Saunders: Weighing in on expanded playoffs, three-batter minimum and “California tie-breaker”

Baseball has reached a crossroads. Again.

The coronavirus pandemic forced a 60-game season, which forced major rule changes, which forced fans to take a hard look at our National Pastime.

I’m something of a baseball traditionalist, and a complete romantic, tending to look at the game through the golden tones of the movie “The Natural.” So it’s wise for me to shake myself out of my nostalgic haze and take a hard look at the state of the game — and also remind myself that the game has never been static.

Night games, wild-card playoff teams, free agency, the designated hitter, protective netting, batting helmets, breaking the color barrier. The list of changes goes on and on.

That said, let me weigh in on some of the changes we’ve seen that might stay put.

Expanded playoffs: The number of teams qualifying for the playoffs expanded from 10 to 16 this year. Even before the pandemic, commissioner Rob Manfred advocated for a future expansion to 14 playoff teams.

“I like the idea of, and I’m choosing my words carefully here, an expanded playoff format,” Manfred told The Associated Press last week. “I don’t think we would do 16 like we did this year. I think we do have to be cognizant of making sure that we preserve the importance of our regular season. But I think something beyond the 10 that we were at would be a good change.”

I agree. Increasing the number of postseason teams adds excitement and interest to the long season. However, teams that prove themselves to be superior over the course of 162 games should be rewarded for their sustained excellence.

I like this idea from New York Post columnist Joel Sherman, who proposes a 14-team postseason: “Give the team with the best record in each league a bye not to play in a best-of-three first round. That means teams that can get that perk to avoid the two-of-three dice roll will play hard to the end of the regular season.”

Three-batter minimum: The move was made to reduce the number of relief pitchers used and speed up the game. It hasn’t worked and I think it messes with managers’ strategy. Average game time reached a new high (or is it low?) this season for nine-inning games: 3 hours, 7 minutes.

I’m not a fan of super-agent Scott Boras, but he’s right about this topic.

“Relievers are facing hitters their managers and coaches don’t want them to face,” Boras told Forbes. “Guess what they’re telling them to do? They’re telling them to throw seven or eight pitches instead of two or three. Try to pitch around them. Now all the sudden — look at the lengthy at-bats. It takes more time when they’re doing this than it does to change the pitcher. I don’t think it works.”

“California tie-breaker:” The idea of starting extra innings with a runner at second base seemed contrived and hokey to me, but I grew to like it. It led to instant action and pressure and there were not nearly as many sacrifice bunts as many predicted. Marathon games are not as romantic or exciting as we’ve made them out to be.

That said, playoff games should not include the new rule. If Game 7 goes 15 innings, all the better.

Universal designated hitter: I used to be adamantly opposed to the National League adopting the DH. Now I’m starting to waver. I think the players want it and so do most of the fans. But I still haven’t made up my mind. I’ll let you know when I do.

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