Rob Manfred held the annual State of the MLB press conference in Arizona on Tuesday, and he touched on a variety of topics. They were all important in their own ways, all topics to expand on, all worthy of much longer conversations.
Robot umpires? The technology isn’t there, and neither is the desire.
The Diamondbacks’ stadium situation? Untenable. That ballpark is almost as old as Julio Urias, and something has to change.
Expansion? Sure, and Vegas is a possibility, even though there’s legalized gambling there, it’s a metropolitan market smaller than Orlando, San Antonio, Charlotte, Portland, and Sacramento, and it’s filled with transplants unlikely to switch team allegiances. There would be plenty of tourists, of course, but counting on them seems optimistic. There are ... other activities in that particular hamlet.
The meat of the press conference had to do with rule changes, though. Manfred and MLB want them, and they want them now. They’re already going to get a two-minute limit on replay, and they murdered the intentional walk. More changes are coming, and baseball wanted several of them this year.
The MLBPA wasn’t comfortable with agreeing to every adjustment, however. This stalemate upset the commissioner, and he’s willing to force unilateral changes before the 2018 season.
Sweet, embeddable frustration. There were supposed to be years of labor peace after the owner-friendly CBA, and suddenly there’s a whiff of apocalypse in the air. From Ken Rosenthal:
Labor peace is assured through 2021, but baseball essentially threatened a lockout to get the CBA done. The widespread perception that the deal is one-sided in favor of the owners probably did not help the union’s disposition. And now tensions are rising over issues on which there should at least be a semblance of common ground.
Confused? I know I am. Consider these two simple truths, and how they fail to explain Manfred’s aggressiveness.
There are probably several ways to get better baseball
No one is disputing this. Baseball has a lot of charms, and exactly none of them involve two umpires with headphones standing around for nine minutes. That’s going away, which is super. You’ll love it until it’s your team that doesn’t get an obvious call overturned in the postseason because it took too long to get to the right angle, but you can’t make an omelette without shoving a couple eggs up your nose.
No one likes mound visits. They are the stoplights of baseball, and you would run through every one if you safely could. My favorite is when the pitching coach lumbers out, says, “I’m just here to let the reliever get a few more warmup pitches in,” and lumbers back to the dugout, only to be followed immediately by a lumbering manager.
No one likes batters stepping out for a half-minute between pitches. Baseball has already addressed this, and there is not a nascent movement to bring the diddling and dawdling back. There are ways to get even better. Reports from the minor leagues that have been using a pitch clock are almost uniformly positive.
There are trickier concessions to make, though. Baseball wants quicker games, but one of the changes the MLBPA nixed had to do with a smaller, higher strike zone that would have led to more offense. More runs almost certainly would lead to longer games. That specific change was courting chaos and unintended consequences, and the players were right to be spooked.
Highly specialized relievers have created longer games (because of the pitching changes) and duller games (because of the strikeouts and lack of late lead changes). The spigot of weaponized 100 mph goofs is just opening up, too. But what can baseball reasonably do? It’s not like baseball will ever going back to the era of 170 pitches and complete games for everyone. That’s a problem that will take some massaging.
The good news is that baseball isn’t hemorrhaging fans. It’s undoubtedly a smart thing for Manfred to be concerned about shifting demographics and the shortening attention spans of new fans in a post-meme world. Concern is warranted, even if the crisis is far away. This would seem to be the perfect time, then, for baby steps, tweaks and nudges, experiments, and theories.
Look at the fire in Manfred’s eyes in that video, though. Read that Rosenthal column about the implications of MLB unilaterally imposing vast, sweeping changes. It’s as if the commissioner has read a secret file about the future of baseball that would blow our minds and make us scurry for canned goods.
And I just don’t understand it. Especially when you consider the second simple truth.
There is no change that could be implemented right now that would immediately suck in new fans
There is no lever, no magic dust. Baseball is getting rid of the four-pitch intentional walk, and I regret to inform you that there will not be an avalanche of new fans screaming, “FINALLY. NOW I CAN WATCH BASEBALL.” This was a trade, and both sides gave something up. Baseball will move a little quicker, sure, but there’s something lost, too.
Baseball is fascinated with the idea of the hyper-rare, the 1-in-1,000, the 1-in-10,000, the 1-in-a-million. It's why the purists insist that you watch every awful at-bat from every pitcher, just to feel rewarded when one of them gets a hit. It's why there are still people who know the name Bill Wambsganss. It's why we remember the squirrels on the field, the mitts thrown to first with baseballs in them, and the hitters who swing at a pitchout to protect a hit-and-run.
Miss u, terrified reliever:
Miss u, hilariousness:
Miss u, iconic highlight:
Please don’t minimize that last one. Eleven years later, it’s possible to talk about a Marlins/Orioles game from 2006 with a big smile on our faces. Baseball is not just the sum of action-packed bursts of excitement in every game. It’s the accumulation of dumb moments like those, kept in a dumb locket that we wear close to our dumb hearts.
There were fewer intentional walks last year (932) than there have been in any season since the strike in 1981, but, sure, getting rid of the walk will make every other game go quicker, on average. It still won’t suck in a new generation of fans.
It’s a small step in a complex process. And it’s fair to wait around to see what the unintended consequences are. Instant replay is a perfect example of what dramatic changes hath wrought. Lots of folks were excited by the prospect of fewer blown calls, of fewer games decided by impossibly difficult calls. No one really anticipated the 10-minute spectacle of umpires in headphones. No one really anticipated all the blown calls that would still squeak through.
This, just like the idea behind messing with the strike zone, brings up the analogy of cane toads again.
Australia’s cane fields were being ravaged by beetles. They brought in cane toads to eat the beetles. You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next. The solution was as bad as the problem, if not worse.
And none of these changes will immediately suck in the 12-year-old kid who is six years away from getting an Overwatch tattoo.
If baseball puts in a pitch clock, raises the strike zone, eliminates extensive mound visits, limits pitching changes, institutes a mercy rule, starts extra innings with a runner on second base, limits the number of pickoff throws, requires pitchers to face a minimum number of batters, limits defensive shifts, and institutes all sorts of other changes to speed the game up and improve quality of play, there might be improvements.
There might be unintended consequences. Doing it all at the same time is a recipe for cane toads. You just might kick your beetle problem, baseball, but I have some bad news for you ...
And none of these changes will bring back the person who sorta grew up with baseball, but never totally got into it, and generally finds it boring.
The compromise is simple. Baseball is not on fire yet. It’s not close to being on fire. Attendance is still high. Local TV ratings are generally superb. For all the noise made about the sport’s older demographics, it’s worth noting that Major League Baseball Advanced Media is a huge money maker, and that the younger demographics are using the MLB At Bat app in larger numbers than the apps from other sports leagues. This is a good time for tinkering. This is a great time for tinkering.
That tinkering would involve a deliberate process the MLBPA is OK with. It would be a process that Commissioner Manfred clearly isn’t OK with. The MLBPA’s sense of urgency, or lack thereof, makes sense. Baseball’s panic is curious, at best, especially when it comes at a possible cost of unnecessary labor unrest.
Baseball is changing. It has always changed. It will always change. The game will evolve, and the evolution will be necessary in ways we can’t comprehend, what with us all dumb and in the past. It doesn’t need to change all at once, though. And the desperate urgency of the commissioner just doesn’t make any sense from here.