WASHINGTON -- Celebration around the universal DH in 2020 was generated, in part, by the idea bunts would be reduced. They had been declining for years, and pitchers were primarily the ones performing the task, albeit poorly.
No more pitchers hitting meant even less bunts. Fewer wasted plate appearances. A little more variety and a benefit for rosters with depth. It’s one of the new rules in this not-normal year. It is likely to survive in perpetuity.
The league also added a new rule for extra-innings. A runner will start on second from the 10th inning on. Commissioner Rob Manfred once said this rule -- in the minor leagues for the last two years -- was unlikely to be applied in Major League Baseball. Well, here we are, saddled with it in the season of weird.
Here are the nuts and bolts of the rule:
-- The runner placed on second base at the start of each half-inning shall be the player (or a substitute for such player) in the batting order immediately preceding that half-inning’s leadoff hitter. By way of example, if the number five hitter in the batting order is due to lead off the tenth inning, the number four player in the batting order (or a pinch-runner for such player) shall begin the inning on second base.
-- Anyone who comes out for a pinch-runner cannot be put back in.
Most who have reacted to the rule don’t like it. That includes Davey Martinez.
“I’m from the old-school of baseball,” Martinez said. “I get it. I think they are trying to save the pitching. I think we’re carrying 15 pitches. That’s plenty.”
Beyond the roster, this is counter to everything baseball is predicated on. The sport is an engineered prevention of gaining 90 feet. This starts with the pitcher. It extends to every fielder, every strategy in the field and all structure for how and why to move the baseball around the field. Stop the opposition from gaining 90 feet at any point. It’s why shifts and sliders exist.
Yet, this rule automatically grants 180 feet. Your starter just went eight innings, allowed a run, no one scores in the ninth because of more good pitching? Well, here’s a free runner in scoring position for both sides.
We’ll temporarily put aside the awfulness of this rule since it will have to be dealt with in 2020. Managers need to start looking at their personnel. Will they bunt often? Is it strictly matchup dependent? Do you always play for one or more?
“We’ve been tossing different scenarios out there,” Martinez said. “It all depends on who makes the last out, who’s hitting. Things of that nature. We’ve got guys who can drive in runs, based on where we’re at in the lineup, we’ll see.”
Some logical variations for the Nationals could look like this: If Trea Turner makes the final out of the ninth, he would be the guy starting on second. Adam Eaton leads the inning off. Is that an automatic bunt? Given Turner’s speed, Eaton’s proclivity to bunt in general, and Juan Soto looming, it seems the easiest path to a run.
If they are in the middle of the lineup, and Howie Kendrick is the possible runner, Martinez has to decide to lose Kendrick for the game by running for him or try to drive him in. Who was used previously in the game will influence this decision, too.
At the least, the whole thing will be anti-climactic. Everyone receives a leadoff double without throwing a pitch. A bunt and sacrifice fly could drive them in. Sigh.
Hopefully this irregularity will only exist during this irregular season, then sent back to the lower levels, where it belongs.
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