It was Sept. 18, 1977 — four decades ago this month — when Clint Hurdle debuted for the Kansas City Royals, cracking a two-run homer in his first Major League game. Hurdle was 20, a former first-rounder afforded an opportunity to play for the 103-win Royals because the league's roster restrictions, set at 25 players from April to August, loosen to 40 in September.
At that time, Hurdle was living a dream.
Now, count him among the baseball minds opposed to Sept. 1 roster expansion. He's never liked it, Hurdle said two years ago. Not as a manager, anyway. The rule has been hotly debated over the years, with potential tweaks and fixes fired left and right, yet the call-ups will occur again this week like they did last year and the year before and the year before and ...
"Crazy. Horrible. I don't get it," Hurdle said Aug. 29, 2015, shortly before the Pirates summoned a handful of players from Class AAA Indianapolis. "It's the way it's always been. You've heard me say that tradition is a wonderful thing, but it also can be a vision killer. Five months? Here's your rules, go play. Last month? Here, do it this way. Do whatever you want. It's like free play."
Each year, Hurdle, whether steering a winner or a loser, emphasizes this: In the majors, there's one brand of baseball for five months — then there's September. Teams don't often fill all 40 spots on the active roster, but they promote prospects for their first taste of the majors and add players to bolster bullpens, often swelling to double-digit manpower, and to stock benches.
In the most important month of the season, suddenly there's room on the roster for extra pinch-runners, pinch-hitters, defensive specialists and lefty-one-out relievers. It smacks of spring training, in ways. Clubhouses overflow. Bullpens balloon. Substitutions resemble line changes. Yet these games matter. There are simply new pieces added late in a chess match.
"You play 80 percent of your season with even rosters," then-Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin told MLB.com in 2009, "and then all of a sudden, you throw that out. It's like playing three-on-six in basketball or 11-on-18 in football. I don't know of any sport in the world that does it like ours, with this kind of imbalance of rosters."
The impact on pace of play is evident. While the average time of a nine-inning game continues to increase — from 2:51 a decade ago to 2:55 five years ago to 3:05 this year — roster expansion and the options it provides don't help. In 2016, the Pirates' nine-inning games after Sept. 1 were on average 2 minutes, 34 seconds longer than those from April through August.
In 2014, Mike Petriello examined for Fangraphs the effects of September call-ups. Among them, he mined data for non-extra-inning games which lasted at least 3 1/2 hours. The results were unsurprising. Since 2000, no month has had more such games than September.
Hurdle has used roster expansion — "abused it at times," he admitted _ to his advantage. When the 2007 Colorado Rockies were barreling toward the World Series, they won 14 of 15 games to end the season. In a win-or-go-home Game 163, a 9-8 walk-off win in 13 innings over the San Diego Padres, Hurdle deployed 23 players and made nine pitching changes.
The Rockies set a league record Sept. 16, 2015, by using 15 pitchers in a 16-inning win.
On Oct. 4, 2015, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy used 11 pitchers in a 7-3, nine-inning home loss to the Rockies. Bochy outfoxed himself. After Matt Cain threw five innings, Jeremy Affeldt got two outs, Cory Gearrin one, Sergio Romo two, Brett Bochy one, Mike Broadway two and Josh Osich one. After eight innings and seven pitchers, the Giants led, 3-0.
In the ninth, Javier Lopez was yanked after a one-out infield single. Off George Kontos, now with the Pirates, the Rockies sandwiched singles around Corey Dickerson game-tying homer. Kontos and Cody Hall allowed three runs apiece. Yusmeiro Petit secured the last two outs.
Bochy secured a record for most pitchers in a nine-inning game.
Game play also is altered by roster expansion. Over the past decade, offense accelerated in August, bringing the highest run-scoring and homer totals of any month in the season, yet production crashed Sept. 1. Offense declined from 4.429 runs per game in August to 4.338 in September and October, with homers dropping from 1.040 per game to .982. The strikeout rate (7.60) spiked to a season-high after Sept. 1, and the walk rate (3.16) was higher only in April.
Hurdle has long supported the notion of a "taxi squad," as he called it, allowing up to 40 players to reside in the clubhouse but making teams pick a 30-man roster prior to each game. Sure, they'd just kick their four starting pitchers to the curb, he noted, but at least it's a start. Others have recommended a similar solution, but cutting the number of active players to 25.
In the latest round of collective-bargaining negotiations, the player's union backed away from a deal, according to the AP, which would have expanded active rosters from 25 to 26 and lowered the Sept. 1 limit to 28. Union chief Tony Clark said they "lived to talk about it another day." Commissioner Rob Manfred felt they were close but said, "Nothing's done until it's done."
Manfred acknowledged there were mixed opinions on both sides. It's an old rule.
"Maybe we were going too far, too fast," he said.