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New MLB commish would be open to limiting defensive shift, speeding pace of game

Although the sport of baseball continues to be healthy, MLB commissioner Robert Manfred shared his thoughts Sunday on how to keep the game relevant in the future.

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On his first day as MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred pledged Sunday to make the game of baseball more accessible to the next generation of fans as well as to continue to modernize the sport "without interfering with its history and traditions." How he achieves those ends may not sit well with traditional or sabermetric fans alike: He believes in using a pitch clock to speed up pace of play and may seek to limit the defensive shifts that have become more prominent in recent years in order to increase offense.

"Pace of play is an issue that's driven by our society today," Manfred told ESPN. "Our society is a very fast-paced society. Attention spans are shorter. I think that it's very important to us at least symbolically to say to fans, we understand that you want this to move as quickly as possible and we're going to continue to modernize the game, without harming its traditions, in a way that makes it more enjoyable and more attune to the society that we live in."

Manfred noted that traditional baseball fans may initially oppose some changes but can be won over. He cited the acceptance of a recent game-pace experiment done at Salt River Fields during the Arizona Fall League, which features top prospects. Pitchers were given 20 seconds after receiving the baseball to either throw to a base or make a pitch, 2 minutes, 5 seconds, between innings, and 2:30 between pitching changes.

"When they saw the clock out there and saw the impact it had on the way the game played, they were amazingly positive about that potential change," he said. "And you talk about tradition. You know, baseball, the game with no clock."

Pace of play and the length of the game should not necessarily be confused, as a faster pace will not necessarily lead to a shortened game when baseball's true clock remains the 27 outs allotted to each team.. However, the length of ball games has increased from 2 hours, 33 minutes in 1981 to more than 3 hours, 2 minutes in 2014, Maury Brown noted in Forbes in September.

Manfred's second set of changes relates to "injecting" offense back into the game. Runs per game have steadily decreased since the steroid era of baseball, with more than a full run chopped off in 2014 (4.07 runs per game) compared to 2000 (5.14 runs per game), per Baseball Reference. The sport has not had seen such a low since 4.00 in 1980. All aspects have offense have been reduced in recent years, including batting average, power and the rate of walks taken per game. On the flipside, the rate of strikeouts per game reached an all-time high, 7.70 per nine innings.

Eliminating defensive shifts is one way Manfred would like to achieve rebooting offense. Typically in the shift teams move a player from the left side of the infield into shallow right field to help defend against left-handed batters. The shift has always been used, but it became more prominent in 2014 and proved to be an effective tactic for most teams. Steve Moyer of Inside Edge, writing for Wall Street Journal, noted last September the shift prevented 390 hits.

"If we were to add those 390 hits back into the grand total, the overall MLB batting average would rise to .254 from .252-a significant increase considering we're talking about 146,785 at-bats," he wrote.

The Astros shifted more than any team, and not surprisingly, saved the most number of hits. Moyer noted two observations: One, that the shift does not work for every team -- the Pirates, Reds and Marlins actually allowed more hits over several hundred uses of the shift -- and two, that it's probably given too much credit, as the shifted player sometimes receives credit for a play the second baseman would have made anyway.

Manfred would like baseball's executive office to look closer and decide whether use of the shift is actually good for the game.

"We have really smart people working in the game, and they're going to find ways to get a competitive advantage," Manfred told ESPN. "I think it's incumbent upon us in the Commissioner's Office to look at the advantages produced and to say, 'Is this what we want to happen in the game?'"

Update: Is the run environment related to the length of the game? This chart shows that games have actually gotten longer as scoring has decreased in recent years, although the caution that correlation does not always equate causation should be applied.