Sports are a huge part of my life and every sport I watch has changed rules and style of play over the years. For some changes there aren’t any hard and fast points where you can say the switch flipped. For others rule changes prompted the seismic shift in our games.
Watching baseball the past 5 or 6 seasons in particular we’ve seen one of those shifts. Many call it the three true outcomes, the propensity for every at bat to end in a strikeout, walk or homerun. Stealing bases is now something only attempted by the absolute fastest players in the league. A strikeout no longer carries stigma with it. Years ago a 1 for 4 performance with 3 strikeouts and a double would have your coach fielding questions about this guy sticking in the lineup or lacking plate discipline. Today it has almost become a badge of honor for practicing patience by continuing to play the guy knowing eventually that double would come from it.
Growing up, the Steelers would win football games by running the football 50-60 times a game. They would just line up with both sides knowing fully what was coming and happily take the 3.2 yards per carry. In 2005 they rode that and a stifling defense all the way to a Super Bowl Championship. The game has changed. New rules on how the secondary penalties would be called led to the advantage being heavily in favor of the Offense. Bill Cowher once said 3 things can happen when you throw a pass and 2 of them are bad. Well the odds evened as pulling a flag for pass interference became just as prevalent as the other 3 possibilities.
The NHL was victim to the most boring dynasty to ever visit the doorstep of professional sports. The New Jersey Devils instituted the neutral zone trap. It was unstoppable, nobody could break through it and if they did Marty Brodeur was waiting to clean up the scraps. After the league had seen enough and fearing that fans didn’t like watching a skating chess match, the league changed the rules. Eliminating the two line offside pass opened the ice just enough to allow offense to break the trap.
Even since that change hockey has morphed several times. When the Penguins won the cup in 2016 they did so with an extremely light team. Light is what we used to call a club that lacked thumpers, enforcers and power wings. What it came to be called is fast. Speed took over the NHL and in many ways it eclipsed hands. Right when this was happening before our very eyes the West was still firmly in the heavy, bruising era of hockey and the speedy Penguins skated circles around the Sharks.
Back to baseball, we’ve certainly seen rule changes affect the sport. One that goes under the radar is the league enforcing a more consistent strike zone. Back in the era I grew up watching a strike above the belt was just not normal. Sure a pitcher would get a call once in a while but now it’s consistently called.
Baseball’s absolute deference to analytics has created situations I never thought I’d see. On Saturday I watched a World Series game in which the Rays used four outfielders for an entire inning. It worked, as all three Dodger batters willingly flew into the congested outfield for easy outs. Maybe you were like me, wondering why in the world all the batters didn’t even consider altering their approach.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mad at the Rays for taking full advantage of what the game has become just like I won’t be mad when one day a team starts coaching their players to beat it. One day soon a team will see their opponent put all the infield on the right side and the approach will change to punching the ball opposite field. If and when it happens enough at least that one team won’t get shifted, at least not to the extreme degree we’ve seen recently.
If they manage to win more than they lose, other teams will pick up on it and things will start to change. As soon as someone can prove that swinging for the fences every at bat regardless of situation isn’t as productive as going with the pitch and taking what they give you things will change.
All sports are copycat leagues and some bold sumbitch has to be the trail blazer. Mike Sullivan was that in Hockey. The first team to do it in baseball will undoubtedly catch most opponents off guard, and that coach will look like a genius. Most older fans won’t see it that way, they’ll just take it as proof they finally screamed at their TV loud enough that someone heard them.
I’ve heard the takes that the game isn’t entertaining because of how it’s played right now but trust me, when your team wins you won’t care how they do it. In the early 90’s I loved the thunderous hits that Ulf Samuelson delivered for the Penguins and the energy it brought, but when they won the cup in 2016 skating past opponents trying to line them up for the same type of hit, I don’t recall whining that we didn’t have a thumper.
In baseball teams must play to the strengths of their roster. There used to be fast teams that small balled the hell out of you all game long. Murderer’s rows that could take you deep three or four times a game and balanced clubs that could beat you no matter what hole you left them to fight through.
That will come back, but it will take a courageous coach who sees things differently and isn’t afraid to stake his reputation on it. The game doesn’t need to legislate shifts out of the game to have teams cut down on it, no, that’ll come from having it beaten consistently.
Shortening the game has been a focus of this commissioner and it hasn’t really worked. In fact the number actually crept up this season by a few minutes. Games with 28 combined strikeouts will do that. The obvious rule change would be to tell batters once they step in the box there they stay until the at bat is over, but does it really matter? If they trim 20 minutes off the time it takes to play a baseball game are teens suddenly going to line up to watch? My guess is no, but I understand trying to do whatever they can so long as the game doesn’t suffer.
To me, the propensity to induce long at bats and putting the ball in play at all time low percentages probably play more into the length of games than anything. In other words, at some point it will take care of itself.
Change happens all the time, as I’ve said before, if you don’t like how the game is played right now, check back in five years from now and you might like what you see.
The only thing that doesn’t change in life is that things change.