Rule Noodling: The Starting Pinch-Hitter

With the offseason upon us, it's the perfect time to sit back and think about baseball from a philosophic standpoint. To separate ourselves from the endless grind of reading boxscores, watching highlights, and feverishly pulling up Mike Trout's Baseball-Reference page before quickly closing our laptops when our significant other walks in the room, making sure to delete our browsing history before anyone thinks us a sexual deviant.

And when one is thinking philosophically about baseball, considering its grand shapes and movements, naturally one begins to question its arcane rules, deconstructing it like a postmodern puzzle, developing new rules that will never get implemented We'll get to one of those in a minute.

Recently, on an episode of the Effectively Wild podcast, Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh were discussing Robinson Cano's free agency and how Jay-Z is trying to position him as a game-changing superstar like those in football and basketball. Which, given baseball's makeup, isn't possible.

On a given day, a player will get around four plate appearances and, if they're a shortstop, touch the ball five or six times. Given the 74 or so plate appearances per game, that means a superstar shortstop is involved in maybe 14% of the action. An average right fielder is probably closer to 9%. Compare that to Lebron James who is involved in approximately 135% of the Heat's plays and that's practically nothing. (Or, more accurately, roughly 30% for most NBA stars.)

Which, yes, is part of what makes baseball great. That one player really can't take over the game. That while the game is made up of endless one-on-one matchups, it still requires an entire team to win.

Still, the average age of a baseball fan is continuing to climb. While no one should worry too much about TV ratings, media segmentation making them nearly meaningless, baseball's future as a major sport could be in danger if every MLB.tv subscriber is logging in from a nursing home. With baseball's average viewer 53.4 years old, twelve years older than the average basketball fan, MLB is desperate for something to bring in younger, hipper viewers, viewers with cool catch phrases and backwards hats or whatnot. 

There's no simple fix. It's unlikely that the MTV2 show helmed by Andrew McCutchen and David Ortiz will solve the problem. And while baseball's pace could be quickened if pitchers were forced to pitch the ball within 12 seconds as the rules dictate, there's not a whole lot that can be done if young fans would prefer to watch football. (And, as a tangent, football is made up of 5 second plays followed by 30 seconds of guys standing in a circle and then having one guy yell some stuff on repeat. So it's not non-stop action, either.) 

But I do have one idea that would make superstars stand out more and ensure that the best players come up in the big situations. Basically, it's a "Starting Pinch Hitter." Once per game, a manager can, at any time, choose any player to bat. It only happens once, the order isn't effected afterwards, and no players are taken out of the game.

Basically, imagine, you're the Tigers and you have a runner on second in the bottom of the ninth and Don Kelly is coming up, batting eighth. There's little chance you're going to get back around to Miguel Cabrera with the game still on the line. You could choose to take a pinch-hitter off the bench, or, with this new rule, you could insert Miguel Cabrera and let him take a hack. Afterwards, Don Kelly stays in the game and bats in his regular position and Cabrera continues to bat in his normal position for as long as the game lasts.

Or, imagine it's the first inning and the Pirates are facing Clayton Kershaw, somehow loading the bases with two outs. Clint Hurdle could decide that is their best chance to win the game and have Andrew McCutchen come back out to bat instead of Jordy Mercer.

Now, there remains a question of whether you can "pinch-hit" with a player if he's on the bases. At first, I was going to say no, that's absurd, you couldn't have Chris Davis bat in his normal position, get on base, and then use your "Starting Pinch Hitter" and bring him back to the plate, a pinch-runner in his place. But then I thought, why not? I mean, we're already playing with the very fabric of the game, what's stopping us? 

In this situation, the batter that Davis is being substituted for takes over running the bases for him and Davis gets another chance to hit. Besides giving the offense a variety of ways of getting their best hitter to the plate, it also means that pitchers could no longer intentionally walk sluggers in close situations without risking that the manager would just call him back to the plate for another go. While the intentional walk may be the right strategic move, as a fan it's always frustrating to see. Killing it off would bring me great joy. 

While this would benefit teams with one big superstar (like the Tigers) over teams that are more balanced (Cardinals), it probably wouldn't upset the competitive balance too much. While there would certainly be some 'stolen' victories, I can't imagine more than a handful of games per season actually being won this way. But it would give a reason to gather around the TV, the star players being ensured of getting at-bats in key moments, something the other sports are able to market around. With the possibility of more late-game comebacks, there would also be the bonus of ratings spikes, ensuring that the big TV money keeps on rolling in.

I love baseball the way it is and the more Don Kelly at-bats the better. But if the sport feels it needs to do something to bring in younger viewers and better emphasis the true stars of the sport, it's at least an interesting thought exercise.

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