Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 12: Baseball begins rewriting the rulebook

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 12: Baseball Begins Rewriting the Rulebook 

In some big, obvious ways, baseball didn’t change all that much in the 2010s. There was no expansion. No teams moved cities. Nothing as radical as the realignment of the 1990s took place. There were fewer new stadiums built during the decade than in any decade since the 80s.

But in some less immediately apparent ways baseball changed a lot. Specifically with respect to the rulebook. For decades baseball’s rules had seemed to be burned onto a read-only disc. In the past decade, however, Major League Baseball and the players made some fundamental changes to the way in which the game is played and there appears to be even greater changes on the horizon.

 

Instant Replay

We’ve had instant replay in game broadcasts for decades, and the NFL started futzing around with it a long, long time ago, but its use in baseball games is a shockingly recent phenomenon.

Replay was first used in a game, unofficially, back in 1999, when umpire Frank Pulli consulted a video monitor in the Florida Marlins’ dugout to see if a hit ball was actually a home run. He ended up reversing the on-field call which led to a protest and a ruling from both of the leagues that umpires were NOT to do that again. It’d be almost another decade before baseball would dip its toe back into replay, when Bud Selig introduced it on a limited basis, for home run/foul ball calls only, in 2008.

Which was idiotic, of course, and that idiocy was on no better display than at the dawn of the decade when Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers was robbed of a perfect game when umpire Jim Joyce blew the call at first base on what would’ve been the final out of the game. Everyone watching the game on TV and everyone who took in the countless replays of the highlight in the hours and days which followed the game knew that the call had been woofed. Nothing could be done about it, though, because baseball still had not expanded replay beyond its limited 2008 rule.

Yet it still took four more years for baseball to get its act together.

An expanded replay system was proposed during the 2013 season, tested in the Arizona Fall League that year and approved and implemented before the 2014 campaign. The system was not what I and many others had wanted — baseball gave us a somewhat gimmicky and arbitrary manager challenge system as opposed to one that simply strived to correct missed calls without an element of gamesmanship — but after a few early hiccups people generally got used to it. Since then teams have streamlined their replay operations with dedicated employees reviewing plays in the dugout and telling the manager when and when not to challenge. The delays are still annoying and what is and what is not reviewable if often subject to change and debate, but we’ve seen no Armando Galarraga-level umpire blunders since.

 

The Posey Rule 

Another significant change implemented in time for the 2014 season was a new rule intended to cut down on collisions at home plate. While catchers had been hurt many, many times as a result of home plate collisions, the rule was ultimately inspired by Giants catcher Buster Posey suffering a season-ending broken leg in 2011, leading many to call it “the Posey Rule.”

The basics of the rule made it so that a runner attempting to score could not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher. If the umpire decides that the runner did so for that purpose, the runner is out. Likewise, unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, he cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If in the judgment of the umpire the catcher, without possession of the ball, blocks the pathway of the runner, the runner is safe.

The rule still gives us some collisions, as a ball-possessing catcher can be hit by a plate-seeking runner, but we no longer see runners putting that shoulder down with the intention to level a catcher nor do we see catchers blocking the plate when an infielder is still turning a relay throw from the outfield. Now all of it involves far less talk about guys lowering the boom on each other and far more conversation about intent and vectors to the plate and all of that. Progress, I suppose, even if it’s less exciting to some.

 

The Utley Rule 

Two years later we got another rule named after a player involved in a controversial play but this time it was named after the party who did the injuring rather than the one who received the injury.

During Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers slid into second base in an effort to break up a double play. In doing so he broke the leg of Mets infielder Rubén Tejada. It was a hard slide, to some a dirty slide, but one not unlike which some players had been executing since the advent of the game. Due to the high-profile situation, however, and due to the sort of post-incident chatter and outrage that gets made public in the era of social media, Major League Baseball sought to change the rules an in effort to keep it from happening again.

Rule 6.01 now requires that runners try to make a “bona fide slide” instead of a takeout slide, and they are now required to slide so that they are able to reach or touch the base or at least be able to make a plausible attempt to do so, rather than sliding several feet to the left or right of the bag in the direction of the infielder. The runner is likewise not allowed to change his pathway to the base. As was the case with the Posey Rule, the Utley rule was initially met with some grumbling about the loss of the “tradition” of takeout slides and the diminished importance of the acquired expertise of middle infielders in avoiding them, but it all soon died down.

What no one seemed to want to talk about, though, was how prior to the Utley Rule there was already a rule that spoke to this — Rule 6.05(m) which prohibited base runners from interfering with fielders who were trying to make play —  but which hadn’t been enforced for ages.

 

Intentional Walks Go Away 

A year after the Utley Rule, baseball began to focus its attention on pace-of-play and length of games. Thanks to more pitching changes, commercials, instant replay, mound visits and pitchers and batters generally dawdling, Major League Baseball games had grown longer and longer over the years. Instead of doing anything about those things — really, like MLB is going to eliminate commercials! — the league approved a rule allowing for a dugout signal for an intentional walk, disposing of the need to toss four intentionally-out-of-the-strike-zone pitches.

Whether this has made any difference at all is questionable. Sure, for each IBB you may shave a minute from the game, but in 2016, the year the rule was announced, there were 932 of them across 2,428 games, or an average of one intentional walk every 2.6 games. That didn’t amount to much of a time savings, but it sure as heck gave Rob Manfred the ability to say he was doing something, and never underestimate an executive’s desire to say that.

Other time-savings efforts have been added as well — there’s now a limit on mound visits from catchers and infielders and there are clocks for between inning breaks with periodic threats to add actual pitch clocks the sort of which the minors have had for several years — but the intentional walk rule is the most conspicuous in-game change along these lines yet.

 

More Changes to Come

In 2020 roster size will increase from 25 to 26. Pitchers will be forced to face three batters before a pitching change unless the inning ends before they reach batter number three. More radical changes are being experimented with pursuant to a deal in which Major League Baseball has, basically, paid the independent Atlantic League to be a laboratory in which MLB’s rules scientists can tinker. On the table so far down there has been an automated strike zone and limits on infield shifts. There has even bene discussion about moving back the pitcher’s mound.

And there will likely be more. None, in and of themselves necessarily as radical as, say, moving the pitcher’s mound, but almost all of which would’ve been considered highly controversial or even unthinkable not too terribly long ago when baseball and its rules were considered almost sacrosanct and major rules changes were very few and very far between.

 

PREVIOUS ENTRIES:

No. 13: Baseball Adds a Second Wild Card
No, 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels
No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

 

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.