FanGraphs Readers Weren’t So Keen on Those 2020 Rules Changes

The polls are closed, the results are in, and with no need for a recount after being certified by the firm of Fwar, Dips, Winshares, Gritt, Babip, Pecota, Vorp & Eckstein, they can now be considered official if not actually binding. On Wednesday, I invited FanGraphs readers to weigh in on half a dozen rules that were introduced for 2020 as part of the COVID-19 health and safety protocols but whose status for next year is up in the air and must be negotiated between the players’ union and the owners. The most prominent of those are the universal designated hitter and the expanded playoffs — a pair that might prove to be a bottleneck, since commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners want the players to agree to some form of the latter in exchange for the former — but some of the other ones were an even more radical break from baseball tradition, and they drew very mixed reviews.

Stealing a page from the great Jeff Sullivan, for each of the six rules I asked voters not only whether they were in favor of keeping the rule, but also how much they cared about the issue, on a scale from 1 (very little) to 5 (very much) — call this the passion rating. One purpose in soliciting these answers was to provide some points of comparison with the responses Sullivan received to his February 11th, 2019 poll with respect to the universal DH, the three-batter minimum for pitchers, and the runner-on-second extra innings rule, none of which had been used in MLB at that point and all of which received an audition in 2020. Do people approve of the rules more or less than before? And do they care about those changes more or less than before?

While I’m sure what I’ve done here falls short of actual science — particularly given the fact that for most of the questions, I presented some data that might have an impact upon voters’ choices — I do think the results are interesting enough to share and compare.

1. The universal designated hitter

Question: “Do you think the National League should retain the designated hitter for 2021 and beyond?”

  • Yes: 75.2%
  • No: 24.8%
  • Passion Rating: 3.45

By roughly a three-to-one margin, our readers were in favor of keeping the DH in the NL, the most definitive affirmative result on the entire slate. Not only does the retention of the DH in the NL seem likely to happen once the dust settles — this rule has been in the works for a long time and appeared likely to be adopted as part of the post-2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement — but that approval also represents a 13-point increase from Sullivan’s 2019 poll.

That said, this year’s crowd was far less passionate about the NL DH issue than the previous poll, where the matter averaged a 3.97 rating, the highest of the 10 subjects in question; this time around, it had the third-highest rating out of six. Again, I won’t claim this to be hard science; it could be that we’re comparing the views of very different pools of readers. But I wonder if seeing the DH implemented in the Senior Circuit made people realize it’s less of a big deal than it had long been made out to be (and after yet another season made clear that pitchers weren’t about to suddenly get any better as hitters).

2. The extra-innings rule

Question: “Do you think MLB should retain the extra-innings rule, where every half-inning after the 9th begins with a runner on second base?”

  • Yes: 23.6%
  • No: 76.4%
  • Passion Rating: 3.87

This rule, which has been used in the minor leagues and the World Baseball Classic, among other places, gained a surprising amount of acceptance within the game once people saw it in action. I expected to hate it, but will concede I was entertained, even if I found myself simultaneously annoyed by the imbalance it created in baseball’s eternally reliable system of accounting. How can you charge that reliever with a run allowed, even an unearned one? How does that guy, who didn’t reach base on his own accord, get a run scored? This aggression will not stand!

Despite my reservations, this rule may actually stick around. Via Sportico’s Barry Bloom:

Perhaps surprisingly, the players are interested in continuing this rule because of the stress that’s attributed to playing lengthy extra-inning games “on pitchers’ arms and position players’ legs,” [MLBPA executive director Tony] Clark said.

“…The extra-inning rule had a lot of traction with players, fans and clubs,” Manfred said. “There was a lot of strategy associated with it. It was obviously adopted as a health and safety rule so games wouldn’t go on too long. But I just think it had appeal even to some traditional members of the media.”

Despite such sentiments, our voters stood firm about showing this rule the door. In fact, they rejected it by a much wider margin than in 2019 (64% to 36%). In both cases they were similarly passionate; this time around, moreso about this rule than all but one other.

