Baseball is in a (self-perceived) death spiral. 2018 was the 16th straight year that Major League Baseball has broken it’s own record for gross revenue, but a drop in attendance and waning interesting from a younger generation of sports fans has the league up in arms, as it should. The league has issues it must fix if it wants to continue to appeal to a wide range of fans.
The league has tossed around some less-than-popular solutions to these problems. Cutting down the length of games has been in MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s crosshairs. That’s led to suggestions like instituting pitch clocks, or placing a runner on second base at the start of extra innings to avoid marathon games. It was also the driving force behind the new rule limiting the number of mound visits allowed in a game that began in the 2018 season.
With this new rule in place, the average nine-inning MLB game dropped a whole five minutes to three hours and 44 seconds. Call me a cynic, but it’s hard to imagine that those five minutes resulted in the youth having a new love for the game. The fact of the matter is that these new rules aren’t even a Band-Aid on a bullet hole; it’s more like eating one less cheesesteak to counteract heart disease. Baseball’s core issues lie in the marketing of the sport and are too big to solve with little gestures.
Yet, yesterday, MLB proposed returning to a 15-day disabled list and increasing the amount of time that optioned players must spend in the minors before returning to the bigs. This proposal is meant to tackle another issue that has Manfred’s attention: increasing the offense in games. Gone are the days of appreciating pitchers’ duels. Hits sell and the league wants more of them.
Back in 2016, the minimum length of time a player could spend on the DL was dropped from 15 days to 10. Subsequently, disabled list placements rose by 174 from 2016 to 2018. Using this system to their advantage, teams could rotate relief pitchers in and out of the minor leagues to always have fresh arms ready to go. With more relievers coming in to shorten games, pitching began to silence offense.
In 2018, the league batting average was the lowest it had been in 46 years. Strikeouts have been on the rise for years, and last season, total strikeouts surpassed the total number of hits in a season for the first time ever. While a good old fashioned punch-out can excite, MLB sees its rise as a dangerous trend that can have a negative effect on the entertainment value of the sport. Returning to a 15-day DL means teams have fewer high-octane options in the bullpen, forcing starting pitchers to stay in games a bit longer, where they’re statistically proven to give up more runs.
This proposed rule change would be tough on a lot of teams, but especially the Yankees. This team was built to thrive under the current rule. In 2018 and coming into 2019, they have arguably the best bullpen of all time. This offseason, they put together a relief-pitching version of Murderer’s Row, headlined by Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Zach Britton, and Adam Ottavino. Shortening games is their specialty.
On the offensive side of the ball, they fare pretty well. Facing a fresh reliever is universally more difficult than seeing a starting pitcher for the third time in a game, but the Bombers’ bats are potent enough to offset that challenge. A team that broke the league record for home runs in a season isn’t one that has to worry too much about offensive sluggishness. The real concern in New York has been starting pitching.
Even with the re-signing of CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ, and the addition of James Paxton, starting pitching is still the Yankees’ weakest link. At its best, the rotation is fearsome, but there are simply too many what-ifs to feel entirely safe. The veteran Sabathia struggles to stay efficient late in games. Paxton has battled injuries. Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka can teeter between dominant and ineffective. While their starting pitching isn’t exactly a gaping hole in a championship-caliber team, the Yankees will regularly look to shorten games to get to their historic bullpen.
The bigger issue is how the potential rule change affects the pennant race in the American League East. The objective for the Yankees this year is to beat the Red Sox, plain and simple. Their biggest edge in that fight is their bullpen. Boston has a talented lineup, a formidable starting rotation, and a poor bullpen. New York can certainly match them offensively, but it was their relief corps that had the ability to negate Boston’s premier rotation. Returning to the 15-day DL won’t at all destroy the Yankees, but it would put a little more pressure on their starters to stay healthy, and would hurt their bullpen’s flexibility.
If the league wants to fix its issues, it needs to start by identifying the right ones. Democratizing content and learning to successfully market the sport year-round as leagues like the NBA do would be a step in the right direction. As much as they may fight for these little changes to the functionality of the sport, raising the league batting average a few points or shaving a couple of minutes off a three-hour game isn’t going to make a difference. There are realistic ways to address this problem. Just please don’t make the Yankee bullpen suffer.