A Rule Change Idea Too Fun for MLB by Darragh McDonald November 18, 2020 If you’re reading this, you are surely a baseball fan, and as such, you’re probably aware that Major League Baseball is putting lots of options on the table when it comes to rule changes to shake up the game and make it more interesting. We’ve already seen the intentional walk become automatic and the limiting of mound visits. MLB also reached an agreement with the Atlantic League to experiment with some other ideas, such as robot umpires, a three-batter minimum for pitchers, starting extra innings with runners on base, moving the mound back, and banning the shift. Some of these ended up being adopted in the majors on a temporary basis for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and may end up getting implemented more permanently, depending on how the upcoming CBA negotiations go. But I have an idea that I think is better than any of these. It’s a small rule change; but it would radically change the game. Too radical even for this change-happy commissioner, I think. And here it is: On a ball in play, a runner who reaches home can decide to continue on to first base and keep running. Now, before I explain why I find this rule change so appealing, let me first get the logistics out of the way. How could it be determined if a player has decided to go to first or not? For this part, it would have to operate the same as a batter running to first base. (To be clear, I don’t think it should be a force play at first base, though it would still be fun if it was.) As I’m sure you know, a runner approaching first base can round the bag and go for second, but can also just sprint past it into shallow right field. If they do sprint through and then decide to bolt for second, they can do so without even returning to first. Here’s a decent illustration from 2016. Kris Bryant overruns the bag because it’s a close play at first. But when the throw gets away, he decides to try for second. In so doing, he is now able to be tagged out. However, sometimes, a player can become eligible to be tagged out even with a slight gesture towards second, leading to fun plays like this: Or this: Also this: So the same sort of discretion would have to be used with a runner at home plate. Similar to a runner approaching first base, most cases are quite obvious. If a runner is on third and the batter hits a double into the gap, the runner could easily round home and advance to first base. On a more borderline play, they can go straight into the dugout or make a move to first, thus making them eligible to be tagged out. If they make a move to first but then safely make it back to home, sort of like Troy Tulowitzki in that last clip, they would simply go back into the dugout as normal. If they are tagged, the run still counts from the first time they touched home, but they’ve now recorded an out for their team. (Of course, if it’s decided that it’s always a force play at first, then these situations wouldn’t happen.) One other quick logistical note: What if a player stays on base long enough that he is still out there when his turn in the order comes up? I think the simplest solution is similar to the extra innings in 2020, where the player whose spot in the order just passed would take the base. For instance, if the leadoff hitter is up to bat, the No. 9 hitter would take his place on base if necessary. Anyway, I hope that’s enough logistics. Let’s get to why this would be fun. First off, as those clips show, there’s potential for occasional wacky plays, which are a big part of why baseball is great. Imagine a guy scoring on a sac fly. As the throw sails over the catcher’s head, the runner takes a few steps towards first, realizes the pitcher was backing up the play, and tries to dive back into home from the first-base side. Whether he’s safe or out, that’s fun. (Again, if it’s a force play at first, these situations are off the table, which I think would be less fun, personally.) Secondly, subtracting context, balls in play are generally more exciting than a home run. A dinger is great when your team is down by three and gets a go-ahead grand slam. But once the ball lands beyond the fence, the outcome is determined. The runner(s) can just jog, the drama is over. And if it’s a dinger that turns a 7-0 game into an 8-0 game, it’s even less interesting. Whereas action on the basepaths, particularly a close play, is almost always fun. A guy trying to score from first on a double with the relay coming in just as he slides into home? That’s fun. Trying to go first-to-third on a single as the right fielder unleashes a laser to gun down the runner? Fun. A runner does some kind of swim move to avoid an out? Fun. Randy Arozarena hit 10 home runs in the postseason this year, but none of them were talked about as much as the last play of Game 4 of the World Series, wherein a Brett Phillips single led to an error in the outfield, Tampa scoring the tying run, Arozarena rounding third, falling down, getting back up and eventually sliding into home after another error, winning the game for the Rays. More runners on base means more action, more plays like this, and more fun. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this has huge implications for strategy, namely making hits that aren’t home runs more valuable. One criticism of the modern game is that clubs (and batters) are too focused on winning via big swings. Many fans, and even announcers, pull their hair out as they watch a batter come up with a huge shift on and then hit right into it, not even trying to take advantage of the massive gap that’s available if he could simply poke the ball the other way. But the reason players and teams are focused on the long ball is because it’s always the best thing available. The rule change I’ve proposed could amend that. For example, let’s say you’ve got no outs and runners on second and third. Under traditional baseball rules, a home run would yield three runs. A triple would yield two runs and a potential third run on third base. That third run has a good chance of coming in to score, but it’s not guaranteed. The home run is still the better outcome, and in both cases, the potential fourth run is at the plate. Under this rule change, however, a triple would yield two runs but would likely result in having the potential third run on third base, a potential fourth run on second and a potential fifth run on first. You could actually put up bigger numbers by continuing to clump hits together as opposed to just hitting home runs. There’s also the potential for exponential rallies, where multiple extra base hits lead to crazy numbers. For example, a leadoff hitter could get aboard and then score three or four times before his second plate appearance. Or if a team is down six or seven runs late in the game, a comeback might not seem so preposterous. A couple of walks and a triple could means two runs in and the bases loaded. Under this new rule, a home run would actually be the “rally killer” that some people strangely claim it is now. This could lead to some teams increasing their valuations of guys who hit lots of doubles, guys who spray the ball, guys with speed, guys who draw walks, etc. And this might lead teams to voluntarily use the shift less, without being legislated into doing so. Maybe teams would try to get more groundball pitchers, because more runners would mean more double-play opportunities. That also means more action (a double play is usually more exciting than a strikeout, right?). I’m sure there would be strategic implications I haven’t even thought of yet. But the bottom line is that this would increase the value of all non-homer offensive output, which should change the analytical calculations and stem the tide of the launch angle revolution, or at least lead teams to diversify or players to consider other approaches. And as a bonus, maybe teams could have a home plate coach who hops out of the dugout mid-play to spin his arms and tell the runner to continue to first. He can’t very well stand behind the plate during the pitch. It’s a crazy idea, and I’m sure traditionalists will hate it. I might even hate it myself. Then again, now that MLB is experimenting with guys being able to go from home to first on a random wild pitch, why not on a double into the gap?