Rule Change Friday: Designated Runner

By a simple count of singles, walks, and hit by pitches, Paul Konerko was on first base 192 times last season. He attempted two steals, and got caught once. Obviously, not all of those situations had second open or were otherwise good situations for stealing, but it is fair to say that he had more than two good opportunities. In addition, according to UBR, Konerko was about 10 runs below the average runner in terms of taking the extra base, and other “non-steal” base running categories.

Michael Bourn got on first only about 10 more times than Konerko in 2011, but stole 61 bases while only getting caught 14 times. UBR rated him at about 7 runs above average. Overall, Bourn was roughly two wins better than Konerko in general base running last season.

Imagine if Paul Konerko had Bourn’s abilities on the bases. Too bad there is nothing to be done about it. After all, it is not as if the league lets someone else hit for the pitcher, right? Oh, wait… Actually, around the time that the designated hitter rule was proposed and implemented in the American League, a “designated runner” rule was also proposed, although obviously it was never adopted. What if it were adopted now? This is the sort of thing we sometimes on “Rule Change Friday.”

Reminder to the reader: “Rule Change Friday” is meant as a fun exercise in discussion and speculation. While I do think that sometimes baseball gets hung up on the illusion of its traditions being immutable, I do like the game as it is now. It is fun to speculate on this stuff, and perhaps one change at a time would be nice.

[As an aside, when I was thinking about this post, it did occur to me what a shock it would be if all the recent “Rule Change Friday” proposals were adopted at once: a limit to pick-off throws, in-game batting order determination allowing ground rule home runs, and now designated runners. That would be rather insane. When I think about these things, I think about them being implemented individually. Now, back to the matter at hand.]

A “designated runner” rule was suggested in the 1970s by beloved (ahem) Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley. The As famously employed something like a designated runner in the mid-70s, anyway: collegiate All-American sprinter Herb Washington, who got into 105 games in 1974 and 1975, stole 31 bases, got caught 17 times, and had a career total of zero plate appearances. Unless Wikipedia is playing a cruel joke on me, Washington somewhat ironically later owned of multiple McDonald’s franchises.

According to a this blog post Finley proposed something like this:

…the DR would literally be situated just outside the batter’s box, near the hitter with the square wheels. At the crack of the bat, or upon ball four, the DR would set his feet in motion and function as that hitter’s ghost runner for the remainder of that inning, and for every subsequent at-bat.

The author of that post seems to have a rather eye-rolling attitude about the proposal. I do think that having designated runner just outside the box and having the crew officials having to make sure he “left home” at the right time is rather complicated. Maybe it would work, I do not know. But for the sake of argument, let’s simplify things. Let’s propose that the “DR” comes in after the batter has reached base. How would that look?

As I have said before in introducing these discussions, this is an aesthetic rather than a statistical or ethical issue. Right now, most base running metrics put the observed seasonal gap between the best and worse base runners as about two wins each season. If a DR rule was adopted, the baseline averages for each event would change a bit, but that does not really tell us rather or not the rule should be adopted. There would be other technicalities to work out, too. For example, would the same “position-switching” restrictions be placed on the DR as currently are placed on the DH? Those things could also be worked out. After all, they were worked out with respect to the DH.

Whether or not one would favor such a change depends on what one enjoys watching. Some feel that a baseball player should have to participate in all phases of the game, so letting a player get out of running the bases takes away from that aspect. Of course, that same objection applies to the DH, and many people still oppose the DH on those grounds. This is not to say that one could not hold that the DH is okay and the DR is not, or vice-versa — again, how one sees the “beauty of the game” will be the important thing here, not some statistical solution or ethical wisdom.

On the plus side, I think most people would rather watch guys like Dexter Fowler run the bases than guys like Adam Dunn. It would bring a speed element back into the game that some people find appealing, but the potential beneits might go beyond that. After all, it would not only mean that one would get to see a fast guy rather than a slow guy run the bases, it would also mean that slow guys would be at less of a risk to injury. It would be a way of getting more speed into the game while also maybe extending the careers of some players.

Moreover, a DR would allow a wider variety of players to have major league careers. A player like the Royals’ Jarrod Dyson is currently a marginal major leaguer, at best. He is a fantastic athlete, who is an excellent fielder and incredible base runner, but even so, he cannot really hit. Most people would say he is “fun to watch,” but at the current time, most teams can not really utilize such an outfielder, even off of the bench. Players like Dyson would have a better shot if the DR was implemented. Teams would also have to figure out whether a player like Dyson would be better utilized as a fielder or as a runner, if the parallel with the DH is maintained. There would some tough roster choices to be made, but again, tough roster choices have to be made, now, too.

What say you, gentle reader?

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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12 years ago

I’m not, in general, in favor of designated anything. At least a DH is a positional ,not an individual, replacement. All speed no bat guys can continue as pinch runners just as they are today.

I’d sooner be in favor of some sort of conditional re-entry into a game for players that were taken out earlier. Simple substitution happens in a million other sports, and there’s nothing gimmicky about it.