In roughly the amount of time it takes to drive from Anaheim to San Jose, Mike Scioscia displayed his strengths as an American League Manager of the Year candidate while simultaneously setting back baseball aesthetics 20 years.
Scioscia used a league-record 12 pitchers in the Los Angeles Angels’ 11-9, 11-inning Labor Day victory over the Oakland Athletics. He called upon Parker Bridwell and Blake Parker, the law firm of Chavez (Jesse), Alvarez (Jose) and Ramirez (Noe), the son of a Cy Young Award winner (Cam Bedrosian) and the first Sacred Heart University Pioneer to play major league ball (Troy Scribner). Over the course of 4 hours, 48 minutes, Scioscia did everything but coax Chuck Finley out of retirement to help the Angels win a game.
It was a strategic coup de grace and an artistic monstrosity. And it was only possible because of the MLB rule that allows rosters to expand from 25 to 40 players in September.
As baseball celebrates the Cleveland Indians’ sustained excellence, Giancarlo Stanton’s pursuit of 60 home runs, Rhys Hoskins’ power surge and an American League wild-card scramble, people throughout the game are lamenting incessant late-inning machinations and box scores that take longer to read than a Cheesecake Factory menu. Amid its efforts to reach out to a younger audience, baseball is plagued by a persistent case of September game creep.
“I agree with the sentiment that it completely changes the game in September when the games matter most — and I don’t like it,” said Miami Marlins reliever Brad Ziegler, a member of the players’ association’s executive committee. “This is the time of the year when we’re competing with football for ratings popularity, and our games become longer and tougher to watch.
“You’re muddling through the last five innings of a game, when fans have an opportunity to switch over and watch a college football game or an NFL game. I don’t think most fans will think twice. They’re going to go where there’s more action and the games aren’t 3½ hours long anymore.”
September baseball is putting a crimp — albeit minor — in commissioner Rob Manfred’s quest to put a foot in the behind of the game’s pokey pace of play. The average for a nine-inning September MLB game is 3:06.55, up slightly from the 2017 overall mark of 3:05.26. But when games already take almost 10 minutes longer to play than they did in 2015, even an 89-second backslide sends the wrong kind of message.
With the exception of minor league call-ups and their overjoyed parents, the arrangement is grating on a lot of nerves. At ballparks across the game, clubhouse attendants scramble to do laundry and find locker spaces, and traveling secretaries are even more harried than usual. Pre-series scouting meetings drag on interminably, and advance scouts rush to provide reports on players just in from the minors.
Even the umpires grumble about the incessant pitching changes, according to one MLB manager who preferred to remain nameless.
When managers aren’t arranging early batting practice for recently arrived hitters who are frozen out of cage time at 5 p.m., they find their best relievers don’t always serve the same purpose they did from April through August. What’s the point of having a dominant lefty specialist when the opposition has four right-handed pinch hitters available to counteract him?
Still, the status quo persists. MLB has instituted instant replay, safeguards to protect catchers and middle infielders from collisions and the no-pitch intentional walk, but rosters continue to increase each September in the most arbitrary and inequitable of ways.
“I think everybody, from a competitive, on-the-field perspective would like to see it altered,” said Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter, a member of Manfred’s 16-member competition committee. “I know there was a lot of presentation and talk about it this last [labor] agreement, but somehow it wasn’t a priority.”
Any conversation about September roster expansion invariably makes reference to former Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who first expressed concerns about the issue in 2005. Melvin now works as a senior adviser for the Brewers, and whenever he receives a call from a national baseball writer in September, he’s pretty sure what the topic of discussion will be.
Melvin’s objections are rooted primarily in the competitive disparities of the system. He has never understood how MLB can rationalize having a team with 35 available players compete against a club with 28 at its disposal on a given night.
“It’s not about large markets or small markets,” Melvin said. “I just thought it was the integrity of the game. There’s no other sport I know of where you can start a game with unbalanced rosters. And we’re the one sport where if you take a player out of a game, he can’t go back in.
