MLB Rule Changes and the Dynasty Baseball Landscape
As Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark have reported, both Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Player’s Association have submitted proposals for significant rule changes. The proposals address everything from punishing tanking teams to implementing the universal DH. Additionally, as Stark reports, a proposed committee would study the effects of even more potential changes throughout the 2019 season.
There’s a lot in play. While we may not see any of these rule changes being enacted before the next Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2021, the proposed changes strongly suggest that baseball will look quite different in the next two-to-five seasons. Dynasty owners should prepare for the inevitable.
Any change to the real game’s rules will affect fantasy baseball and dynasty leagues in particular. Rule changes like those currently proposed would transform the landscape where we have built our own organizations. And because we build our dynasty squads to compete year after year, our understanding of how that landscape might be altered in the near future is critical. My goal is to examine the rule changes and their motivations, assess the likelihood of each proposed change becoming a reality and predict how each change’s fallout might impact your dynasty league roster.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement
Before moving further, it will be important to understand a bit more about how the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) works in regards to changing established rules. The CBA was agreed upon at the end of 2016 and will terminate in 2021. Until that time, both the MLB and MLBPA are allowed to propose new rules, but no proposed rule will be enacted until each proposed change is negotiated and agreed to by both sides.
The proposed changes being reported by Rosenthal and Stark would be considered midterm proposals. Midterm proposals are rules proposed in the midst of an agreed-upon CBA. All proposed changes must be submitted to the other side, then negotiated, and the terms for a new rule must agreed-upon by both sides. If a proposed rule is agreed upon, it will then become a rule. The use of Instant Replay in baseball is but one example of a midterm proposal being enacted via this process.
Now that we understand how a rule can be changed, let’s take a look at the sides involved in the process.
Sides, Motives, and Proposed Changes
There are two sides involved in the process: Major League Baseball, and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association. Let’s identify the general motives for each side:
|Major League Baseball (MLB) wants:||Players’ Association (MLBPA) wants:|
|-Faster Pace of Play||-Less Teams Tanking
|-More Offense||-Less Service-Time Manipulation|
|-More Revenue||-Protect Players’ Financial Interests|
For MLB, all changes must lead to improving the game’s pace of play and increasing offensive fireworks. The hope is that a more exciting game will hook a larger audience and increase revenue. Both goals have been well-documented during the Manfred tenure, and the process for achieving these goals is unstoppably underway. In February of 2018, the league implemented rules “limiting teams to six mound visits without a pitching change per game, and also shortened between-inning breaks and pitching changes.” The MLB now looks to push their impact on the game’s pace and offensive output even further.
Here are the key MLB proposals:
- Rule requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters
- Implement a Study Committee to examine possible changes to mound height and distance
- Rule reducing non-pitching change mound visits from six to four in 2019, and from four to three in 2020
- Rule expanding rosters from 25 to 26 in 2020, with an accompanying reduction from 40 to 28 in September
The MLBPA is proposing changes and approaching the negotiating table as a way to leverage teams into more fairly treating players. As Stark writes, this position is a break from previous years and could “signal that the union is now more open to dramatic changes in the sport than at any point since talks about pace of play, lack of action and on-field entertainment began in 2016.” Players are frustrated by teams being rewarded for tanking, and by teams manipulating player service-time clocks. Both practices are incentivized by current rules, and both practices cost players money. It seems that players would be willing to accept pace of play rule changes if it grants them a more favorable negotiating position to improve free-agency and service-time practices.
Here are the key Players’ Association proposals:
- Rule allowing a universal DH in 2019
- Rule changing the way team’s draft positions are determined; Calls for a split between winning percentage and the procedures baseball uses to determine which clubs receive revenue sharing.
- Rule awarding extra draft picks to revenue-sharing recipients that make playoffs
- Rule awarding late-round draft picks to revenue sharing recipients that miss the postseason, but finish with winning record
- Rule which lowers a team’s draft position for failing to reach a specified win total in a certain number of seasons
- Rule requiring all 30 teams to expand rosters to 28 in September
- Rule requiring all teams add 4 minor leaguers to MLB rosters after MiLB playoffs; 4 players would then be declared active or inactive similar to NFL
With the stage set, let’s take a closer look at a three of the most impactful proposals, and investigate how they might impact players in your dynasty league.
Proposed Change #1: Study Committee
Context: As Stark reports, one of the major proposals in play is the formation of a joint committee which would “study whether to move back the mound to help hitters, at a time when pitchers’ velocity has reached levels never before seen in history.” The same committee would study the effects of lowering the mound and decreasing the size of the strike zone. Said committee would distribute their findings to both sides after the 2019 season. Both the MLB and MLBPA, “…then would use the results of that report to determine whether to implement any or all of the recommended changes for the 2020 season.”
No matter what this committee finds, the proposal makes the league’s intentions clear: undo everything teams have been working towards with regards to pitching since 2008 when the strikeout surge first arrived. Since that time, strikeouts have come to ‘plague’ the league. As Stark writes, 2018 experienced “More strikeouts than hits for the first time ever.”
