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Should Bob Costas be the Next Commissioner?

I’ll admit it: I feel like a trendsetter most of the time.

Usually it’s how I justify to myself my terrible clothing taste, or bad haircut, or lack of interest in Breaking Bad, or why I don’t get invited to many social events.  But this time, my friends, surely this trend will carry on, for at least a year!  And it will all be because of me, or at least I will tell myself that.

So what trend is it that I’ll be initiating today?  I’m going to abjectly speculate on who the next baseball commissioner should be.  And I’m going to do it a year in advance, before you get tired of hearing all of the names mentioned that have no chance at ending up on the 31st floor of 245 Park Ave.   So, without further ado, let’s begin speculation season, shall we?

One of the names surely to draw a lot of attention in the “Commish Search 2k14” (as it will surely be named) is one Robert Q. Costas, known to many as NBC Sports Anchor Bob Costas.  Bob has had a long love affair with baseball, including writing a 197 page manifesto of objective revelations in his year 2000 book, “Fair Ball: A Fan’s Case for Baseball.”  For those that haven’t read it, it’s a fascinating read, even thirteen years after writing.  In it, he proposes numerous ideas, many of which took over a decade to be implemented, such as instant replay in the playoffs (obviously still not fully implemented), daily interleague play to balance the size of each league, and even tweaks to the wild card system to punish teams for not winning their division, a practice that started in 2012.

In addition, as a baseball outsider (and by that I basically mean a non-owner or league official), Bob is able to objectively look at what is holding baseball back from a fan’s perspective, as well as some of the economic challenges.  In the Selig administration, we saw the Brewers, formerly owned by Selig, move to the National League, conveniently bettering the revenue situation of the team, now having a well-traveling rival fan base only 90 miles to the south.  In the Costas administration, the head of the organization would have no indirect benefits from having a team switch locales or leagues.  While this may seem like an outside chance of occurrence, it brings me to my next point.

Bob Costas is well regarded by the league.  Or at least, as a commentator.  In a sport that has so heavily relied on voices, with Vin Scully, Jack Buck, and the like, Bob Costas served as the “voice of a generation” for a short period in the 80s and 90s when NBC had somewhat robust MLB coverage.  Unfortunately now, Costas sits on the fringes of baseball, with a cameo gig at MLB Network, and the center of the NBC Sports lineup, which has not broadcast a Major League Baseball game this century.  His position within the MLB organization (albeit somewhat marginalized on MLB Network) should position him well to take a visible post within the Major League Baseball Executive Suite.

The last item, the “not really an outsider but not really on the inside” element to Bob is surely what will do him in.  The owners will largely want someone who will grow the game’s revenues, which doesn’t necessarily mean “make the sport more enjoyable for the fans.”  The precedent has largely been set, such as the addition of interleague play, which resulted in attendance spikes for the first 5 or so years, but have since returned to pre-interleague levels (outside of a few regional rivalry games).   A short term revenue increase is seen as a valuable addition to the sport, rather than the long term viability of America’s pastime.  This obviously is not a phenomenon unique to baseball, but one with which baseball struggles more than its sporting counterparts.

The only unfortunate thing is for us fans is that the man most suited to resolve those  philosophical struggles is the one most likely to be relegated to covering the appointment of the new Commissioner on the league’s own television network.

Roster and Gameday Strategies for One-Game Playoffs

Previously, I took a look at the benefits of a legally nebulous, but somewhat unlikely nine-man defense. In this piece, we’ll look at a group of other tactics that can be employed in the new one-game Wild Card Round that the MLB has created. This time, we’ll take a more traditional “outside the box” approach, if such a thing is possible.

With the addition of the new playoff round comes the opportunity for roster gaming. Being AL-centric here for a moment, we saw this last year in particular on the AL side. While the other three teams (Cardinals, Braves, Rangers) selected 3 starting pitchers to their Wild Card roster, the Orioles went with only 1, Joe Saunders. Sure, Arrieta, Hunter, Matusz all had starts in the year, but by September they were all in the pen. This freed up some roster room for Buck, which he primarily filled with other relief pitchers.

Now, that’s not the worst idea in the world, but given the uniqueness of the one-game playoff, why not make unique roster decisions?

