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?




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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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Ben
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Ben
4 years 7 months 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.

Everett
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Everett
4 years 7 months ago

Little League has a rule like this where you can do it once per inning with a player on the bench.

AK7007
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AK7007
4 years 7 months ago

Its an excellent rule, the courtesy runner. I remember managing to steal 40+ bases without being caught in a 10 game season since I was basically just a courtesy runner – kids can’t throw at that age, and it gives little fast kids with no hand-eye coordination a way to play.

MikeS
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MikeS
4 years 7 months ago

First of all, this already sort of exists. If a player is injured on a settled play like a home run or ground rule double and can not complete the task of running then he may be substituted for. Near as I can tell, it last happened in 9/4/2005 when Gabe Kapler ruptured an achilles rounding second on a homer by Tony Graffanino that Kapler was running hard on since he thought it was going to stay in the park. Graffanino stopped at second and waited for Kapler to be carted off so he didn’t pass him, then Alejandro Machado completed the running for Kapler and Graffanino scored behind him. It is a little different since Kapler couldn’t have returned, even if able.

Second, didn’t Babe Ruth have a designated runner at the end of his career or is that an urban legend?

MikeS
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MikeS
4 years 7 months ago

Actually, retrosheet has a good page of players that were lifted for “courtesy runners” and returned to the game later.

http://retrosheet.org/courtesy.htm

Newsense
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Newsense
4 years 7 months ago

One drawback of a DR is that he wouldn’t be available for defense. Defense correlates better with baserunning ability than hitting ability. So it makes more sense to turn this around: Allow a second DH for a position player and allow the position player to run the bases when his DH reaches base.

dustygator
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dustygator
4 years 7 months ago

You wouldn’t necessarily even want the designated runner to sub for a hulking slugger. Imagine a team pulling the Veeck routine with a midget hitter who could get on base at close to a 1.000 clip and then replace him with a world-class sprinter.

Snowblind
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Snowblind
4 years 7 months ago

If your team is talented and healthy enough that you can blow a 25th roster spot on employing an Olympic sprinter, then you probably don’t need the marginal upgrade from a designated runner in the first place.

Doubly so if your team is solid enough that it’s an AL team and you’re essentially blowing two roster spots to cobble together one good player (one spot for a full time DH who hits well but runs like ass, and one full time DR who can’t hit or field but runs crazy fast).

Or put another way, the marginal benefit of a DR would likely always be outweighed by the contributions of your utility infielder, 3rd catcher or extra bullpen arm. (Measure said contributions by WAR or whatever your fave methods are.)

AK7007
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AK7007
4 years 7 months ago

What if your DR was your utility infielder, and you could enter him into the game to field later in exchange for losing the runner?

Dave S
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Dave S
4 years 7 months ago

Would like to see this implemented for catchers (when catcher is on base), and there are two outs. Let any available bench player/pitcher sub as runner. The courtesy runner does NOT loose eligibilty for the remainder of the game.

I’d want to see a time limit. Call a time out, and you have 10-20 seconds to get the exchange done.

Then we’re not waiting around to start the next inning while the catcher is busy donning his equipment.

Nate
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Nate
4 years 7 months ago

We have this rule in my adult baseball league.

reillocity
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reillocity
4 years 7 months ago

For the pace of play issue, I’d rather that MLB allow the team’s other catcher (even if he’s already been used earlier in the game) to catch the first batter’s plate appearance of the next half inning, IF the in-the-game catcher was either batting or baserunning when the last out or was made. That’s more preserving of the spirit of the game than allowing a courtesy runner for the lumbering catcher. Having the other guy in as catcher for only the leadoff batter a few times per week shouldn’t make much of a difference in terms of game outcomes; you can’t steal first base.

Dan in Philly
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Dan in Philly
4 years 7 months ago

Speed on the basepaths slows down the game, and only encourages more and more specialization in a game which was originally meant for athletic generalists. I’m sure some managers would waste a spot on a rabbit (as this notion was once called) but most wouldn’t bother in all probability. Only in late innings would it make any sense to use him, and they can do that already as Boston did in their famous comeback against the Yanks a few years ago.

Overall, I am in favor of fewer rules which allow greater specialization of players, and letting all people who play baseball have to play all of baseball, with the only specialization coming from defensive value. Pretty much national league baseball, actually. If I were to suggest rule changes, it might be a limit on the number of pitching changes per inning (the LaRussa rule) to 1, other than for injury. That would end LOOGYs forever, and allow managers to carry fewer pitchers and more hitters on the bench.

Chad
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Chad
4 years 7 months ago

Wouldn’t work. Pitchers would fake injuries to get around the rule.

Bill Mills
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Bill Mills
4 years 7 months ago

Baseball is a great game. Its simple and yet generates great delight in both playing and watching.

At its highest level, in this fan’s opinion, it should just be nine guys versus nine guys (substitute as you feel necessary) and the athletes that in the game play all aspects of the game.

Obviously I am not a DH fan and would dislike a DR. Of course I would also like to see the NFL reduce team sizes and limit substitutions. When they went to designated “pass rushing” defensive tackles they lost me.

