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Rob Manfred is using a bulldozer to fix a leak in baseball’s roof

Baseball is changing rapidly, but beware the law of unintended consequences.

Little League World Series - Nevada v Pennsylvania
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

About three years ago, an anonymous tipster shared an image with me. I couldn’t verify its authenticity, and it’s not great journalism to run with a story based on a single picture that was captured by someone sitting next to a stranger. We didn’t run a story.

But that didn’t mean the picture wasn’t fascinating. And, as it turns out, FREAKISHLY PRESCIENT. After every subsequent rule change in baseball, I’d load it up again and stare at it. It was a slide from a presentation, maybe an internal memo, and it was showing us baseball’s future.

It’s now pretty clear that this was most likely a legitimate photo, and the tipster really was sitting next to someone working with Major League Baseball. Or the tipster was sitting next to someone who can see into the future, and we need to find him or her, so that we can learn exactly what happens when the oceans rise up and swallow us all. Some of the wacky ideas have already become reality. Others have been implemented into the minor leagues, where they will be evaluated and considered for the major leagues. Some of the ideas on the slide are still on the fringes, to the point where they haven’t even been floated publicly yet.

If you look at the pace-of-game proposals, the progress is obvious. There are limitations on mound visits now. There are no-pitch intentional walks. There’s a time limit for activity between at-bats. Extra innings in the minor leagues start with a runner on second base now, and there’s a pitch clock in the minors, too. There will probably be a pitch clock in the majors in 2019 or 2020.

This was a list of actionable items, and Major League Baseball has implemented most of them. They’re almost certainly going to implement more of them.

Commissioner Rob Manfred is fond of floating trial balloons in the press. Consider these quotes from an interview on Mike & Mike on ESPN Radio:

“You know the problem with relief pitchers is that they’re so good. I’ve got nothing against relief pitchers, but they do two things to the game: The pitching changes themselves slow the game down, and our relief pitchers have become so dominant at the back end that they actually rob action out of the end of the game, the last few innings of the game. So relief pitchers is a topic that is under active consideration. We’re talking about that a lot internally.”

So far, we’ve seen a few items on this page become reality. The unchecked items left on the list up there:

  • Pitch timer*
  • Limitation on pickoffs
  • Starting extra innings with a runner on base*
  • Mercy rule
  • Raise strike zone to top of knee
  • Require relievers to face a minimum number of batters
  • Limit number of relievers on a roster
  • Limit defensive shifts
  • Allow managers to reset the batting order in the 9th inning

* implemented in minors

While the last half of this list, starting at “Raise strike zone to top of knee,” was under the header of “Offensive Production,” they also fall under the the previous header of “Pace of Game” because they might speed up the game. Limiting the number of relievers on a roster will limit pitching changes, which add time to most games. Requiring a reliever to face three batters would kill the LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy) and an entire genre of specialist relievers. Allowing managers to reset the batting order in the ninth would reduce extra-inning games.

Baseball has already changed substantially under Manfred, who became the commissioner just three years ago. It’s safe to assume that more will change, that it will change quickly, and that the changes won’t stop until the pace of baseball satisfies the new regime.

And once the pace of baseball games improves, perhaps getting back to the quicker-paced games of the ‘80s or ‘90s, the sport will become more popular than ever before. Attendance records will be set. Television revenue will continue to spike. A new generation will adopt the sport of baseball, and the demographics will finally be in Major League Baseball’s favor.

That’s how it has to work, right?

MLB is clearly hoping so. But there’s a problem with this sunny scenario, and it has to do with the law of unintended consequences. Manfred is pulling out Jenga pieces and stacking them because he wants to make the tower taller, and it might work. But there’s also a chance that he’ll find himself ankle deep in a pile of wooden blocks and desperate to go back to the simple tower that was there in the first place.

It was the newly instituted rules about mound visits that got me thinking about Manfred’s effect on the game. Specifically, that I like the limitation on mound visits. The biggest downside is that announcers are still treating the new rules as a bizarre, radical shift, as if shortstops were declared illegal. Once the novelty and shock wears off, here’s what we’re going to get: fewer mound visits.

Mound visits are boring and horrible, and this is something just about every baseball fan can agree with. I’ve written odes to the four-pitch intentional walk and extra innings, but there is no such beauty to find in the simple mound visit. About five minutes of every game used to be spent watching a catcher mumble something into his mitt while a pitching coach waddled out to the mound to mumble something like, “Go on and make your pitch.” If the players and coaches were wearing a microphone, perhaps there would be some interesting moments to extract, but only then.