First, as I mentioned above.  The selection and usage of pitchers seems paramount.  I’m of the opinion that one should almost play the entire game as if it were a game in extra innings.  Limit your pitchers to 2 innings or so, potentially even starting with your closer.  Now, that gets into the mental preparedness issues as to whether or not a closer could appreciate or handle coming into a game in the first inning. However, if he were aware that he is only going to be pitching the first inning, perhaps this may not be as big of an obstacle.

The main benefit to this is that you are able to rest your starters for a potential 5-game series against the best team in the league.  Additional benefits exist in the ability to play matchups, and remove a pitcher who gives up more than a run or two.   I would imagine this would result in selecting mostly (all?) relief pitchers, with an “emergency” starter, similar to how the All-Star Game has worked as of late. I would imagine employing this strategy would lead you to want to carry 11 or 12 pitchers on your roster.  That may limit your options for position players, which brings us up to point two.

Second, depending upon the comfort one has with their team’s starting lineup, the logical roster choice is to select speed.  In a one-game scenario, the likelihood of needing a hot bat to add to the lineup is low, and the value of a stolen base, potentially late in the game, can be incredibly high, as we saw in the 2004 ALCS.  Perhaps the inclusion of an emergency catcher would be a good idea, if you’re one of those who lives in perpetual fear of random foul tips and collisions.

The third and final element is for managers and players to put their ego at the door.  Here we live in the age of the immense infield shift, with the third baseman playing behind second base in some instances.  In a one-game playoff, the correct move is for the player to bunt the ball down the line where no defensive player exists.  Sure, I agree that over the long term of a season, you’re better off with the potential for a double or home run, but given the difference in value of having a player on the bases in one game (plus the potential that for the next at bat, the defensive team would not shift as dramatically) increases the likelihood of success for the team as a whole.  And besides, it even opens up the opportunity for the rare bunt double.   I’m not the first to make this argument, though.  This has existed since at least the 1946 World Series, when Ted Williams was out-dueled by Manager Eddie Dyer of the Cardinals.  For the record, Williams batted .200 that Series, with all of his hits being singles.

Ultimately, this boils down to one thing: small ball is the name of the game.  Even teams full of power hitters can benefit from not having to rely on the long ball to win a ball game, especially one as important as the Wild Card Game.   We only have to look back one year to see an example of a power team’s bats going cold at just the wrong time, with the Rangers, the MLB’s best offense in runs per game, only able to put together one run, while their opponents scored five with only one extra-base hit (and three sacrifices!).

What do FanGraphers think?  What strategies that are not typically employed would be worth the effort in a one-game playoff?

The Nine-Man Defense

(Author’s note: This is the first of a series in nontraditional tactics that may be advantageous in a one-game playoff scenario)

It certainly wouldn’t be earth-shattering for me to tell you about baseball being heaped in tradition.  In fact, to most of us, that’s the appeal.  The tradition. The consistency. The ability to reconnect with old times, making the comparisons between Manny Machado and Brooks Robinson without fear of having to factor in the large changes of the game.  The traditionalists out there, the ones who surely disagree with interleague play, and maybe even the designated hitter, make up a large part of the viewing audience.  Unfortunately for them, this article is probably not for them.

With the way that sports have evolved in the past few years, the future seems to be innovation.  In football, there was the Wildcat Offense, which was only outlasted by the (similarly gimmicky) Spread Offense.  Of course, who can forget New Orleans opting to onside kick to begin the second half of the Super Bowl, something that “common sense” would dictate is a terrible idea?  Meanwhile in hockey, Uwe Krupp, coach of the German national team has decided that when on 5 on 3 power play, he will pull their goalie.  While football and hockey are more prone to innovation, it is surprising that, for the most part, baseball offense and defense is almost exactly the same as it was in 1950.  Or even 1900.  Sure, the traditionalists will cite the Designated Hitter, the rise of the relief pitcher who exists solely to get one out, the Joe Maddon-esque shifting that seems so prevalent.  However, the shifts that we’ve seen have assumed the traditional positioning of defensive elements.

It’s time to change that.

Now, like I have mentioned, what I’m about to propose is extremely radical. The reactions I’ve gotten from people I’ve told is twofold: one group telling me that I’m an idiot and it would never work; the other telling me that I should write a letter to the manager of my favorite MLB team to ensure success in a one-game playoff (likely the best venue for such a suggestion).

It’s simple.  Move the catcher.  For lack of a better name, we’ll call it the nine-man defense.

“What on Earth are you talking about, the catcher can’t move, he’s there to call pitches, position his glove, and of course catch the ball!”