*Pitching stats via baseball-reference.com
The MLB has definitely chosen to view strikeouts as a problem, and are committed doing whatever is necessary to curb a pitcher’s effectiveness rather than suffer death by a few thousand Ks.
Likelihood: I believe it is likely that this Study Committee will be approved. The MLB is already asking for union involvement in the process, so it’s clear that the MLB is willing to deal just to make this Committee a reality. As for the Committee’s Recommendations, i.e. changes to the mound and strike zone? It’s harder to see any tangible changes being agreed upon.
I assume that the MLB is aiming for a mound that is eventually moved back a few inches, and lowered. Both changes would favor hitters and increase offense. I also assume that they will revive their “strike zone begins above the kneecap” proposal. If anything, MLB might revive this argument to leverage their desired changes to the mound’s location and height.
The Players, I believe, will push back across the board. While hitters would love to have a “fairer” shot against pitchers, the MLBPA does represent both parties. It’s hard to see the MLBPA accepting rule changes to the current agreement which could threaten the livelihoods of so many pitchers.
Still, don’t be surprised if we see the MLB fiercely advocating for a mound that sits something like two inches further back, and is maybe two inches lower during the next round of CBA negotiations.
Who Benefits?: Let’s assume that the two sides somehow do agree to move the mound and shrink the strike zone either after 2019, or during the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Then what? Who benefits? As intended, the primary beneficiaries would be hitters.
With extra milliseconds available to read pitches, extreme velocity is countered by the league, and strikeout rates decline for the first time in over a decade. Walk rates climb as hitters continue the push to get on base by any means necessary. Pitcher injuries spike as a struggle to compensate for the new mound’s distance and their own decreased effectiveness. Meanwhile, the flyball revolution continues, and home runs explode beyond 2017 levels as hitters punish pitchers at an all-time rate. Slower throwing pitchers are obliterated. The number of hitters who cross the 30 homer threshold exceeds 45 players for the first time in history in 2021.
I do believe one class of pitcher could benefit nicely from this scenario: pitchers with extreme velocity. Because extreme velocity was the root of this change, it would seem that the best way for teams to negate the change’s effects would be to continue having pitchers throw as hard as possible in hopes of maintaining strong strikeout rates. I think pitchers who possess extreme velocity but have troubles commanding their pitches, i.e. Tyler Glasnow types, would find themselves in even higher demand as the market adjusts to account for the need, and shortage, of extreme velocity arms.
Who Suffers?: As intended, pitchers suffer. It’s very easy to imagine strikeout rates plummeting back to 2008 levels, while walk and home run rates rise a considerable degree. None of those changes bode well for pitchers.
And while every pitcher would suffer after having their mound lowered and moved back, pitchers who rely on pinpoint control but lack much velocity, i.e. Kyle Hendricks and Miles Mikolas types, would be hit the hardest. Their pitches would lose the most ground in the new environment, and their narrow margins for success would be wiped out entirely.
Proposed Change #2: Designated Hitter in Both Leagues
Context: The MLBPA proposed implementing the Designated Hitter into the National League as soon as 2019. The Union appears to be using this proposal to cater to the Commissioner’s demands for more offense, while using it as means of ensuring some of their other demands are met in return. Whether the league takes them up on the offer remains unknown.
Rosenthal quotes Commissioner Manfred, always the baseball traditionalist, as saying the following in response to the player’s DH proposal:
“I think the most likely outcome at this point remains status quo. I think one of the things we need to think about, extinction is a bad word, right? It’s a harsh word. It’s a very final word. If you get rid of the DH in the National League, there is a brand of baseball — the non-DH brand — that is done. Not played anywhere that’s meaningful any longer. I think there’s going to be hesitation with respect to that.”
It seems that Manfred is willing to downplay the positive impact a universal DH would have on baseball’s drooping offensive numbers–which he wants–in order to not let the players push him into a corner about something else. Hence his “I care about baseball’s roots” defense, which feels like a doublespeak, crocodile tears load of baloney.
Likelihood: Despite Manfred’s downplaying, it seems quite likely we will see a universal DH in the near future. Perhaps as soon as 2019, or perhaps after the next CBA. It’s a change whose impact is very desirable for both sides. The league gets increased offensive output, and no pitcher ever has to bat again. Likewise, never again would a fan have to watch a pitcher bat in an important situation. No doubt missing out on moments like this, this and of course this would be devastating to all who love baseball, but those are few and far between–pitchers struck out 47.6% of the time while batting in 2018.
Still, if the league gets the players to bend on one of their demands, it would not surprise me at all to see MLB take up the players’ proposal for the DH in both the American and National League in exchange.
Who Benefits?: Hitters everywhere. Offensive rates would likely rise dramatically in the National League. This move would also add a lot of value to the class of hitters most adversely affected by the free-agent market in recent years: guys like Mike Moustakas, CJ Cron, and Justin Bour. Each player is likely to hit 30 homers while posting an on-base percentage in the .300 to .330 neighborhood, yet none of them have had any luck landing a lucrative or lengthy contract in recent years. Their market could change dramatically if 15 more teams needed to consider bidding for their services.
