Why It's Long Overdue for MLB to Change September Roster-Expansion Rules

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 1, 2015

PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 27:  Sam Freeman #71 of the St Louis Cardinals reacts during a pitching change by manager Mike Matheny #22 (R) in the eighth inning of a MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on September 27, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

September is here, and that means two things. First, MLB rosters will expand and a raft of call-ups and newbies will arrive in the big leagues. Second, you'll read articles about how baseball needs to change its September roster-expansion rules.


The idea of giving managers fresh meat in the season's final month makes sense. The 162-game grind is long, winding and arduous, and there isn't a club in either league that couldn't use an injection of new blood.

But the present system is deeply flawed.

Don't ask me; ask Doug Melvin, who spelled it out in 2009 while serving as general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com:

You play 80 percent of your season with even rosters 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. I'd like to find out if there's any other sport that does that at the most important time of the year.

So that's one issuetwo sets of rules in the same sport, within the same season. 

In 2009, Doug Melvin, then the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, voiced his displeasure with MLB's September roster expansions.
In 2009, Doug Melvin, then the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, voiced his displeasure with MLB's September roster expansions.Morry Gash/Associated Press/Associated Press

That, in turn, leads to a second problem. With more players at their disposal, managers crank up the in-game machinations—pitching changes, pinch runners, double switches. And that, unavoidably, slows the game down in an era when MLB is enacting rules to pep up the pace of play.

It's not simply that games played after Sept. 1 feel longer. They often actually are, as AJ Cassavell spelled out at Sports on Earth.

According to data cited by Cassavell, a scant two percent of games played last year between March and August saw a team trot out eight or more pitchers. In September, that figure more than tripled to seven percent, and the number of games that reached or exceeded three hours went up five percent. 

Ponderous contests, unbalanced rules—the problem is undeniable.

But what's the solution? What does common-sense change actually look like?

Not surprisingly, notions abound.

In 2012, Joel Sherman of the New York Post suggested doing away with September call-ups altogether.

On the less extreme end of the spectrum, Cassavell proposed a system wherein managers would cobble together a 22-man roster each day, composed of any players from a pool of up to 40, which is the current expanded-roster cap.

This way, he argued, teams could leave off starting pitchers who've recently thrown and aren't getting into the game anyway and load up on bullpen arms and backup position players. And the roster could be fluid, changing game to game depending on circumstances and matchups. 

Supersized bullpens mean more pitching changes and slower games.
Supersized bullpens mean more pitching changes and slower games.Stephen Brashear/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

It's a creative concept, but it's also needlessly complicated.

The real problem with expanding rosters isn't that they get bigger, but rather that in some cases they get way bigger.

Allowing a club to stuff 40 active players into its clubhouse is overkill. Sure, most teams don't go that far, but many exceed 30. Given the option, why wouldn't they?

So take away the option, and cap rosters right there at 30. Five new recruits at a time is enough to provide an injury cushion and give up-and-comers an MLB audition.

And limiting the number will force teams to be more judicious about whom they call up. Bolster your bullpen with five arms if you want, but you'll be shorthanded elsewhere.

Going from 25- to 30-man rosters doesn't eliminate the imbalance Melvin highlighted, but it helps. Whereas under the current system teams end up with rosters of wildly different sizes, if rosters were capped at 30, it's a safe bet most squads would carry that many or very close to it.

In recent years, MLB has said "yes" to some seismic changes, including increased interleague action, the use of instant replay and the advent of the second wild card. Heck, there's been increasing chatter about bringing the designated hitter to the National League.

This would be a much smaller shift, akin to rearranging the silverware drawer rather than redecorating the house. But it would also be welcome—and long overdue.