3. Seven-inning games in doubleheaders

Question: “Do you think MLB should retain the rule allowing for seven-inning games in doubleheaders?”

  • Yes: 32.9%
  • No: 67.1%
  • Passion Rating: 3.29

As with the extra-innings rule, this one is used in the minors, and it’s the rare rule that was adopted in-season, having been put into place on August 1st as a means for helping teams make up COVID-19-related postponements in expeditious fashion. It ended up being used for over 12% of all games, including 22 of the Cardinals’ 58 contests (38%) and 16 of the Phillies’ 60 (27%). Our voters were much less engaged on this one than the extra-innings rule, but they still rejected it by about a two-to-one ratio.

4. A lifting of the restrictions on position players pitching

Question: “Do you think MLB should limit the situations in which position players can pitch?”

  • Yes, they should only be allowed in very lopsided games (leads of 6+ runs) and extra innings: 13.0%
  • Yes, they should only be allowed in very lopsided games (leads of 6+ runs): 4.2%
  • Yes, they should only be allowed in extra innings: 3.3%
  • No: 79.5%
  • Passion Rating: 2.95

On no question were our voters more united than this one, which, to be fair, was enacted in February but then scrapped by Opening Day, which separates it from the other rules here. By a nearly four-to-one ratio, they did not care for MLB sticking its nose into teams’ business when it came to position players pitching, even given the reduced novelty of the tactic via a record total of such instances in 2019 (85) and an even greater frequency in ’20 despite larger rosters (0.57% of all relief appearances, compared to 0.51% in ’19). At the same time, our voters cared less about this rule than any of the others, with nearly 40% recording a 1 or 2 on the passion scale; for no other rule did that combination break 30%.

5. The three-batter minimum rule

Question: “Do you think MLB should retain the three-batter minimum rule for pitchers?”

  • Yes: 53.2%
  • No: 46.8%
  • Passion Rating: 3.15

Adopted in February, apart from the health and safety protocols, this rule did not have its intended effect, in that more relievers per game were used (3.43, compared to 3.41 in 2019) and the average time for nine-inning games grew from 3:05 to 3:07, a record. “If the commissioner is listening, it’s the dumbest rule that we’ve ever put in,” said Phillies manager Joe Girardi last week.

Girardi may be disappointed. Via Bloom, Manfred said, “I see the three-batter rule in a different category… We had planned to adopt that rule and I think about it as part of the status quo landscape. That’s going to stay.”

The rule produced the most even split from among our voters, with results that were almost a reversal of the 2019 voting, when 48% were in favor and 52% opposed. Despite the narrow divide, voters — unlike Girardi — didn’t have particularly strong feelings about it. Just 16.4% scored it as a 5, the lowest of any rule here.

6. The expanded playoff format

Question: “Do you think MLB should retain an expanded playoff format? ”

  • Yes, at a level of 8 teams per league, as in 2020: 5.3%
  • Yes, but at a level of 7 teams per league (best team gets 1st-round bye, other teams play Wild Card Series): 6.0%
  • Yes, but at a level of 6 teams per league (top two teams get 1st-round byes, other teams play Wild Card Series): 27.1%
  • Yes, but leave it at a level of 5 teams per league, with a best-of-three Wild Card Series: 22.8%
  • No, leave it at 5 teams, with a Wild Card Game: 38.8%
  • Passion Rating: 4.19

The expanded playoff format, which wasn’t even introduced until Opening Day, was probably the most controversial of all of the rules changes for 2020, and it certainly generated the most passion among our voters, by a wide margin. A honking 53.2% of the electorate scored this as a 5, and a total of 77.3% as a 4 or 5; just 2.7% had this as a 1.

Unlike the other questions, for this one I offered so many choices that none got a majority, though returning to the five-team format in each league, with a single Wild Card Game, did get a plurality. Combine that response with the one calling for a five-team format and a best-of-three Wild Card Series, and that covers 61.6%. Only about 11% of our voters liked the idea of seven- or eight-team playoff slates from each league — both Manfred and Clark conceded eight was a bridge too far, thank Jesus Alou — but there was considerable support for a six-team format, where the top two teams receive first-round byes and the other four play Wild Card Series.

