Changing the Role of Changing the Rules

George Carlin once said, “Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.”

I’m reminded of this quote whenever a new rule change is proposed or implemented in baseball and is largely (and predictably) followed by outrage from outspoken purists. Of course, we all know that rule changes themselves are nothing new; it’s been about a century since the ball was first brought to life and decades since the mound was lowered, both changes that were met with contemporaneous skepticism of their own.

Some of the rule changes being proposed and implemented in the sport today address similar aspects of the game as those of yesteryear, namely, counteracting pitchers’ dominance and steering the sport away from a subsequent three-true-outcomes landscape. But another seeming motivation behind MLB’s tinkering these days is simply to shorten the length of games – a hard sell to those of us who would prefer more baseball to less. Unsurprisingly, what was once generally a skeptical public reception has morphed into one that is much more cynical. But what idealism could that cynicism be masking?

A baseball idealist would likely regard rule changes as a last resort, drastic measures made necessary by desperate times. Perhaps the disconnect between baseball fans and MLB simply comes down to a disagreement about whether or not the current climate constitutes times desperate enough for such drastic measures. Seeing as how MLB has already proven its willingness to toy with these types of changes, though, there seems little point in rehashing the merits of tinkering. And there is potential afforded by an openness to change, potential that has been largely overlooked and is therefore untapped. Given the likelihood that rule changes will continue to be considered and implemented in baseball, it’s my belief that these changes should be viewed by MLB as a mechanism to allow greater access to, and inclusion within, the sport.

Of course, baseball is not the only sport to undergo an evolution marked by rule changes over the course of its history. There are examples in every major professional sport; the advent of the three-pointer in the NBA and the back-pass rule in soccer are just a couple of examples. But a lesser-known instance of a sport altering its rules provides a clear example of how change can create a new pathway to the sport for players previously excluded from it. In 2002, the NCAA added a new position to collegiate volleyball called a libero, a designated defensive specialist who can only play in the back row but is not subject to the same substitution restrictions as other players. If you’ve ever seen a volleyball game and noticed one player on each team wearing a different colored jersey than their teammates, that was the libero. When the rule was implemented, its stated purpose was to “add a new element of excitement to the game, raise the level of play and […] create opportunities for the smaller athlete.” The first two points are fair, but somewhat subjective; the third point, however, is undeniable. In one fell swoop, collegiate volleyball had created space for shorter players in a sport where height is generally at a premium.

What can baseball take away from this? Perhaps the most direct equivalent would be finding a way to create space for defense-first players (some might argue that major-league catchers already fall into that category) in a sport where offense is at a premium. In a landscape largely driven by analytics, it’s still hard to quantify defense as precisely as offense. Many teams are willing to play weaker fielders to get their bats in the lineup, relying on good positioning to paper over the defensive deficiencies. As a result, it can be hard to incentivize a player to improve his defense when his offense is what drives many of the metrics by which he’s being evaluated, similar to how pitchers are not incentivized to improve their batting. But rather than trying to get those players to change their offense-first approaches, the ability to counterbalance a roster with defense-first players could open up opportunities in the sport.

The minor leagues are riddled with players whose defensive abilities are more advanced than their hitting. For many, the hitting will come with time. Until this season, Delvin Perez may have seemed to fit the bill as a defense-only guy, but according to an area scout I spoke to, he’s turned on the offense this year. For the less offensively fortunate, however, the lack of hitting is quite likely to wind up being a barrier for entry into the major leagues.

Buddy Reed is an outfielder in Oakland’s system who was acquired in the Jurickson Profar trade and has always been an intriguing player. In addition to his enviable build and multi-sport background, he boasts 70-grade speed and defensive ability in the outfield, along with a 60 arm; unfortunately, his hitting has yet to inspire much confidence, as he slashed just .288/.310/.388 in his 441 plate appearances at Double-A in 2019, leaving some to question whether his offense will ever catch up to his stellar defense.

That defense cannot be oversold. It earned Reed an invite to 2021 spring training, where he took full advantage of the spotlight to show off his outfield prowess.

He robbed reigning MVPs of home runs:

He nabbed reigning World Series champs from left field:

If excitement is what MLB is after, it’s hard to argue against the defense of Buddy Reed.

And Reed isn’t alone. When I asked Eric Longenhagen which minor leaguers came to mind as defensive standouts whose bats may never catch up, it didn’t take long for him to throw 10 names my way. But as it stands, if Reed and his like are unable to improve their offensive output, their path to the majors is much more difficult to map out, though if fellow defensive stud Dixon Machado’s time in the KBO is any indication, they may find more success abroad.

A few of the recently announced rule changes, such as restrictions on infield shifts, are geared toward increasing balls in play, but may also end up placing a premium on position players with bigger defensive ranges, so it’s not hard to imagine an increased focus naturally being placed on defensive value over time. Beyond allowing more mobility for defense-first players already within the system, placing a more tangible value on defense could surely create inroads to baseball at lower levels, allowing players to more seriously cultivate their defense at a young age, and opening up the possibility for more diverse types of player profiles to emerge. If baseball wanted to expedite the inclusion of new types of defensive specialists in the same way that volleyball did with the libero, what might that look like?

Coming up with a baseball equivalent to the libero is tricky. It’s overly simple to just create a Designated Fielder (DF) – a defensive equivalent to the DH who never bats. On a team that also has a DH, this would simply alleviate another position player from defensive responsibilities, and essentially create a second DH in the lineup. It’s not hard to see the slippery slope. Perhaps a step further would be to tie the DF to the DH in the roster the same way the DH and starting pitcher are paired in the Atlantic League’s proposed “Double Hook” rule. But that seems unlikely to have an impact on many games, and certainly not to the degree that the DH-starter pairing would. The way to most closely mimic the roll of the libero in volleyball might be for the DF to have the ability to substitute for any defensive position at any point in the game, without removing the starting position player from the lineup, but with limits on how many innings the DF could play at any one position.

To be clear, I’m not advocating more rule changes; I can hardly keep up with them as it is, and I tend to find them more cumbersome than curative in terms of their potential impact on baseball. But there are more proverbial birds to be killed if MLB is keen to be so brazen about throwing all of these stones. I’ll admit that my own personal brand of baseball idealism includes the possibility of seeing a woman on a major league roster one day, so maybe there is a bit of bias swaying me towards mining the sport for untapped potential that specifically leads to a broader spectrum of player profiles. Given how clear it is that the league is unafraid to experiment with rule changes, I believe that those efforts would be most worthwhile if they were coupled with more focussed attempts to broaden the diversity within the sport, in whatever ways possible.

Tess is a contributor at FanGraphs. When she's not watching college or professional baseball, she works as a sports video editor, creating highlight reels for high school athletes. She can be found on Twitter at @tesstass.

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1 year ago

Interesting … so maybe, in a post-shift rules universe where defenders are staked to particular zones, designated fielders would be allowed to roam, so that on every play there would be excitement/anticipation about where they were located–will the ball indeed be hit to them?

1 year ago
Reply to  mr_hogg

Yeah, one designated shifter in the IF or OF each batter seems logical.