Ender
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Ender
4 years 7 months ago

I think the DH is incredibly important because major league positional players can’t hit if they don’t get regular playing time, it is impossible to expect pitchers to be able to. Hitting is a game of repetition and they just don’t get enough, this in turn makes it very unsafe for them to be hitting. At least a dozen pitchers get hurt every year hitting or running the bases and it is a huge disadvantages to the NL.

I don’t buy any of that for designated runners though, I don’t like it.

Uncle Remus
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Uncle Remus
4 years 7 months ago

Can I suggest lifting the ban on PED’s for the next RCF?

Llewdor
Member
Llewdor
4 years 7 months ago

Baseball is changing too much already. I object to interleague play. I object to divisions. I object to the recent change to the legal size of bats. I object to the restriction of bats to those produced by licensed manufacturers.

Baseball works. There’s no reason to change the rules.

NJ
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NJ
4 years 7 months ago

Sorry, but why do you object to interleague play?

I admit I dislike the super-super-specialization, already seen in NFL, and ideas like DH (especially when restricted to one league only!!) is baffling, but honestly, I think the way MLB is structured is one of the best in pro-sports, and it is only going to get better with more interleague play + another wild card spot.

Genuinely asking for drawbacks, most of my friends + colleagues are excited to see more and more exotic matchups, and the only real drawback is perhaps dilution of some rivalries.

Keystone Heavy
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Keystone Heavy
4 years 7 months ago

I had an idea for a rule change once. When a batter is HBP’d, let him throw a live ball into play from the batter’s box, with flyout/forceout rules still in effect.

Barry Zito
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Barry Zito
4 years 7 months ago

That would mean you wouldn’t pitch inside to Rick Ankiel- but you’d be fine throwing it at Johnny Damon and his wet noodle- Johnny Damon would break the single season HBP record.

Sammy
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4 years 7 months ago

Fat guys have a place in baseball for a reason.

gdc
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gdc
4 years 7 months ago

Casual sb games with some non-runners batting usually had the person have to have a hand in contact with the backstop until the ball was hit, but that wouldn’t work on a baseball field.

Candlestick Parker
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Candlestick Parker
4 years 7 months ago

Specialization makes sports less enjoyable. It’s easy to say you’d rather see Michael Bourne on the basepaths than Adam Dunn. But what makes both players interesting is that their greatest strengths have corresponding weaknesses.

If baseball ever devolved into a game where each player was asked to to only the one thing he did best – hit, run, field, pitch, whatever — it would become merely mechanical. And dull.

Todd
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Todd
4 years 7 months ago

This. The beauty of baseball is that it demands so many different things from its participants. It’s all the more special when you find guys who are good at everything, or even just those who contribute particularly well in one facet that their position isn’t normally good at.

Leosteward
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Leosteward
4 years 7 months ago

The short-lived Canadian Baseball League actually had this rule.

Jeff
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Jeff
4 years 7 months ago

The only rule change I would make would be to have the DH in both leagues, but only for the starting pitcher. Once the starter comes out, the DH comes out.

Keeps the big fat slow sluggers in the game longer, keeps the NL game playing in the game.

adohaj
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adohaj
4 years 7 months ago

Why don’t we just have one hitting team and one running and fielding team? I say no, DR changes the game too much. I understand the game needs to evolve but this seams like too much. At least the DH isn’t player specific

Monroe
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Monroe
4 years 7 months ago

Specialization rules like the DH are inherently anti-democratic and innately opposed to the spirit of the game.

SecondHandStore
Member
SecondHandStore
4 years 7 months ago

The only major rule change I can support is an elimination of the DH position. It’s a vestigial position. Baseball doesn’t need it anymore and without it, games are more interesting. A manager actually has to manage. American League, get rid of the DH and play some real baseball. It’s not called the junior league for nothing.

P.S. I know why it’s really called the junior league, chill out.

kick me in the GO NATS
Guest
kick me in the GO NATS
4 years 7 months ago

Seems dull, but if I recall wasn’t Babe Ruth allowed a designated runner in the final season or so of his career.

Slartibartfast
Guest
Slartibartfast
4 years 7 months ago

Doesn’t solve any problems. Why make the change

Jack Morrow
Guest
1 year 5 months ago

I was just looking through an old issue of The Sporting News and found a box score that indicated that the experiment was tried at least once in spring training. On April 5, 1975, in their last game of spring training, the defending World Series champion Oakland Athletics used Don Hopkins and Herb Washington as designated runners for Reggie Jackson. Reggie went 2 for 2 with a home run, 1 run, 3 RBIs. Hopkins is listed under him as a “dr” and scoring a run, and H. Washington is listed under Hopkins as a dr. Oakland lost 11-6 to the Cleveland Indians in 11 innings when Roger Nelson went in to pitch the 11th inning in what turned out to be his last game in an Oakland uniform. He gave up 3 hits, 2 walks, and 7 runs–only 1 earned , because of 3 errors, one of them by Nelson. The A’s came back with 2 in the bottom of the inning on a homer by Billy Williams. I haven’t seen any other box scores with a “dr” listed, and I don’t think these were typos.

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