Former Green Bay Packers Director Robert C. Gallagher once noted that change is inevitable – except from a vending machine. So, why is it that we’re so resistant to change? And forget thinking about this in your personal life. Instead, think of it through the prism of your favorite sports team or league. Think about how your team and the game was like when you first started watching it. There’s been a lot of changes. But who started those changes and who did they benefit sooner rather than later?
We can break changes down into two distinct camps. First, we have changes that come from above, from MLB itself. But we also have changes that come from the bottom up – ones that come from the teams, or possibly even the players themselves. Let’s go back to my beginning days of watching the game, the early 1970s, for examples of both of these changes.
The introduction of the designated hitter was a top-down change, a gimmick introduced in the American League to help boost sagging attendance. Some teams immediately recognized how to take advantage of the change. The Angels had the highest OPS from the DH spot of any team in 1973. That year they imported Frank Robinson from the Dodgers and installed him as the team’s primary DH. He responded with a 66-point improvement in his OPS from the year before and ended up being a down-ballot MVP candidate. Meanwhile, the Royals used 15 different players in the DH spot, none with as many as 140 PA. They finished last in the league in OPS from the new position.
The change from a standard rotation being five pitchers, instead of four, was a gradual one and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened. In 1966, the Dodgers main four starters were Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen and Don Sutton. They combined for 154 starts. The 1971 Orioles had Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson. They combined for 142 starts. Some have suggested that the Mets were among the first teams to utilize the five-man rotation. While Drysdale had nine straight years with at least 40 starts, Tom Seaver never made more than 36 in a single season. Six different pitchers made double-digit starts for the Mets in 1969 and their top five combined for 144 or essentially what the top four for the Orioles did in 1971.
The 1968 Mets also had six pitchers with double digit starts, as did the 1967 squad. The 1966 team had seven starters. You have to go back to 1964 to find a Mets team that only had four pitchers make double digit starts. And those four combined for 119 starts. That team – and the ones that came immediately afterwards – didn’t have enough good pitchers and were trying everyone with a pulse as a starter, hoping to hit paydirt.
But by the end of the 1960s, the Mets had starting pitcher depth. The fifth and sixth starters in 1969 were Jim McAndrew, with an ERA+ of 105, and Nolan Ryan with an ERA+ of 104. It doesn’t make much sense to use a four-man rotation if you have six starters capable of giving you league average or better results.
In my formative baseball years, the question was a nine or 10-man pitching staff. Now it’s 12 or 13 pitchers. No one even thought of, much less used a lefty specialist. Shifting players to the other side of second base was done for Willie McCovey, not every lefty including those just called up from the minors. And anyone suggesting using an opener would have been laughed out of the room. No doubt you can think of several others to include here.
Those were all changes and innovations that came about from the teams, rather than the league. And the question everyone should be asking right now is: What big change is coming next?
With the shortened season, it feels inevitable that we’ll see changes that will take hold and become the new norm. My opinion is that this wacky season is going to lead to at least two major changes in the future. With all of the Zoom meetings that have been held while no games were being played, players, specifically pitchers, have checked in more with coaches than they might have otherwise. And this new regimen is going to lead to new ways of doing things in the offseason and even Spring Training that will manifest themselves in the regular season. Here’s Dan Martin from the New York Post:
Rojas said the coaching staff would put together a schedule “almost every day, from one day to another” rather than planning out the entire spring like they would in a traditional spring training.
“You want starters at the beginning of this short stint of a season to go deeper than earlier,” Rojas said.
And the other thing which may change is that with expanded rosters, teams will see the benefit of having extra position players at their disposal. And if starters can go deeper earlier, that will minimize the need for so many relievers. My expectation is that we’ll see teams re-learn the advantages of a third catcher and the benefits of platooning at positions without a solid starter. Perhaps we’ll even see teams aggressively pinch-hit and pinch-run to create more scoring opportunities.
Which teams are going to take advantage of the new conditions? Which clubs are going to be like the 1973 Angels and immediately get themselves a full-time DH and not rotate everyone and their brother in the role like the 1973 Royals? Which teams are going to embrace change and seek out new solutions for new problems instead of just pretending everything is normal?
The Mets have a relatively new GM, one who came to the position from a non-traditional way. They also have a brand-new manager. This seems like the perfect combination to try new things, to experiment from the business-as-usual model. And just to be clear – not changes for the sake of change, either. Rather, creative solutions tailored to the strengths of the club in an effort to maximize wins.