As far as I know (official stats on mound visits aren’t recorded in box scores), there haven’t been any teams that were in danger of running out of mound visits this season. The rules allow for an extra mound visit for each extra inning of play, so the potential for chaos is limited.

The culture of mound visits has changed. Catchers aren’t willing to jog out for every half-confused look the pitcher gives after a sign. Coaches might wait until the middle of the inning to say, “Go on and make your pitch” now. The visits are viewed as finite commodities now, and everyone is wary about being the first dingbats to screw up.

It’s hard to quantify, but it sure feels like there are fewer mound visits, even when teams shouldn’t be worried about running out. On Saturday night, in the bottom of the 14th inning, the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers held a one-run lead over the San Francisco Giants. The first Giants runner reached. No mound visit. The second hitter lined a single that put runners on first and third with no outs. No mound visit. The third hitter, Andrew McCutchen, ended the game after a 12-pitch at-bat. There was no mound visit at any point.

In the middle of that at-bat, rookie Wilmer Font threw this pitch:

This looked like the perfect place for Yasmani Grandal to jog out and reset his pitcher. Did he still have confidence in the fastball? Was he feeling more comfortable with the curve? OK, so you’re good with the fastball if I call for it on the inner half of the plate? Are you sure?

For context, note that the Dodgers just might have been the most obnoxious team in baseball when it came to mound visits last year. Grandal would go to the mound between pitches, between batters, at the start of innings, at the end of innings. Sometimes his coach would join him, and sometimes Don Mattingly would be there, just because, even though he managed the Marlins now. It was only temporal and physical limitations that prevented Grandal from going out to the mound during a pitch.

Yet with this game on the line, there was no visit.

That isn’t to say that the new rules were responsible, or that a quick visit would have helped. But it’s possible to draw a line between a pitcher needing a breather and giving up a single or a walk because he didn’t get it. That doesn’t mean there’s a correlation between mound visits and success. We’re into the anecdotal realm that’s blissfully free of evidence here.

The idea behind mound visits, though, is that they’re supposed to reduce runs. They’re supposed to help the pitcher prevent baserunners and bad outcomes. Absent these visits, there might be more baserunners and bad outcomes.

More baserunners and bad outcomes lead to longer innings.

Longer innings lead to longer games.

Unless we get games that are just as long, but with a helluva lot more runs.

It could be that the changes are a wash, after all, with the time saved instantly replaced by the extra runs scored. If that makes baseball incrementally more popular, it’s hard to see all of this monkeying around being worth it.

It’s nearly impossible to quantify the efficacy of the traditional mound visit, anyway. But if they existed to prevent runs, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that their absence will create more runs.

Which could undo the point of limiting mound visits in the first place.

As someone who’s spent about 50 hours of his life with a stopwatch, notepad, spreadsheet and pair of baseball games on two different screens, please allow me to weigh in on the pitch clock. It will help shorten games. It will help shorten games dramatically. Put a pitch clock in baseball, and the games will shrink by 10 to 15 minutes, I’m guessing, if not even more.

There will be consequences, of course.

When I published my article, I was unaware of this study in the Journal of Sports Sciences that looked at arm fatigue with pitchers who took less time between pitches. The conclusion?

Elevated levels of muscle fatigue are predicted in the flexor–pronator mass, which is responsible for providing elbow stability. Reduced effectiveness of the flexor–pronator mass may reduce the active contributions to joint rotational stiffness, increasing strain on the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) and possibly increasing injury risk.

If you need me to dumb it down a bit, I’ll do my best: Pitcher throws quicker, pitcher’s elbow goes boom. In theory, at least. It’s not like pitchers in the ‘80s were falling like fruit flies because they worked so quickly, so there are other factors at play. For example, pitchers didn’t throw as hard in previous decades.

There’s something meaningful in this data, too. Rob Arthur took a look at why pitchers were taking longer to get rid of the ball, and he found a pattern:

For every additional second they spend (up to 20 seconds), pitchers throw about .02 miles per hour harder.

It doesn’t sound like a lot, but the next paragraphs explain why it’s a big deal. Every tick of extra velocity correlates to extra run prevention. Over a full season, it adds up.

