What World Series storylines will we get tired of soon?

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Between this Wednesday and a week from Thursday there are going to be between four and seven cool baseball games which will result in one team being crowned world champion. They will win this championship by scoring more runs in more games than their opponent does. After each game we will be able to look back easily and see how and why the winner won and the loser lost, as all of the relevant data will be there for us to see in video, digital, numerical and narrative form.

But seeing what happens and then trying to make something of it is boring! The real fun part of the World Series is to create and/or identify “storylines” and assert that they cause and influence the game action. Sometimes these storylines have the benefit of being relevant, accurate and even prescient. Often they merely serve as blah-blah-blah fodder for baseball’s talking heads and writing hands to use to kill time before and between ballgames.*

So, what are some of the pre-facto, post-facto and beside-the-point-factor stories baseball’s bards will be recounting over the coming days? What are the apparently random and inconsequential events from earlier in the season or earlier in history which, after we see how history unfolds, will be claimed as evidence that history was going to unfold just so?  Here are some possibilities!

  • Hairs vs. Squares

The 1972 World Series famously pitted the mustachioed and long-haired Oakland A’s against the Reds, whose players had haircuts you could set your watch to. It was called the “Hairs vs. Squares” series by some and was seen as some sort of microcosm of the culture at large. Of course because it’s baseball and baseball tends to lag the culture, it was a microcosm which captured a cultural rift that was five or six years old at that point, but that’s neither here nor there.

These days there isn’t some huge cultural rift regarding hairstyles — anything goes, right? — but don’t be surprised if you hear a great deal of talk about how the Red Sox all have crazy beards and the Cardinals are upholders of baseball conservatism. When you hear this, try to forget that (a) beyond the Sox’ beards, there is nothing at all radical about the Red Sox and/or their style of play; and (b) that several members of the Cardinals have beards, even if they aren’t crazy.  Indeed, the whole Cardinals stereotype is based on “unwritten rules” nonsense, not fashion sense or personal style, so best to ignore this phony construct before you think too deeply about it.

  • The Best vs. The Best

This one is far less specious in that it does actually tell us something about baseball. The Cardinals and the Red Sox each have the best record in their respective leagues and thus represent some sort of throwback to the pre-divisional play days in which the two best teams would face each other in the World Series.

As a fan of pre-divisional baseball, I like the idea of the two best teams meeting one another. I will acknowledge, however, as you should too, that simply pitting the best teams against one another is no guarantee of a good World Series.  The last time this happened was 1999, and that was a clunker of a snooze-fest of a matchup for all but partisans of the winning Yankees. Meanwhile, lots of good World Series — including several involving the Cardinals — were humdingers despite featuring less-than-the-best. 2011 went seven games with a wild card winning Cards team. 2002 featured two wild card teams in the Angels and Giants going the distance in pretty dramatic fashion. Neither the Yankees nor the Diamondbacks were the best in their leagues in 2001 yet played one of the best World Series you’ll ever see.

The best vs. the best is fun. But it kinda doesn’t matter either.

  • A Matchup of Storied Franchises

Baseball doesn’t play up its founding franchises like the NHL does — “The Original 16” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Original Six” — but this year’s series is a sepia-tone lover’s wet dream. The Yankees may be baseball’s most storied franchise, but the Cardinals and Red Sox are probably in the top four. As I noted this morning, the Sox and Cards have met in the World Series several times, so you’ll be certain to get a heavy dose of 1946, 1967 and 2004 — as well as all manner of Ted Williams, Bob Gibson and Stan Musial stuff on the side — in the coming days.

All of that will certainly make for some nice sidebar material, but it obviously has no bearing on the 2013 World Series given that, with the exception of David Ortiz and Yadier Molina, none of these guys met in those previous matchups and certainly none of these guys are properly pictured in those sepia tones. Because they’re, like, in their 20s and 30s.

Still: I’d bet my first born that on media day tomorrow and throughout the series, you will hear and see ballplayers being asked what it feels like to be part of a matchup of historic franchises. Because MLB media relations people are sharp, you can bet that these ballplayers will all have semi-good, though certainly canned responses to these questions, all of which give respectful nods to the greats of Cardinals and Red Sox past. As you hear those answers, remember that the hard sliders, ungodly heat and fearsome power of their opponents in the upcoming games is taking up approximately 98.75% of their actual concentration and history means nothing to them at the moment.

  • Worst to First

I don’t think this one will get a ton of play, but be on the lookout for it: the Boston Red Sox, you may not realize, finished in last place in 2012 and now here they are in the big dance. Some may even note that the Cardinals, despite playing in the NLCS last year, had a down year themselves, winning only 88 games. Forget, if and when you hear this, that many of the same people trying to peddle this quasi-underdog thing just got done telling you that this World Series pits The Best vs. The Best.

