Baseball’s ‘temporary’ changes feel like keepers

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves manager Brian Snitker discusses Sunday, July 26, 2020, the benefits of starting off the season with a series victory in New York.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Saturday, the Braves got their first real taste of the sea change that baseball is undergoing this year. It worked in their favor, so they liked it. When the universe corrects and fortune tilts the other way, we’ll see.

Straight from a softball beer league to an empty Major League ballpark came the new way to do extra innings. Against the Mets Saturday the Braves began the 10th with Adam Duvall already on second, as if he had sneaked onto the field during the commercial break and no one noticed. This was no bit of deceit so brazen that not even the Houston Astros would attempt it. Rather it’s the new rule for extra innings, baseball’s effort to hurry things along before the next wave of coronavirus hits.

It was just the jump-start that the lethargic Braves offense needed, as it ended up scoring three runs in the top of the 10th. The Mets could do nothing with their advantage and went home well beaten.

ExploreBraves' offense explodes in series-clinching win over Mets

Leading off the inning was Dansby Swanson with a single. A day later he was asked who else he may know of who has ever recorded a lead-off RBI single. “I think I’m probably the first person in history, so tell some folks that one day,” he said with a grin.

A few years from now, when we presumably can get together in a tight circle again and shoot the breeze, we will talk about how 2020 was one of the most transformative seasons ever for baseball.

A season riddled with turmoil and uncertainty forced change upon the hidebound lords of baseball. And maybe change isn’t all bad. Behold, the very genetic structure of the game has been altered. And what has been offered as temporary measures surely will find eventual permanence.

The Eiffel Tower was supposed to be only a temporary structure built for a World’s Fair and torn down after 20 years. It still stands, just as will the designated hitter in the National League from here until kingdom come. Like it or not.

The extra-inning rule. The DH in the NL. The new rule compelling relievers to face a minimum three hitters unless finishing out a half-inning. And the changes kept happening right up to first pitch. Just three days ago came the announcement that the playoff pool was going to be expanded from a modest above-ground model to Olympic size. The move had been under discussion for a while but implemented suddenly at the season’s start, as if it was an impulse buy of a Twix at the grocery checkout counter.

This was no small increase, the playoff field expanding from 10 to 16 teams. Baseball hasn’t seen that kind of sudden growth since Barry Bonds showed up looking like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon.

The NFL just increased its playoff field to 14 teams – 44% of the league. And now MLB has joined with the NBA and NHL in seeing to it that more than half its teams get their beaks wet in the postseason. One more step toward everybody receiving a participation trophy at the end of the year.

In the short term, how Braves fans regard this development will depend solely on how it affects them. Self-interest is the narrow prism through which we view every change, right? If the Braves only make this postseason because of the expansion, then it was a brilliant inspiration. But if they win their division again and get suddenly bounced by some .500 pretender that back-doored its way into the postseason, then the whole thing was an affront to the purity of the game.

These changes to baseball have all been billed as temporary concessions to the coronavirus. But think about how difficult it will be to walk them back when “normalcy” returns.

The expanded playoffs: More postseason games, more money. Doesn’t that pretty much sum up the inevitability of this alteration losing temporary status? If that would mean shortening the regular season, so much the better. Maybe not to 60 games, but 154 used to work.

The designated hitter: Imagine both leagues playing by the same rules all the time – what a concept. The players certainly will lobby for a chance to employ more of them, especially the more glove-challenged among the union membership. Perhaps even the staunchest of National League traditionalists will look upon this season and agree that not all tools suit all people. Giving a bat to a pitcher anymore is like putting Beyonce on a backhoe.

The extra inning rule: Already it has gone from puzzling quirk to a strategical intrigue. Saturday, we saw two different ways for the visiting team to approach the gift of a runner on second. Kansas City played small ball, bunting the runner to third and scoring him on a sacrifice fly. And it worked. The Braves swung away. And it worked. And it was interesting in both cases. Other permutations await.

Added Braves manager Brian Snitker, no young reactionary: “If it decreases wear and tear on your bullpens, it may be something we stay with.”

In the future maybe games will be given a few extra innings to sort themselves out the traditional way, but the man-on-second wrinkle will certainly kick in at some point. As with bacon and binge-watching, there is such a thing as too much when it comes to baseball.

The rule limiting situational use of relievers within an inning: That one may get the most push-back, if you listen to Snitker. “We haven’t experienced the three-batter minimum yet through an entire season. I can’t see liking that, even in the short time we’ve had to do it,” he said.

Otherwise, said Snitker on the rule changes: “There are a lot of things through this whole process we might see and find out it’s not that bad after all.”

When we look back on 2020 – after we stop shrieking – we will also recognize that it was a monumental year for altering the looks of baseball. The changes made then out of desperation stuck like a skin graft, even if, shockingly, they may not have always served the Braves needs.

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