No one is too worried about spring training rule changes forced upon baseball by COVID-19 protocols.
Even traditionalists understand the need to audible during a pandemic, and we already went through the drill in 2020, so seven-inning games aren’t a shock to the system.
There aren’t as many players in camp, which means fewer pitchers are available to get teams through the day. And because the outcomes of the games are meaningless, it doesn’t really matter how many innings are played or whether an inning ends early because a pitcher reached his pitch limit.
“It just keeps everybody healthy, and coming off such a short season last year, it makes a ton of sense the way they set up the rules,” Chicago Cubs manager David Ross said Tuesday before their home opener at Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz.
But to be fair, MLB probably should change some of its terminology to fit the current structure, beginning with eliminating the word “game.”
I would go with scrimmage, which denotes a simulation of a game. Of course, a “scrimmage” between the Cubs and Kansas City Royals might have to come with reduced ticket prices, so that’s a non-starter for owners.
The biggest rule change is the team option to go from the usual nine innings to as few as five, at least through March 13 — half of the Cactus League season. Naturally the rule is lifted for ESPN broadcasts such as Wednesday’s game between the Cubs and Seattle Mariners, which will be the full nine innings. When there’s commercial time to sell, health and safety are secondary concerns.
Because most of the regulars are out of the lineup after four innings anyway, the only ones really affected by shorter games are the players trying to make the roster and the vendors trying to make a living. Before 2021, some writers I know preferred to leave spring training games by the seventh inning to beat the Phoenix-area rush-hour traffic. Coincidentally, this was known as the Sullivan Rule for some strange reason. Presumably, they’ll now be leaving in the fourth or fifth.
But the new rule that has some purists shaking their heads is the option of ending an inning before there are three outs if a pitcher has thrown 20 pitches. It happened a few times during the White Sox game against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday, including once with Jose Abreu at bat and the bases loaded.
Imagine if they had this rule back on May 17, 1979, when Cubs starter Dennis Lamp lasted one-third of an inning as the Philadelphia Phillies jumped out to a 7-0 lead, only to have Phillies starter Randy Lerch last one-third of an inning as the Cubs scored six in the bottom of the first.
The Phillies won 23-22 in 10 innings, after which shortstop Larry Bowa said: “We all knew it was going to be one of those days. What the heck, the Cubs had a field-goal kicker warming up on the sideline for three innings.”
In Little League they called it the slaughter rule when the game was stopped and everyone went to Dairy Queen. Some in spring training are calling it the mercy rule.
Both of those have negative connotations, however, so better to call it the health-and-safety-related premature removal rule.
Whatever you prefer to call it, managers are generally in favor of the change.
“I think it’s a wise one,” Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa said before Tuesday’s game, pointing to the need to protect the pitchers. “It’s a smart rule, rolling it over. Then you add the five- to seven-inning (rule), and it gives you a chance to get to that date when you play nine and — knock on wood — you’ve been able to keep your pitchers healthy. Otherwise, you risk ‘em.”
But once he saw rallies snuffed out during the game, La Russa said afterward the Sox would avoid “flipping the inning,” as it’s called.
“Fans were excited about what’s going to happen next and then you walk off,” he said. “So I just think fans, there’s no way to explain it to them, and I don’t second-guess anybody that does it, but for our part, we are going to do everything possible to avoid flipping any innings from here to the end of spring.”
In other words, the intent was good but the outcome was hard to stomach, especially for fans who waited so long to see a live game.
“And once we both did it … it’s painful,” La Russa said. “And so it’s more a question of doing right by the fans in my opinion. And I’ve already come in here and shared it with our guys, so we’ll do everything we can to avoid it. Not putting any pressure on any other teams, but we just think we will do everything we can to avoid it.”
Ross said he would’ve pulled Shelby Miller on Monday against the San Diego Padres if he had gotten to 20 pitches with the bases loaded.
“Shelby Miller hasn’t pitched in a competitive atmosphere in over a year,” he said. “This is a sense of a training camp to get ready. Sometimes I think we lose sight of that, and (fans think) it’s about winning and losing. We all love that. We all love to win and compete … but it makes a lot of sense not to have a guy scuffling out there early on that you want to get some looks, to run them up to 30, 35 pitches.”
With all the changes in place, perhaps it’s also time to stop calling it spring training and start using “spring break.”
Palm trees. Sunshine. And everyone gets to leave early.
What else can you ask for?