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Proposed rule changes could negatively affect Milwaukee Brewers

It’s supremely unlikely that Major League Baseball is out specifically to ‘get’ the Milwaukee Brewers.

It’s hard to blame one for feeling that way, though, based on the rule changes that have been proposed and discussed during the current offseason.

First, it was rumors about the possibility of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred making a move to ban ‘the shift.’ The Brewers, of course, led the National League in shifting frequency in 2018, and finished second among Senior Circuit clubs by allowing a mere .281 opponents wOBA against the shift. Milwaukee’s shifting strategy last year was the result of a three-year process that began with the hiring of David Stearns, and the club’s GM boasted in September that “[w]e are dramatically ahead of the break-even point,” when it comes to runs saved via shifting. Even beyond their own internal metrics, a third-party service contracted by the Brewers to provide an unbiased analysis confirmed the strength of the club’s defensive shifting.

When manager Craig Counsell was asked to give his opinion on the idea of reducing or eliminating a crucial element of his team’s run-prevention system, he was understandably frustrated:

“You can say I was wrong, I just can’t see it happening. I’ll just say, I don’t see the sense in banning the shift at all. I don’t see how it improves the game. I think it’s a strategic part of the game that is one of the things that makes our game fun. Let’s find strategies to win baseball games.

The beauty of the game is all the strategies that we can employ and players can employ. I do think we can make a concerted effort on the downtime in the game. I would love for us to try to attack the dead time in games. But attacking strategies to win baseball games, man, I just don’t see that as improving the game.”

Now, this week reports have emerged that Major League Baseball has submitted a proposal to the Players’ Union that would return the 10-day disabled list back to 15 days, as well as extend the amount of time a player would need to spend on optional assignment before being recalled from 10 to 15 days. The idea is to reduce the amount of “roster manipulation” that teams engage in through DL stints and minor league options, which MLB believes would decrease reliever usage and increase offense.

Since the DL rules changed in the 2016 CBA, baseball has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of placements, from 563 in 2016 all the way to 737 last year. The shorter disabled list term makes it easier for teams to allow players to rest minor injuries rather than those players attempting to play through it – and risk further injury – and helps clubs avoid going longer stretches of games while playing short-handed. For example, let’s say that Christian Yelich is nursing a sore oblique and would need about a week to get back to full strength. Under the old DL rules, the Brewers would need to choose between going with a short bench for a week, or losing Yelich for two full weeks worth of games when he’d otherwise be healthy.

This exact scenario came into play for Milwaukee last May, and the 10-day DL rule allowed the team to let Yelich get back to full strength while allowing him to come back five days earlier than the 15-day rule would. It happened an awful lot for Milwaukee last season, actually; according to data from Spotrac, the Brewers tied with Cincinnati for sixth-most in baseball by placing 22 different players on the DL in 2018. That includes 27 separate stints by those Brewer players, and eight that lasted the minimum amount of 10 days. The Brewers and Cubs ended up going to a game 163 to determine the NL Central champion; given that razor-thin margin of error, how much could an extra few days without Christian Yelich during the early part of the season have swung that race in Chicago’s favor?

The option rule would also severely limit the frequency of how often teams like Milwaukee could shuttle the players at the end of the their bullpens and benches back-and-forth from the minors. How often last season did we see the Brewers make a move in the bullpen the day after someone like Adrian Houser or Jorge Lopez soaked up multiple innings in a blowout game? There were 1,379 players that appeared in the majors last year, including 138 players that suited up for two teams, six players that played on three teams, and one player – old friend Oliver Drake – who found action on five different MLB squads last year. That comes out to close to 50 players used per team in 2018. Our Brewers were slightly ahead of that, utilizing 53 players on their way to an NL Central title. A new rule lengthening optional assignments would naturally lead to less roster movement, which means fewer opportunities for fringe guys like Nate Orf and Aaron Wilkerson all around the league to get their shot at an MLB Players’ Union membership, health insurance benefits, and a big league pension.

The players need to approve any rule change before it can be immediately added to the game; Rob Manfred has the ability to implement rules unilaterally with one year of notice, but he’s suggested in the past that he’d be reluctant to wield that power, so it’s hard to say how soon we can expect changes like this to happen to baseball. Regardless, the commissioner and the powers that be say they want to increase offense in baseball. Rather than letting that happen organically by allowing time for players to adjust their approaches or for teams to re-think their roster building strategies by finding players who are undervalued by the “new-age” baseball strategies, the league seems to be seeking to boost scoring by finding ways to force teams to leave tired starters in longer and limiting how effectively they can deal with player injuries and fatigue.

These proposed changes certainly don’t seem to be in the best interests of our beloved Menomonee Valley Nine, nor do they for baseball as whole.

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