I honestly don’t know what to make of Cleveland right now. As we power through the All-Star Break and the team gets healthier, I’m hopeful they are more the team that won three in a row against the Royals and less the team that lost nine in row before that. My level of certainty on that is … not great.
What I am certain of is that Cleveland could use more José Ramírez in the lineup. But unless they come up with a cloning device, that’s not happening. If MLB were to tweak its rules again, though, it could be possible — and now we’re on to something.
Before I dig into this, I have to address the elephant in the room: Most devoted baseball fans have seen enough rule changes. Seven-inning doubleheaders (especially those ticketed separately), runners on second in extra innings, three-batter minimums for relievers, between-inning substance checks — all of these have raised the ire of most fans. Perhaps you don’t have strong feelings about these, but there is a vocal group of fans that feel very strongly and all I can say to those fans is: Baseball is not done changing.
As the league and the players association continue to march toward a new collective bargaining agreement (and hopefully not a lengthy work stoppage), new measures, such as universal designated hitter, seem inevitable. This is the kind of change that is good for the game because no matter your opinion on the strategy involved in National League ball, pitchers that can hit are the exception and not the rule. And even though all of you reading this love the game as it is, change is necessary to keep the game fresh and to keep more casual fans invested.
This is where my suggestion comes in, a rule change that I think is good for the game, would generate more action, and raise the profile of the league’s stars: Allow managers to swap players in the batting order twice per game.
For an idea of how this would work, imagine Cleveland and Kansas City locked in another tight game. In the bottom of the sixth inning with the score tied 2-2, Ramírez doubles to lead off the inning, but gets stranded in scoring position when Franmil Reyes, Harold Ramirez, and Bobby Bradley fail to deliver a base hit. Luckily Cleveland’s bullpen holds off any threat from the Royals in the top of the seventh, but with the weak part of the lineup coming up it seems like an uphill battle for Cleveland to get a run across against the Royals’ pen. Roberto Pérez softly lines out to start the inning, but then Oscar Mercado hustles out an infield single down the third base line. At this point, rather than hoping for the best with Bradley Zimmer due up, Francona elects to use his first move to swap José Ramírez and Zimmer in the order. You know what happens next (bro), José gets a home run pitch and launches Cleveland into the lead.
In this imaginary scenario, the move paid off and Cleveland swapped a poor offensive player for a great one and profited. But even José only hits a home run in 5% of his plate appearances and the best hitters in baseball will only get a hit full stop one-third of the time, so the risk of a batting order swap not working out for the manager is rather high. This, to me, is why the rule would work so well, it would force new ways of strategic thinking in the game.
In the hypothetical laid out above, Francona used his first batting swap in the seventh inning, switching the third hitter and the ninth. If one of the two hitters after José Ramírez in the seventh got a hit, Zimmer would once again be up and Francona would be forced to make another decision: Is Zimmer’s speed and defense worth keeping him in that spot or do you use your last batting order swap now to try and keep the rally going? Francona could do nothing and pray that two runs is enough or hope that this is one of the two in ten plates appearances in which Zimmer gets a hit. If he opted to go with a pinch hitter he’d be sacrificing centerfield defense, and if he opted to use his last batting order swap he would have no more to use if Kansas City were to come back later.
If I was writing the rule, I’d allow José and Zimmer to swap places again, placing no mandates on one swap per batter or anything like that. In fact, since this rule is all about maximizing the talents of individual players, there shouldn’t be any limitations on using it twice for the same player or even twice in a row. If José smacks a home run with the first swap, why not swap him with the next batter and see if he can hit back-to-back jacks by himself? Baseball is supposed to be fun, and that would be fun.
The ways in which this rule could affect the game are numerous, but the only negative I can think of is that it would change the way we look at records. For instance, if Mike Trout was regularly getting six plate appearances per nine innings, would he be able to match Barry Bonds’ home run record? Perhaps Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak would be in jeopardy as well. But the thing about comparing records between eras is that it was always a flawed exercise. Pitchers today average 93.7 mph on their pitches, which you can bet was not the case 50 or 100 years ago — so who cares about how this might inflate stats for stars who get swapped in the lineup frequently.
This rule change has a chance to increase offense throughout the league and, more importantly, it would give fans more opportunities to see stars in big situations. This is not going to make Fernando Tatis Jr. as impactful on a Padres’ game as Giannis Antetokounmpo is on a Milwaukee Bucks’ game, but it brings things a little closer, and that would be a win for baseball.
I don’t know what rule changes baseball will implement in the future, and I doubt Rob Manfred or Tony Clark are reading this article, but I firmly believe this would make baseball better. And if it gets implemented I will start the petition for a replay of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series with this rule in effect.