Here’s how the two elements of the poll look in graphical form. First, the percentage of respondents in favor of maintaining the rule:

I’ve aggregated the responses for the position players pitching and expanded playoff questions, which admittedly in the latter case may be a questionable interpretation of the results; should I read them as a majority of the voters being in favor of expanding playoffs beyond the 2012-19 format, or as a majority being in favor of keeping them at five teams per league, possibly with the tweak of expanding the Wild Card process to a best-of-three? The good news is that either faction comes out to about 61%, so the scale on the graph is the right one. Interpret the Rorschach blot as you will, and remind me to tighten things up if I do another poll.

Here’s the passion rating graph:

The expanded playoff one really does stand out, likely because it has a whole lot more to do with determining a champion than the rest of these. MLB and the players ought to think long and hard about messing with the previous system, as the opportunity to reward mediocrity — and to shift the focus away from the best teams — increases with every additional club joining the Octoberfest.

Thanks to everybody who participated in the poll. Having done this once, I may think about the possibility of putting some potential rule changes in front of our readers, though perhaps not before we get to the crowdsource Hall of Fame balloting, which is just around the corner.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

I was one of the biggest NL purist regarding the DH so I was shocked by how much I liked having it in the NL this year. I definitely hope the DH stays in the NL, it really improved the quality of NL games.

3 years ago
Reply to  defiancy

I am the same way. It was the change that I was most against at the beginning of the year, but it is the change that I don’t mind carrying forward to 2021.

Johnnie T
3 years ago
Reply to  blueboy714

Kudos to you two for being open-minded enough to be willing to consider the other side and change your position. Too many of us get so stubbornly married to one position it becomes rather stupid.

3 years ago
Reply to  defiancy

If you think about it, letting pitchers hit is a lose-lose. Either A) you have the equivalent of an undrafted college hitter stepping to the plate, or B) you remove the pitcher from the game when otherwise he should be out there doing what he does best (that is, pitch). All in the name of “strategy”. Let hitters hit and let pitchers pitch. If you enjoy strategy, enjoy the pitcher-hitter battle. Match up the best vs. the best, and it’s a thrilling game of chess.

3 years ago
Reply to  DBRuns

I quite like the idea of the 3 batter rule as a way to increase strategy – if you’re putting a leftie in against a run of left handed hitters, how have to consider that they could be pinch hit for, and you’re stuck with your reliever. If you’re the other manager, is that the optimal time to use your pinch hitters? As a side effect, it encourages pinch hitting, which encourages a deeper bench, which encourages having fewer pitchers on the roster. Granted, all of these effects might be small, and outweighed by the benefits of rostering those extra relievers.

3 years ago
Reply to  defiancy

For me, I was skeptical of the extra inning baserunner rule. It didn’t take me too long to realize I was actually excited to see extra innings when I was watching games. It actually adds urgency and intrigue, which is what overtime should do. In the before times, I always expected a slog and batters’ approaches more often than not got a lot worse.

3 years ago
Reply to  defiancy

I get why people like it, but watching guys who are really bad at hitting try to hit just isn’t fun. Watching the 8 hitter get walked regularly is almost equally un-fun.

Da Bear
3 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

The same could be said of the prospect of watching weak offensive teams in general: it’s probably more fun to watch the Dodgers’ offense than it is the Rangers’ bats flailing. That doesn’t mean we take only the 30 best sluggers in the league and ship one off to represent every team as the only player who takes all the at-bats for them, just because that might be the “most fun” player to watch.

3 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

On the other hand, watching lousy fielders is a gas, and we wouldn’get get to nearly as much. What would baseball history be without Dick Stuart and Babe Herman stories?

3 years ago
Reply to  defiancy

I was against it until Jimmy Nelson got hurt. Lost potentially multiple years of a 4+ WAR pitcher to a dive to 1B. For a guy that had a whopping 19 hits in 4 years. Every time I think about the 2018 NLCS I just have to assume the Brewers would have won with Nelson taking 2 starts.