The best and most important thing about the rule changes announced in Major League Baseball on Thursday is that they were agreed upon by both the league and the MLB Players Association. It is not necessarily encouraging when what should be an obvious tautology is also a highlight, and it is also worth noting that “agreed upon by both the league and the MLB Players Association” isn’t entirely true, here—the players pointedly did not agree to a rule that will take effect in 2020 requiring that every relief pitcher face no fewer than three batters, and commissioner Rob Manfred pushed it through unilaterally. Most of the changes land somewhere between Tweak and Nudge, although given that this is a big world with a lot of baseball fans in it, there is probably someone very excited to see the time between innings go from two minutes and five seconds to two minutes even. Shout out to that dude, you made it, buddy.
For everyone else that cares about baseball, much of this stuff won’t really register. The change that is likeliest to impact the upcoming season involves the elimination of the byzantine trade waivers system in favor of a single uniform trade deadline on July 31. There is a lot of baseball played after July 31, and while the first, non-waiver trade deadline has traditionally been baseball’s busiest, there were still 24 trades made in August last year, against 48 before the July 31 deadline. The most significant deal of the 2017 season, which sent Justin Verlander from Detroit to Houston and triggered his transformation into a merciless and vengeful godhead, was made in August of that year. Even still, this change doesn’t seem likely to change all that much—the deadline will be busier, bailing teams will either trade veterans for 19-year-old rookie ball pitchers named Turf or Kolt a little earlier in the summer or just buy them out in August, and contending teams hit by August injuries may find themselves giving Adam Rosales a lot of at-bats down the stretch. Again, the world is big enough that there are surely people in it incensed or delighted by all this—for instance, it’s likely that Adam Rosales is monitoring it closely—but this is not a tectonic shift.
And the rest of the rule changes barely amount to a jostle. Manfred’s fixation on shortening games continues along its doofy course by lowering the number of mound visits permitted per game from six to five and shaving those few seconds between innings; All-Star voting will expand to include something called All-Star Election Day that I promise never to mention again in any context for the rest of my life; the prize money in All-Star Weekend’s Home Run Derby will expand significantly and the leading vote-getters in All-Star voting will get cash bonuses. In 2020, teams’ active rosters will expand from 25 to 26 with a possible cap on the number of roster spots that can be devoted to pitchers, with a corresponding shrinkage of expanded September rosters from 40 to 28.
More promising in the long run and more interesting more or less by default is the fact that any of this is happening at all. A second consecutive offseason of powerful collusion vibes, weaponized algorithms, executive pettifoggery, and general bad will suggests that the negotiations over the next collective bargaining agreement in 2021 will be unpleasant; pretty much the whole of baseball history suggests this as well. But while both the past and the immediate present make it difficult to be too optimistic about the league’s broader labor situation, these changes and the formation of a joint committee between MLB and the MLBPA to discuss future rule changes are still the result of a productive bit of mid-term bargaining. Two sides that have seemed to be rocketing towards serious conflict, primarily because of the cheapness, pettiness, and self-thwarting brinksmanship of the league’s power elite, somehow still managed to get together in a room and rough out an agreement on a bunch of boring shit that mostly won’t matter enough to be noticeable.
And there is, in that, at least some thin reason for hope. Yes, even the most unrepentant baseball dorkus would have a difficult time summoning a room-temp take on the new rules against position players pitching in games, although if you’d like to try, here you go: starting in 2020, position players will only be permitted to pitch in extra innings or if their team is leading or trailing by seven or more runs unless they have been previously designated by their team as a two-way player which can only be done if those players have pitched 20 innings or appeared in 20 games in which they made three or more plate appearances. If that’s exciting or significant-seeming to you, honestly I am kind of right there with you even though I also believe we should be mocked for being and thinking this way. But while that rule change and the rest may not amount to much, they were sealed with a handshake and will be real once the games start counting in the standings. After another winter and spring of recrimination and bad faith and bullshit and amid the broader sense of gathering and gratuitous crisis, it doesn’t take much to pass for progress.