September baseball. It’s the time of the season that is inherently the most exciting, when the playoff picture takes shape and us fans get to witness memorable down-to-the-wire pennant races. There’s no denying that baseball’s final month contains the most important games of the regular season, so why then does MLB change the way the game is played in that final month?
When the rosters expand from 25 to 40 in September, of course, the intended purpose is not to change the game. It provides rookies with a chance to get some big league exposure and for teams to evaluate how numerous players may fit into their future plans heading into the offseason. That’s great, and it does provide many players with an opportunity they would not normally have had. But with so many players on a roster, it changes the way a manager can navigate through his bench or bullpen, and it sure is noticeable.
Take, for example, last night’s Braves vs. Mets game. With the Mets leading 3-2 in the 8th inning, Braves manager Brian Snitker replaced reliever Brandon Cunniff with Chaz Roe. After striking out T.J. Rivera, Terry Collins sent up the left-handed Kelly Johnson to pinch hit. Snitker countered by putting in lefty Ian Krol, to which Collins answered by pulling Johnson for Eric Campbell, who carries a .172 batting average for the season, and only a marginally better .185 against lefties. Despite this, the Braves chose to walk Campbell intentionally to face James Loney in a lefty-on-lefty matchup, but not before Collins, you guessed it, pinch hit with Kevin Plawecki, another sub .200 hitter. Plawecki proceeded to strike out to end the inning.
Surely a lot to take in, but the overall effect was taking a game that was flying by and turning it into a slogging affair which lasted well over three hours. It wouldn’t be accurate to say the late innings lacked excitement, as it was a tightly contested back and forth battle with playoff implications at stake. But it has become routine to see managers use three or more pitchers to get through just one inning in September or burn through their entire bench with players that shouldn’t even be available at the manager’s disposal.
Essentially, roster expansion makes it a whole lot easier for managers to play matchups and not have to worry about running out of players, which is a great benefit to them. But why should it be easier in the final month of the season? Before returning to the Marlins’ lineup recently, Giancarlo Stanton had been active for a couple of weeks only to be used as a pinch hitter. Similarly, the Mets currently have Juan Lagares and Lucas Duda on their active roster, but both have been used only in very specialized roles, as they are not yet fully healed from their respective injuries. If teams want to roster injured players for one particular skill set, they have every right to, but it should be at the expense of a 25-man roster spot. With 40-man rosters, no team really cares about taking up a roster spot for a player who is not healthy enough to play a full game.
For bottom division teams, expanded rosters serve more of the intended purpose of giving young players a shot to see what they can do. But for contenders, it provides an easy way to slow down the game and manage in a way that shouldn’t be done. If MLB wants the benefit of giving rookies a taste of the big leagues, do it in April instead, away from the pennant races. Most teams would welcome the ability to get a few more weeks of seeing where fringe players can fit into certain roles. Besides, it would make it easier on players, and particularly pitchers, who need some extra rest in April to get to full strength.
Another option that has been suggested which I would be okay with is expanding the rosters in September, but only declaring 25 as active before each game. That way, you have the extra players for the tomorrow in case your bullpen has been overworked or somebody is unavailable for a few days with a minor ailment. And with only 25 active for each game, it’s not changing the way the game is managed.
It’s unlikely that MLB would ever get rid of September roster expansion, because there’s no way the Player’s Association would allow it. That would mean taking away service time from many players, and costing them money. But there are a number of alternatives that deserve to be looked at so that it doesn’t take away from minor league players’ opportunities and doesn’t affect the integrity of the game by having an NFL-sized roster in the dugout.