“I don’t care what the number is: When the managers exchange lineups with the umpires, it should be whatever number you’ve decided. It should be either 30-on-30 or 32-on-32 or whatever. I think it should be a minimum of 30, personally. In September, you have nagging injuries. Teams can be tired, and you need extra bullpen arms because the starting pitchers don’t go very long anymore. Whatever the minimum is, I just think every team should be at the same number when you play a game.”
September roster sizes typically reflect the economic and competitive circumstances driving individual teams. While the Los Angeles Dodgers have expanded their roster to 39 players this month, the Miami Marlins check in at 30 and the San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox have 29 on hand. That’s the difference between a well-heeled, big-market team headed for the postseason and three fiscally conscious, rebuilding clubs auditioning some kids over the final few weeks.
The players’ association is also entrusted with protecting the interests of its membership when changes to the system are proposed. The current system of unlimited September call-ups results in an additional 7,000 to 7,500 days of service time per season for players, and those days make a difference to players working toward salary arbitration and free agency. Any alterations, in the union’s eyes, would have to be “service time neutral” at the very least.
In 2011 and 2012, MLB and the union discussed proposals to allow teams to increase their roster sizes to 32 or 35 or any other number they chose under the provision that clubs would designate an active roster of 25, 28 or some other predetermined number before each game or new series. But the union objected under the premise that if teams could only use a maximum of 28 players a game, they would have little incentive to go beyond that in September.
During the last round of labor negotiations, MLB tried to accommodate the union’s 7,000- to 7,500-game service time target by expanding rosters to 26 players from April through August, then increasing rosters to 28 in September. But some late snags developed, and September roster changes weren’t part of the new five-year labor deal announced in December.
Sources said the union objected to a provision that would have allowed clubs to option players to the minors in September, because it feared teams would engage in “roster time manipulation.” MLB adjusted its position to address the union’s concerns and thought it had a deal in place, but the two sides were unable to strike a compromise on the issue.
Progress has painstaking because each new proposal opens a Pandora’s box of potential objections. Some small-market teams are concerned that the addition of a 26th man throughout the season might result in inequities, because affluent clubs can afford to spend $ 3 million to $ 4 million on an established platoon bat or veteran pitcher, while rebuilders and non-contenders will opt for a minimum-wage type to round out the roster.
If and when teams go to 28 players a game in September, those rosters will most likely have to include five starters. The ultimate nightmare scenario would be for teams to add three more relievers and have them jogging out of the bullpen like clowns piling out of a minivan.
Officials with the players’ association and the commissioner’s office declined to discuss the topic for attribution with ESPN.com, and that might be perceived as a positive omen. The two sides have the option to revisit the issue at any time, and their aversion to public posturing or finger-pointing is a sign they might be ready to resume talks at some point.
In the absence of a change, managers can’t be faulted for using every tool at their disposal. Colorado’s Bud Black and San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy combined to use 20 pitchers in a recent nine-inning game, so the phenomenon isn’t limited to Scioscia and the Angels.
“I think there has to be a happy medium for us to all play with the same roster, yet protect the length of the season and the needs of all teams involved,” Houston’s A.J. Hinch said. “Roster expansion doesn’t bother me as much as the open-ended expansion does. I looked down at my card [during a game in Seattle] and they had 12 relievers. We have 37 guys up here now. It’s just not the same game.”
All the quibbling and carping about slow September play obscures the sense of enthusiasm fans feel upon seeing prospects they’ve been following from afar for years. Cleveland’s Francisco Mejia, Oakland’s Franklin Barreto and the Dodgers’ Alex Verdugo are among the September additions gaining valuable experience and making a little extra coin during cameo appearances this month.
“I was a September call-up at 19 years old,” Washington manager Dusty Baker said. “I looked so forward to that because I made more money in that month than I did in five months in the minor leagues. I was sending money home to my mother, and I was like, ‘This is the life.’ For a young player, it’s wonderful.”
For managers, not so wonderful.
“We had a game against the Phillies recently and Larry Bowa brought it up to me,” Baker said. “He said, ‘You outmanned us.’ I understand that, because I’ve been outmanned.
“They’ve been talking about doing something, and I wish they would. I’ve been hearing about this since I’ve been in the game, and I’ve been in the game for 40-something years. I don’t know if they’re going to do anything or not.”