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MLB considering drastic rule changes that could speed up games, create universal DH

Commissioner Rob Manfred has been advocating for on-field rule changes. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)
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Major League Baseball and its players' union have had substantive discussions in recent days over a series of proposed rule changes for 2019 and beyond that could be among the most drastic for the sport in years, according to two people familiar with those talks. The discussions have included both on-field rule changes, pushed by Commissioner Rob Manfred, and proposals from the union to improve competitive balance.

The specific proposals include:

  • The adoption of the designated hitter in the National League, making the DH universal across both leagues.
  • A rule requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters, except in the case of injury or when finishing an inning.
  • A 20-second pitch clock, a time-saving device Manfred has espoused for more than a year now.
  • A single trade deadline before the all-star break, to replace the traditional July 31 deadline and the Aug. 31 waiver-trade deadline.
  • The expansion of rosters from 25 to 26 players, with a maximum of 12 pitchers.
  • A reduction in mound visits from six to five per game.
  • A rule, which would be tested in spring training and the All-Star Game, in which each half-inning in extra innings would begin with a runner on second base.
  • Tweaks to the draft order to reward winning teams and penalize perennial losing teams.
  • A rule that would permit two-sport athletes, such as Kyler Murray, to sign major league contracts as enticement to play baseball.

Though the proposals remain in preliminary stages, and it is unclear which, if any, would be implemented in 2019 — the DH rule, for example, would almost certainly have to be pushed to future seasons, because NL teams already have largely finalized their 2019 rosters — the talks represent a significant step for a sport that has seen rising acrimony between owners and players over the slow pace of the past two free agent markets.

Top baseball officials have criticized the union publicly in the past for not showing a willingness to come to the bargaining table, even as top union officials have criticized some owners over a perceived lack of competitiveness.

Many of MLB’s proposals were designed for the purpose of speeding up the game, one of Manfred’s top priorities. The pitch clock would penalize pitchers or hitters who stall between pitches with a ball or a strike call. The three-batter minimum and the 12-pitcher limit on rosters would both reduce the frequency of pitching changes. While the three-batter minimum could cause the loss of jobs for some traditional left-handed specialists, the roster expansion to 26 players — bringing 30 extra big league jobs — could be an enticement for the union to agree.

The union, meanwhile, has made it a priority to entice teams to spend money in an effort to compete, after watching many teams largely sit out this winter’s free agent market, which has caused a logjam of roughly 100 free agents still unsigned with spring training camps set to open next week. The union has also seen the issue of “tanking” — teams stripping its payroll and hoarding prospects and draft picks — as a fundamental problem.

The union’s proposals reportedly would give improved draft position to high-performing, lower-revenue teams while penalizing teams that repeatedly lose a large number of games.

Of all the proposed changes, first reported by the Athletic and confirmed by a person familiar with the discussions, the universal DH arguably would be the most significant to the game on the field. Since 1973, baseball has operated with different rules for the National and American Leagues — with pitchers hitting in the former, but not the latter — necessitating shifting rules and roster manipulation for interleague and World Series games.

The union has long backed the adoption of the DH in the NL, under the thinking that those jobs would largely go to veteran hitters at higher salaries. Some NL owners, however, have resisted the change, and it remains unclear how much support there would be for a rule change — despite the fact pitchers batted just .115 with a .292 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 2018, both all-time lows.

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