Relax, traditionalists.  I realize the problems.  The passed third strike or fourth ball, the runners on base concerns.  This isn’t about that.

However, we’ve all surely seen the following: fewer than three balls or two strikes, the pitch is in the dirt, skipping past the catcher, and the ball is replaced by the umpire.

Did you see that sequence?  The catcher did nothing.  He sat there, providing marginal defensive benefit, while he could have been occupying valuable defensive space.

“Okay, but the rulebook says that’s how it has to be!”

Not exactly.  The rule book only has a couple of fleeting references to the role of the catcher, surprisingly.  The first is Rule 1.12 which cites that the catcher is allowed to have a different glove than most other positional players and section 1.16 which permits a protective mask.  You’ll note a complete absence of a mention requiring that a catcher be in the catcher’s position for every pitch.  Remove the mask and the glove, and your catcher is just your run of the mill positional player.  The chest protector and knee pads, according to the rules, may remain on.  The second section (rulebook owners or adept googlers, refer to section 4.03) references the requirement that only the catcher is permitted to be positioned in foul territory during an at-bat, and that the catcher must be positioned behind home plate.  However, that does not say that a catcher is a REQUIRED fielder. I’ll leave it up to the Joe Maddons of the world to determine the optimal position of the catcher, my initial suggestion would be to place him near first base, and shift the second baseman to directly behind the bag, while moving the first baseman to the previous position of the second baseman.  Perhaps there would be more value in a fourth outfielder,  that discussion is beyond the scope of this hypothetical discussion.

The 9 man defense, with fewer than 3 balls or 2 strikes and no runners on.


So that’s it.  That’s all the rules have to say about the catcher.  It’s almost silly how few references there are to the role of the catcher in the rulebook.

“Okay, Chris.  I acknowledge that there may be some value to this, but I just have to think there are entirely too many downfalls.”

As I see it, there are quite a few downfalls to the approach.  The balance of trade on these downfalls as compared to the opportunity will be left up  to you.

One: The associated hassle of moving the catcher from “behind the plate” to “in the field” and back (once a third ball or second strike has been thrown, or a baserunner has gotten on base.)  Of course, baseball has had to deal with the complaints about long games, this does absolutely nothing to rectify it.  In fact, every pitch flying to the backstop might frustrate everyone involved.  Which is why it would have to be done in a one-game playoff type scenario (or series deciding game), segueing us perfectly to downside number two.

Two: The rules committee  would come down hard on this loophole after the first application of the nine-man defense.  There’s no getting around this.  This is a nuclear defense.  It’s only to be used in the most critical of situations.  Indeed, even the on-field crew may have difficulty in permitting it, which brings us to point number three.

Three: The poor home-plate umpire is just left behind the plate to have to somehow deal with being directly thrown at with 90-100 MPH pitches.  I feel sorry for the umpires, and this may be why I’ve gotten a less-than-receptive response from the MLB umpires I have contacted. My only remedy to this issue is a simple one: the umpire move to the side…or work on his reflexes.

Four: The defending team is now susceptible to a bunt.  Now, this may seem the case, but with a fifth infielder, the corner players would be able to play a lot closer in on the infield without worrying about range as much.  The additional infielder perhaps discourages the practice of bunting by having true fielders located along the baselines in a position to better field bunts.  In fact, it may make the fielding of bunts simpler without the opportunity for the pitcher to collide with the catcher running out from behind the plate to field a ball.

Five: The relatively minor concerns about pitch selection and positioning.  It may take some time for a pitcher to adjust, given a lifetime of throwing pitches to a target, but it is not unreasonable to think that pitches could be called from the dugout, or even the catcher positioned in the field.  As for targeting, I would hope that is something that the team would address with their pitching staff before implementing such a plan.

That’s it.  For many, even the non-traditionalists, I realize this is a quantum leap in the defensive mentality of baseball teams, normally limited to an infield shift, or the ever-so-rare 5-infielder-2-outfielder-hope-to-keep-the-ball-in-the-infield-to-save-the-game-in-the-ninth defense.  And sure, the rules committee may take exception, but in a one-game playoff, which MLB has tacitly admitted an affinity for (by forcing an annual one-game playoff), this seems like it would certainly cause a buzz about October baseball.  And after all, isn’t that the point?

Okay FanGraphs, what do you guys think?