What you have here is pitchers with more arm fatigue because of the pitch clock, and keep in mind that this is already after shortening their allotted time for warm-up pitches. And along with that arm fatigue, we have reduced velocity. With reduced velocity, we get more baserunners and bad outcomes.

More baserunners and bad outcomes lead to longer innings.

Longer innings lead to longer games.

Unless we get games that are just as long, but with a helluva lot more runs.

And we’re still in the part of the discussion where the offensive gains are somewhat abstract. The next section details the more obvious ways that some of the remaining proposed changes might hinder run prevention.

Let’s go back to that quote from Manfred: Relievers are too good. They make the late innings of baseball boring. So if, say, managers needed to keep a reliever in for at least three batters, opposing managers will have the chance to exploit various platoon advantages. You’ll see more Bryce Harper against Pat Neshek and more Rhys Hoskins against Jerry Blevins.

This will lead to more baserunners and bad outcomes.

More baserunners and bad outcomes lead to longer innings.

Longer innings lead to longer games.

Unless we get games that are just as long, but with a helluva lot more runs.

There are other bullet points on that list up there, and one of them has to do with limiting the number of pitchers that are on a roster. Which means more fatigue, especially in the later months. More fatigue means more baserunners and bad outcomes.

More baserunners and ... well, you know.

We’re not done, though! If we’re just going through the checklist, there’s also something about limiting pickoff throws. I’m guessing this works in one of two ways:

  1. Pitchers will step off the rubber eleventy times every at-bat and not make a throw, which wouldn’t save any time
  2. The number of stolen bases will explode, which means more runners in scoring position. Which means more pitchers nibbling to the following hitter. Which means more time will elapse.

I’m assuming that the plan to raise the strike zone is dead, considering offense isn’t at 2015 levels anymore. There are more runs now, so they don’t really need to mess around with the balls and strikes.

While we’re at it, it’s really interesting how offensive production was an incredible concern for MLB and then, suddenly, home runs spiked. MLB didn’t have to do anything, which is amazing timing. Nothing about the baseballs was different — absolutely nothing, they promise — but players figured out how to hit more home runs on their own. What a stroke of good fortune!

But that’s a topic for another article at another time.

There is no computer simulation, no scientific framework that can support all of these assertions beyond the benefit of the doubt. Baseball is a million butterflies flapping their wings; baseball is forever drunk and chasing after those butterflies with a net in the middle of the tornado they created. But we can come up with something like a unified theory. I call this the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie Theory of Baseball Rule Changes.

If you give a commissioner a sprawling set of pace-of-play rules, he’ll want to install a pitch clock.

When you give him the pitch clock, more pitchers will get hurt.

When more pitchers get hurt, there will be more rookies and below-replacement pitchers throwing in crucial situations.

When there are more rookies and below-replacement pitchers throwing in crucial situations, they will stare blankly into the abyss, waiting for someone to calm them down with a mound visit.

When nobody comes to calm them down with a mound visit, there will be more runners allowed.

When there are more runners allowed, managers will call on a bullpen that is now thinner because of roster rules.

When managers call on a thinner bullpen, there will be more bad outcomes.

When there are more bad outcomes, games will last just as long as before or take even longer.

When games last just as long as before or take even longer, the commissioner will ask for a sprawling set of pace-of-play rules.

And if you give it to him ...

You’ll want a damned drink.

Not all of these changes are imminent, of course. Some of them might not be implemented. Maybe most of them if the pitch clock is a success. But look at that list from the introduction again, and ask yourself how confident you are that Manfred is done fiddling with the secret sauce.

He’s probably not done. It’s not completely wild to hope that everything just might work out and the pitch clock will shave 20 minutes off of baseball’s boring bits. Sure, that might attract more fans. In theory.

And if baseball devolves into the 10-8 offensive wonderland that we had in the pre-Mitchell Report era, but without any extra time added, would baseball really be too upset by that? It wouldn’t be perfect, but fans do love the baseball equivalent of explosions and pyrotechnics.

The only problem is that some of those explosions and pyrotechnics might be coming from pitchers’ elbows. We’ll see what baseball does next, but the eerie prophecies of the three-year-old list haunt me. They keep coming true, and if they don’t stop, I have absolutely no idea what will happen. And that scares me.

Also, get the hell out of here, mercy rule. Come on.