How was your Labor Day? You, hopefully, were off enjoying it and not reading Twitter. If you weren’t, it’s probably a safe guess to say that more likely than not, you don’t follow the official account of the Cincinnati Reds. If so, you may have missed this tweet:
Tomorrow, Reds expected to promote Contreras, Corcino, Elmore, Holmberg, Hoover, Barnhart, Lutz, YRodriguez, Bourgeois, Dennick.
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) September 1, 2014
That’s — deep breath — pitchers Carlos Contreras, Daniel Corcino, David Holmberg, J.J. Hoover, and Ryan Dennick; catcher Tucker Barnhart; infielders Jake Elmore and Donald Lutz; and outfielders Jason Bourgeois and Yorman Rodriguez. When I first saw it, I was sure adding 10 players for the September roster expansion, pushing it to 35 active players –16 pitchers! — with the possibility that Joey Votto may yet return to be No. 36 was a record. After doing some research, it seems that other teams have had 36 players recently, and the Mariners will soon have 17 active pitchers. So while my initial shock is maybe muted a bit after seeing that, the point hasn’t, which is that expanded rosters continue to be ridiculous.
This is barely even baseball. It’s time for this to change.
* * *
It was “time for this to change” years ago, of course. This post won’t be the first to argue this. It probably won’t even be the 50th. You’ve already heard the argument that it’s silly to play the first five months under one set of rules, then the final month, containing some of the most important games, under a completely different set of rules, and it is. This isn’t really about the Reds, but let’s stick with them for a minute. They have 24 games remaining. 16 of them come against Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, the NL Central trio fighting it out in the tightest three-way divisional race in baseball. They won’t make the playoffs; they will play a sizable role in determining who does, and they’ll be doing so with a much larger bench (and therefore, strategy) than they might have otherwise.
It’s generally a good thing that the latest iteration of the MLB schedule attempts to put so many intra-divisional games late in the season, but that just means that so many of these extremely important games are played with wildly over-inflated rosters. Worse, it’s not the same for every team. Tampa Bay, for example, added only three new players, plus brought back David DeJesus from the disabled list. It’s valid to say that there’s no reason that the Rays couldn’t also have activated as many players as anyone else, but that also hardly seems to matter. That there’s even an option for any team to have more active players as their opponent is stunning.
It’s a complaint we see every year, of course. In 2009, Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin came out against it, saying “It’s like a Spring Training game” and “it’s like playing three-on-six in basketball or 11-on-18 in football.” While that’s not entirely accurate — it’s not like one team gets to add a second shortstop and two more outfielders during play — his point is well-taken, and his solution was the same one that everyone has: activate as much of your 40-man roster as you like, but designate a certain amount — say, 30 — for each game.
That’s what Bobby Cox and Terry Francona said in the same article, too. That’s what Clint Hurdle said in 2012. That’s what Terry Collins said, the same year. That’s what Mike Scioscia said three days ago...
“The one idea that I’ve really backed is the idea almost like hockey, when you call up and expand your roster to 37 but every given night you can only dress 30,” the Angels’ manager said. “I think you would lock the roster in as of September 1, those guys would have to dress every day, and then out of the added guys you have five guys that could dress on any given night and I think that would make it a little more equitable for match-ups.”
…which is great. But is it enough?
Remember, really, that this isn’t just about what’s fair and right when it comes to contesting very important baseball games. It’s also about not exacerbating one of the main problems facing the game right now. The biggest talking point about baseball right now, fairly or not, is length of game. There’s a certain beauty to the clock-free nature of baseball, and there are absolutely situations where the hand-wringing about the length of games goes too far, but it’s absolutely a valid question worth discussing.
Of course, “length” and “pace” are not the same thing. An exciting game that goes 3:10 is generally going to be better-received than a boring one that go 2:45. It’s the unnecessary amount of down time between the action that’s the problem for people, and when you think of what drives that, you generally think of two things: pitchers and hitters taking their sweet time between pitches, and the several minutes it takes to get a new pitcher into the game during mid-inning pitching changes.
Now, realize how never-ending September bullpens affect a manager’s ability to pick and choose relievers at will. Since 2000, we’ve seen 790 games that didn’t go into extra innings and saw one team use at least seven pitchers. Guess which month saw the overwhelming majority of them?
Put another way, 57% of all such games this century have come just in September, which for our purposes also includes the rare times it’s happened in regular season play in early October. Each of the eight times a team has used nine or ten pitchers in a normal-length game, it’s happened in September. Certainly, it’s not only due to expanded rosters, because a contending manager in a situation where every game counts is more likely to manage a game like it’s a do-or-die playoff scenario rather than giving a pitcher extended leash, but that hardly explains this overwhelming number. Managers don’t like to sit idle. They make moves because they can, and in September, they can do just that more than ever.
That kills the pace of game, but it also hurts the length of game, too. I looked up all games that went at least 3.5 hours but didn’t go beyond nine innings since 2000, of which there were 1,868. Again, it’s September easily in the lead, though to less of an overwhelming extent, so this will be easier to show with bars rather than a pie:
Really, drawing out these games is happening at the worst possible time. School has started around the country by now, if not several weeks ago. The NFL behemoth gets started this week. College football is already in full swing. Just as baseball is losing the summer window it has to be the only game in town, its rules change to allow a game that too many already think is too slow and too long to become slower and longer, and it comes with the fun side effect of having managerial strategies completely change in the most important games of the year. (Not to mention logistical issues; Buck Showalter said last month that if the Orioles added too many players before heading to Fenway Park, they’d considered dressing in the hotel, rather than the locker room.)
Yet despite the continual complaints from those in and around the game, nothing has changed. In late 2012, there were reports that baseball was finally ready to improve this, with CBS reporting that there was “increasing momentum to change the rules by next season,” for many of the reasons discussed above. Obviously, nothing has happened. No matter what the solution is — either limiting call-ups to a number below the full 40, or having an NFL-style “active/inactive list” declared for each game, or both — it’s hard to see it not being an improvement on the free-for-all we have now. Unlimited roster expansion adds unnecessary time to games, and it takes away from critical pennant stretch matchups.