Either way, it’s kinda hard to even buy into the Red Sox’ worst-to-first thing as anything truly meaningful. Yes 2012 was awful, and the 2011 collapse will be sung about for ages. But prior to 2012 the Sox won 90, 89, 95, 95 and 96 games in their previous five years and are still among the most successful teams in all of baseball over the past 10-15 years. Last year was a function of injuries, some bad leadership and less-than-ideal roster construction, it wasn’t some sort of pit they had found themselves in for anything but the briefest of moments, historically speaking. Yes, give credit to the Sox’ front office for fixing what ailed this club last year, but with 2013’s great year almost in the books, it’s looking less like a classic “worst to first” scenario than it is an “outlier year to first” kind of thing.

Those are the top storylines I can think of at the moment.  I’m sure as the games progress — and as the creative minds of producers and editors ramp up today and tomorrow — we’ll hear some more angles that, however interesting they may seem, are something less than illuminating in a purely baseball sense.

Which is fine, because there’s a lot of downtime between games and sometimes you need weird things like “Jerome Bettis is from Detroit” and “so-and-so and what’s-his-face used to play on the same high school team” or whatever it is we’ll get.  Just don’t mistake the fun for the meaningful. Because all that is meaningful will take place between the lines, not outside of them.

*Note: be sure to catch me on “SportsDash” on the NBC Sports Network at noon eastern weekdays! And don’t forget to read HBT for all of your baseball analysis needs during the World Series!

Major League Baseball limits mound visits, puts off pitch clock until 2019

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Major League Baseball just announced its much awaited pace-of-play initiative for 2018. The big news: no pitch clock, with Rob Manfred deciding, in the words of the league’s press release “to defer the implementation of a pitch timer and a between-batter timer in 2018 in order to provide players with an opportunity to speed up the game without the use of those timers.”

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be changes. In rules changes which were reached with the cooperation of the Players’ Union, teams will now be limited to six non-pitching change mound visits per team per game, and one extra visit if the game goes into extra innings. Also, a new rule is being introduced that is designed to reduce the time required for inning breaks and pitching changes.

The mound visit rule is NOT limited to coach or manager mound visits. It also includes position players, including catchers, visiting the mound to confer about signals and the like. It will not count the normal conversations which take place between plays, such as when a pitcher says something to a fielder as they throw the ball around the horn. It likewise does not include things like a first baseman coming to the mound to clean his spikes off with the pitcher’s gear on the back of the mound. Mound visits to check on injuries will not count either.

While six visits may seem like a lot, it really isn’t once you realize that a pitching coach may go out two or three times in a close game and that a catcher, especially in close games, may come out to talk about signs and things seemingly countless times. Heck, they could re-name this the Jorge Posada or Gary Sanchez rule.

There will be one big exception to the rule, which relates to catchers and pitchers truly being crossed up on signals after they have exhausted mound visits. It reads thusly:

3) Cross-Up in Signs. In the event a team has exhausted its allotment of mound visits in a game (or extra inning) and the home plate umpire determines that the catcher and pitcher did not have a shared understanding of the location or type of pitch that had been signaled by the catcher (otherwise referred to as a “cross-up”), the home plate umpire may, upon request of the catcher, allow the catcher to make a brief mound visit. Any mound visit resulting from a cross-up prior to a team exhausting its allotted number of visits shall count against a team’s total number of allotted mound visits.

This makes sense as a matter of safety, if nothing else, as you don’t want a catcher truly not knowing where a pitch is going. It’s also notable as one of the few rules changes in recent years that actually adds in an umpire’s judgment rather than takes a judgment call away from an umpire. It’ll be worth watching, however, to see how easy a touch umpires are about this. Again: if we have a tense September game between Boston and New York and everyone has used up their mound visits, I wonder if the umps will truly enforce the rule.

The big problem here is that there is nothing in the new rule which talks about the penalty for trying to make a seventh mound visit. To that end:

This is gonna lead, at some point, to a pretty big argument. Should be amazing.

As for innings breaks, There will be a timer that counts down from 2:05 for breaks in locally televised regular season games, from 2:25 for breaks in nationally televised regular season games, and from 2:55 for postseason games. The timer shall start on the last out of an inning for an inning break. 

There are set things the players must be doing at certain points on the clock. To wit:

  • When there are 25 seconds left, the umpire will signal to the pitcher to complete his last warm-up pitch;
  • When there are 20 seconds left, the batter will be announced and must leave on-deck circle, his walk-up music shall begin, and the pitcher shall complete last warm-up pitch;
  • When the clock gets to zero, the pitcher must begin his motion for his first pitch of the inning.

There will be “special circumstance” exceptions, such as when other random things are happening on the field that prevents this, such as in-between inning events going too long or something, and an umpire can determine that a pitcher or batter needs more time for safety purposes.

Enforcement of the clock will be handled by umpires directing players to comply. Players who consistently or flagrantly violate the time limits will be subject to progressive discipline by the league. Put differently, no one is issuing automatic balls or strikes here. It’ll be handled by fines.