THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
With the arrival of September baseball comes the annual discussion about roster expansion in baseball. Hooray.
If you're not familiar with the roster rules in baseball, here's a quick crash course to catch you up on what we'll be discussing.
Baseball teams have two rosters: the active 25-man roster (the players available to play at each game) and the expanded 40-man roster (which includes the 25-man roster as well as 15 minor league players or players on the 7-day and 15-day disabled list, as well as any player who might be on temporary leave for things such as paternity or bereavement). Other than the obvious reason that a player would be added to the roster (which is that they are good and should be playing in the big leagues), the major reason a player is added to the 40-man roster prior to their arrival to the big leagues is to protect that player from the Rule 5 draft, which is an annual draft that occurs during the Winter Meetings. That draft is specifically for players who, for the most part, have five or more years of service time in the minor leagues with a team without being added to the 40-man roster. It's a way to make sure that players are not blocked from the big leagues due to the stockpiling of prospects, etc. If a player is not added to the 40-man roster prior to this draft, he is eligible to be drafted by another team. Alternatively, once a player is added to the 40-man roster, he has three years to stick with the big league club before being released or exposed to other clubs picking him up in some fashion. I'm not doing it complete justice here, but you get the idea.
During the course of the season, players are obviously added and removed from both the 25-man and 40-man roster for various reasons. If a player on the 25-man roster gets hurt and placed on the disabled list, a player on the 40-man roster who is not on the 25-man roster can be called up to take his place. If a player on the 25-man roster just isn't performing and is eligible to be sent to the minors (which is a different discussion altogether), that player can be optioned to the minors while remaining on the 40-man roster, and another player can replace him. It's a deeply specific and fascinating set of rules which makes for a great chess match if your OCD finds interest in this, like mine. But if you just care about the games, then you probably don't really care.
Now, here's where it gets crazy.
On September 1st of each baseball season, the active roster of 25 players is expanded to 40 players. Essentially, every team is allowed to activate every player on the 40-man roster and use all 40 in a game. This is completely different from the first five months of the baseball season where only 25 players could be used each game.
The biggest question that gets asked here by most people: why?
Well, traditionally, the minor league baseball season ends around Labor Day. If a minor league team is in the playoffs, their season may continue, but the majority of teams are done around the beginning of September. This is a way to keep the top prospects playing while also rewarding them for their body of work. It can also serve as a way to help get the feet wet of those players. One of the biggest stories of that is Derek Jeter in 1995. Jeter was recalled to the big club in the Bronx in 1995 and was actually not on the active roster during the playoffs that year, but he remained with the club throughout their brief postseason run. It is believed that this experience helped form Jeter into the leader that he became.
There are plenty of reasons why this practice is not admired by those it affects. First, think about the date of September 1st. Just like the trade deadline (July 31), these are arbitrary dates that do not actually have a correlation to the schedule of each team. As such, each of the 30 major league clubs could have a different number of games remaining after each deadline passes. Why is it fair that one team can use the expanded roster for 30 games, but another can only use it for 27?
Managers don't like it because of the change in strategies and philosophies that must occur after five months. Many managers spend countless hours debating various match-ups that they prefer in games. They will look at their opponent's roster and compare their hitters with the manager's bullpen to see which match-ups are favorable and how they will deploy their relievers or pinch-hitters. When the rosters expand, the amount of work that goes into that process multiplies by a number that can barely be counted by the human brain.
With the addition of players comes an addition in time of game. If a manager has 15 relief pitchers at his disposal, he will mix and match his relievers late in the game at a rate that will drive the average viewer crazy. Bruce Bochy of the San Francisco Giants is already notorious for this when the rosters aren't expanded, so imagine what his games in September are like. (In fact, with so many conversations about pace of play happening with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire, many are suggesting that the typical rule of a pitcher being required to face at least one batter should be changed to requiring a pitcher to face two batters.)
An interesting counterargument, however, is that of the reality of the 25-man roster. If you examine the standard 25-man roster for an American League team, it is exceptionally rare that the four starting pitchers not pitching on any given day will find their way into the game, thereby really only giving the manager 21 players on any given day. Further, with the care taken to protect pitchers' arms, many managers will determine which relievers are not available on certain days so as to force them to rest. For example, Joe Girardi of the New York Yankees refuses to use a reliever for three consecutive days unless it becomes absolutely necessary; if he breaks his rule, under no circumstances will that reliever pitch a fourth consecutive day. In fact, it usually earns that reliever at least two days off.
So with that information, one has to ask if the 25-man roster actually is a 25-man roster! Sure, 25 players may be active and eligible to play, but never will all of those players actually be used in one game.
Many managers have actually rallied around an idea suggested by Buck Showalter, manager of the Baltimore Orioles. Showalter suggested that, although the 40-man roster becomes available in September, a manager must declare which 25 players are eligible for any given day, limiting the moves a manager can actually make. Others have taken this a step further, suggesting the same idea be adopted, but with the active roster increased to a number such as 28 active players on a given day, which may keep the spirit of the original rule intact.
The problem with these suggestions is that issues of service time and other labor related issues must be determined, and the owners and general managers are not going to be happy if a player is gaining service time without actually playing. An increase in service time means an increase in benefits to that player, such as a greater salary, hitting arbitration and free agency quicker, etc. So team executives want to see their players actually play while they accrue service time so their money is being spent for at least something.
One broad dissent of the complaints which endorses the system as it stands now discusses how, with the increased attention given to the arms of pitchers, these rules are beneficial to their arms and protects them from overuse and/or abuse. The workload suddenly becomes spread out over a greater number of pitchers in the final month when player are starting to really get tired. This doesn't necessarily excuse the fact that a greater discussion needs to be had about the epidemic of arm problems and Tommy John surgeries, but at least it is forward thinking in being conservative and respectful of the arms of pitchers.
Other than umpires having to write more things on their lineup cards, it has to be asked: is this issue really that big of a concern compared to the greater issues in this and many sports?
In the interest in trying to find a solution, however, rather than just telling people to suck it up, I present yet another suggestion as to how we might be able to remedy this "problem."
September 1st suddenly has no meaning in this solution. Instead, the solution is determined based on a combination of two things: if you are still mathematically alive in a playoff race, and if you are playing a team that is also mathematically alive.
If two teams are playing each other and they are both mathematically alive in the hunt for a playoff spot, then the rules don't change. Their 25-man roster rules that have been used in the first five months of the season remain.
If two teams are playing each other and neither are mathematically alive in the hunt for a playoff spot, then the current post-September 1st rules apply, in that they can activate their entire 40-man roster for those games.
If a team that is mathematically alive is playing a team that is not mathematically alive, both teams must utilize their 25-man rosters, but they can designate which 25 players are active on those given days. The only restriction is that if a player was the starting pitcher for that team in one of the last four games, he must be on the 25-man active roster or placed on the disabled list. This rule forces teams to treat their 25-man rosters like they would during the first five months of the year. Further, on these days, the players who are not active still receive service time if their team is eliminated from postseason contention.
Would this idea ever be considered or debated? Probably not. In this business, there are too many detractors to make these types of things actually work. But in a perfect world, maybe this is the solution we need.