Who Suffers?: Again, it would be pitchers who suffer. As expected. No longer would National League pitchers get a nearly free out every third inning. Instead, they’d be forced compete against a lineup with actual hitters at every spot in the batting order. Designated Hitters, unlike pitchers, had an OBP of .330 and hit 559 home runs in 2018.
Further, if this change happens in conjunction with the mound changes discussed in the section above, it’s likely that strikeout, walk, and home run rates would be impacted even more dramatically across the league. None of those developments would be good for your dynasty pitching staff.
Proposed Change #3: Changes to Draft Pick Allotment Structure
Context: Players are frustrated by teams tanking. Prolonged rebuilds have become the norm, and some teams appear totally disinclined to ever position themselves for a championship run. This development has occurred alongside an ever-increasing emphasis on acquiring controllable young talent. Even teams without championship aspirations aggressively target controllable talent. And nowhere is more controllable talent available than in the MLB Draft. As a result, draft picks are becoming increasingly valuable.
Right now the worst team in the league by Winning Percentage gets the draft’s top pick. “So,” the players ask, “why should teams who aren’t competing be rewarded for their inept play with the most valuable draft picks?” It’s a legitimate question. Players argue that how a team earns its Winning Percentage–whether by poor luck or by design–should be considered when assigning these valuable picks.
Players are hoping that removing the incentives to fail will encourage teams to spend and compete on a regular basis. Current operational norms–tanking and rebuilding forever–cost free agents money. Fewer teams are willing to pay for a free agent when teams aren’t in a “competitive window.” Fewer teams are also willing to pay for a free agent when they have a top prospect waiting on the farm. As a result, free agents have fewer places to land, and smaller checks to show for their trouble.
Likelihood: It seems extremely unlikely that any changes regarding draft pick allotment will pass. Teams continue to make fortunes by playing cost-controllable talent every night. This works even if the team is losing. And again, the best place a team can acquire more high-upside, controllable talent is in the draft. Why would teams allow anything to threaten their honeypot? More and more, it seems that draft picks are becoming the most valuable assets a team can control. It seems very unlikely that Major League Baseball will discuss drastic changes to the current system like the players have proposed until the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Who Benefits?: Players would benefit across the board in this scenario. More teams competing would mean more teams spending money to become or remain competitive. That would be a great win for players seeking contracts. Again, I think it would be baseball’s ‘middle class’ who would benefit the most from more teams becoming competitive. There would be more money devoted to signing free-agents because teams would have to compete more with one another to win every available talent on the market. Veteran Adam Jones, for example, would likely have many more opportunities to contribute if more teams were looking to compete in the short term.
Another class of player who would benefit would be minor leaguers. Currently, teams are able to hold MLB-ready talent down to gain an extra year of control on the player’s rights. This practice is under fire. Removing lucrative incentives for teams to not compete, i.e. top draft picks, would mean less talent would be ‘kept down’ by clubs. Teams would want to have their best talent on the field to win their Division or Wild Card races, especially if they could receive an extra draft pick just for being competitive.
Finally, players would get to play baseball on a team whose goal is actually winning a World Series. It’s hard to imagine the entire league not benefitting here as well. One would assume that more competitive teams and divisions would increase regional excitement and improve attendance.
Who Suffers?: Tanking teams would suffer because they would be punished for intentionally losing for multiple years in a row. Additionally, if a change like this were to happen tomorrow, it’s likely that every team in the league would suffer. Teams have been structuring their organizations as they have been permitted by the current rules, and no massive operation can adapt to a new philosophy or set of rules overnight. And, finally, while small-market teams might suffer as a result of increased payrolls, I’m not sure it would negate the impact draft pick incentives would make on their overall system and future outlook. That issue does demand more attention.
If you weren’t a believer in TINSTAAPP before, perhaps this is another reason to consider the philosophy. Not only are pitching prospects volatile assets due to health risks and the incredibly difficult nature of pitching, but it is becoming very clear that the league is itching to take drastic measures to neutralize their effectiveness by stacking environmental factors against them. These proposed changes make me more nervous than ever before about targeting pitching prospects in dynasty formats.
The scope of these changes reminds me of NFL rule changes enacted over the past 20 years, i.e. when there arose “A Golden Era of Quarterback Stats.” Does the NFL care about defense? Sure. Do they care more about offense? Yes, and the scope of their rule changes in recent decades makes this abundantly clear. Does that mean that defenses are worthless in the NFL? No. It just makes it harder for defenses to dominate.
I expect the same future for pitchers. Just as quarterbacks and wide-receivers have benefitted from the NFL’s new, offense-oriented rules, so will hitters enjoy the fallout of the baseball’s current direction. Whether these changes happen next year, or after the next CBA, baseball is moving towards big changes. The question, I believe, is not “if” baseball will change the aforementioned rules in favor of hitters, but “when.”
What can you do about all this for your dynasty team today? Just keep an eye on it. And as much as possible trade your cash for gold; pitchers for patient, power hitters. We don’t know what environment a pitcher with an ETA of 2021 or later could be promoted into, but the writing on the wall says it won’t be a friendly one. Plan accordingly.