible permutations of the words "assignment," "expiration," "withdrawal" and "commencing," with a few "wheretos" and "heretofores" thrown in to leave even the most diligent reader downright flummoxed. You might as well put your apartment lease in a Cuisinart.
There are several different waiver periods, some lasting weeks, some lasting months. There's major league waivers, outright waivers, special waivers and unconditional release waivers. Thought there was something called conditional waivers? Don't ask. (Put it this way - when your girlfriend says she wants to see other people, that's conditional waivers.)
Clubs live in constant fear of tripping over the waiver wire; teams will call up the Commissioner's Office on even the simplest moves to ask, "We're optioning this player to the minor leagues -- any reason we shouldn't do that?"
The spirit of waivers is important -- the rules keep teams from sending players up and down to and from the minors willy-nilly. But they've gotten too complicated for the average executive -- let alone fan -- to comprehend. "I'd say that even 95 to 99 percent of people in the game don't understand them," one GM told me. Baseball has bigger problems, but it would be nice to straighten this one out.
9. Move up trading deadlines
The two existing deadlines -- July 31 without needing waivers and Aug. 31 with waivers required -- have become tremendous news cycles for the game, with everyone debating who should trade whom and why. The problem is that too many teams spend July debating whether they should bail on the season, with two and a half months left, and dump their impending free agents to contenders. A piranha mentality sets in among those contenders as they stalk whatever carcasses they can find.
Moving up both deadlines one month might make more sense. More teams have hope to win in June and will make moves to improve; fewer will euthanize their season early. Pennant races will be fought with more players teams have employed longer, rather than mercenaries picked up only for the stretch drive.
10. Postseason rosters
Have you ever heard of Vidal Candelaria? How about Casey Degroote? Of course you have. They were on the Yankees' 1999 postseason eligibility roster.
OK, so you never got to see those guys in action. The Yankees never expected you to. Candelaria and Degroote were nondescript minor leaguers placed on the postseason roster solely because they were on the disabled list, meaning that they could be replaced at will after the Aug. 31 deadline. (Only players on the active 25-man rosters and disabled lists as of Aug. 31 are eligible for the postseason; however, should one of them be hurt -- even if they already were! -- thereafter, he can be replaced with anyone in the organization.) Given this extra time in 1999, the Yankees later decided to switch in Darryl Strawberry and Clay Bellinger for the postseason. Strawberry went 5-for-15 in the playoffs with two home runs.
The Angels used this loophole with spectacular results in 2002, when after promoting phenom Francisco Rodriguez in early September they were still able to put him on the postseason roster to replace Steve Green, a pitcher on the disabled list since March 11. Rodriguez dominated through October and helped Anaheim win the World Series.
This fix is easy: The pool of eligible players should be anyone who is on your 25-man roster as of Aug. 31, plus players on the disabled list who a) had major league service that season and b) have a reasonable chance of returning to action (no broken legs or torn rotator cuffs). Should anyone subsequently get hurt, only players who are on the 40-man as of Aug. 31 are eligible to replace them.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.