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Universal DH, Limited Shifts and Other New Rules Could Move MLB Backward and Forward

Zachary D. RymerJuly 15, 2021

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Buckle up, folks, because Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred is talking about changing baseball's rules again.

As reported by Mark Feinsand of MLB.com, Manfred had a session with the Baseball Writers' Association of America on Tuesday in which he suggested that the 2021 season could be the last for two rules implemented in 2020 for pandemic purposes: seven-inning doubleheaders and an automatic runner on second base in extra-inning games.

What's more, Manfred also opined that it would be a "non-radical change" if the National League started using the designated hitter permanently in 2022. He also pushed the possibility of regulating defensive shifts so that teams must have two infielders on either side of second base.

"What does that do?” Manfred said. “It makes the game look like what it looked like when I was 12 years old. It's not change; it's kind of restoration, right?"

Because it often seems like Manfred has never met a possible rule change he didn't like, it's perhaps notable that he didn't wax about any other potential new rules on Tuesday. For instance, he said nothing about an automated strike zone or a pitch clock.

There's nonetheless a lot to unpack about what he did say. So starting with the universal DH, let's get to it.

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Universal DH: Yay!

Pitchers hitting for themselves can be fun and is occasionally just plain awesome. This is worth saying not only because it's true, but also because it's an excuse to play Daniel Camarena's grand slam off Max Scherzer again: 

San Diego Padres @Padres

This isn't just a grand slam.<br><br>And it isn't just a grand slam BY A PITCHER.<br><br>It's a grand slam, BY A PITCHER, FOR HIS FIRST CAREER HIT.<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SlamDiego?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SlamDiego</a> <a href="https://t.co/goraKjGanH">pic.twitter.com/goraKjGanH</a>

But after MLB implemented a universal DH for the shortened 2020 season, moments like those have been comically few and far between as pitchers have returned to hitting for themselves in National League parks in 2021.

Not counting 2020, the .109 batting average that pitchers have this season is the lowest such mark since 1916, which is as far back as Baseball Reference's splits go. The same is also true of pitchers' .142 slugging percentage, which leaves just their .149 on-base percentage as the only triple-slash category in which they aren't trafficking at a record low.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, these are merely the latest stops on longstanding declines:

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference

In retrospect, the 2020 season is a proof of concept that it doesn't have to be this way.

Even though the league-wide batting average fell to .245 from .252 in 2019, the universal DH did succeed in evening out an annual run-scoring discrepancy between the American League and National League that took root the DH's second year of existence in 1974. Whereas NL clubs scored 4.71 runs per game, AL clubs scored only 4.58 per game.

Even as AL teams have held steady in 2021, the discrepancy has unsurprisingly returned as NL teams have sunk to 4.35 runs per game. Though there are certainly other root causes, having to give regular at-bats to hitters who are basically automatic outs is a big one.

It's also not as if pitchers hitting for themselves was widely missed last year. If anything, the opposite was true. National League managers (i.e., Dave Roberts and David Ross) and players (i.e., Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish) alike wanted the universal DH back in 2021.

The reason things went back to the old status quo was because MLB tried to dangle the universal DH as a trade-off for a second successive year of expanded playoffs, which MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark didn't think was fair.

Come the winter, the universal DH will almost certainly be back on the negotiating table as MLB and the MLBPA work to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement. Perhaps there's no guarantee that it will become permanent in 2022, but the success of the universal DH experiment in 2020 and the disastrous return to the old way in 2021 can only help.


Regulating Defensive Shifts: Yay!

Regarding defensive shifts, Manfred insisted that it's not just his inner 12-year-old that wants to see them limited going forward.

“I think front offices in general believe it would have a positive effect on the play of the game," he said, according to Feinsand.

An idea like the one Manfred proposed wouldn't necessarily ban shifts altogether, but it would spell the end of exaggerated alignments in which teams put three infielders on either side of second base if a given hitter is known for a heavy pull tendency. And in context of baseball's current environment, that would be a major, well, shift.

At the outset of the Statcast era in 2015, 76.5 percent of all ground-ball outs went into standardly aligned infields. Suffice it to say that things have changed since then:

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

Shifted infields now account for more than 30 percent of all ground-ball outs, and there have indeed been more ground-ball outs into shifts in 2021 than there were throughout all of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2020.

In other words: it's no accident that the league-wide average on ground balls (.237) is the lowest it's been since 2015.

At least in theory, limiting defensive shifts by requiring two infielders on either side of second base would get that average back up. That, in turn, would be good for the league's overall batting average, which ought to appeal to anyone who's appalled by the historically low .240 average that hitters are currently working on.


Back to 9-Inning Doubleheaders: Yay...?

Before 2020, a doubleheader in which both games lasted seven or fewer innings had happened only once before in September 1912.

There have obviously been a few more since MLB and the MLBPA agreed on seven-inning doubleheaders as a means to keep players healthy amid the pandemic.

Mainly by way of outbreaks that required teams like the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals to put their seasons on hold, there were over 100 abbreviated doubleheaders in 2020. Even as outbreaks have become less common as many players and other on-field personnel have gotten vaccinated, seven-inning doubleheaders still number in the dozens this season.

As to whether this approach has been a success, well, define "success."

To the extent that neither the 2020 season nor the 2021 season has collapsed under the weight of so many unplayed games, then sure. But to the extent that so many seven-inning doubleheaders have kept players healthy, less so. On the contrary, the 2021 season has indeed been a very bad one for injuries.

As a general concept, there's also something that's just off about intentionally shortening doubleheader games. It's one thing if a game gets shortened by accident, a la a sudden rainstorm that stops a game after it's official. But it's another thing to play seven-inning games on purpose with the idea in mind to count them the same as nine-inning games.

Of course, such things may well be academic come 2022. Because if vaccinations within the league continue climbing while virus cases stay well below peak levels outside the league, then MLB may no longer need to take precautions in deference to the pandemic. 

What could keep doubleheaders from reverting back to nine innings in 2022, however, is if both owners and players simply want them.

According to Andy Martino of SNY, there's already some movement in this direction as people on both sides of the fence see continued seven-inning doubleheaders as a "win-win." And if that's the case, no amount of logic or appeals to nostalgia are going to bring back nine-inning doubleheaders.


No More Automatic Runner in Extras: Nay...?

If MLB's implementation of seven-inning doubleheaders was controversial, even more controversial was the new rule that installed an automatic runner at second base at the start of every half-inning in extra-inning games.

On at least one account, however, the rule has had the desired effect.

Whereas over 30 games lasted past the 13th inning in 2019, there were only two such games in 2020 and only two so far in 2021. So even though games are going into extras more often in 2021 (8.9 percent) than in 2019 (8.6 percent), games have been exactly as long on average in the former as they were in the latter: three hours and 10 minutes.

For some, this alone might be a good enough argument for keeping the automatic runner rule around. For anyone who's not convinced, just ask yourself this: Do you really want to bring back conditions that allowed for all-too-frequent five-hour games in prior seasons?

Then again, whether the automatic runner rule is worth keeping is ultimately a matter of taste. If you like that there are instant stakes at the top of every frame in extra innings, you're not wrong. If you think it's gimmicky and leads to anticlimactic endings, you're not wrong either.

As such, there's no point pretending there's a "right" choice for MLB and the MLBPA to make with regard to the automatic runner rule. Whether or not it comes back in 2022, there are going to be a lot of unhappy people.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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