The most important thing you can possibly remember about baseball’s quest to shorten games is that you don’t matter. If you’re here, reading an article about baseball that you found through conscious, baseball-seeking choices, you’re already in. You’re the base. The odds are great you’re not going to leave over some mild dickering and rule changes. You’re the person on the far end of the political spectrum, whose platform gets lip service in the speech, but never results in any sort of legislative action.
What are you going to do, go over to the other side? You’re stuck, friend.
Kids and the millennials, what with their Pokemon and flashing phones, they’re the political center, and baseball is desperate for them. You’ve seen the numbers that suggest half of all baseball fans are over 50. The good news is that the world isn’t going to stop making old people. The bad news is that those fans are into baseball because those demographics skewed a lot younger 30 and 40 years ago. It’s not like you turn 50 and a haggard stork with a smoker’s cough shows up at your door with a Bruce Springsteen album and a David Halberstam book.
The goal, then, is to hook young people now. New commissioner Rob Manfred is desperately aware of this, and he’s trying to strike a balance between keeping the game familiar and keeping it fresh enough to suck younger fans in. To that end, he has a lot of suggestions.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said that baseball is contemplating everything from altering the strike zone to limiting the number of pitching changes in a game, to curtailing the number of shifts, to even installing 20-second time clocks for pitchers.
Let’s call this Manfred’s Paradox. It’s a doozy. Based on the suggested changes, it seems like baseball has two goals.
- Make games shorter
- Get more offense into the game
I would like to lose weight and eat more cheese. These are two goals that would align with my personal happiness. Grant’s secret plan of happiness is a two-point plan to have six-pack abs and fistfuls of smoked gouda. But, see, the problem with this plan, and I’ll slow it down a little for you, is that ...
I don’t disagree with making games shorter. I’m not saying we have to go back to the days where a team could play 26 innings in under four hours, but nine innings in under three hours is a worthwhile goal. The San Francisco Giants and Miami Marlins played a 1-0 game that took over three hours last week. I can’t comprehend how that’s possible, even though I watched the whole thing. I’m not absolutely wild about pitch clocks, but I also know I’ll get used to them in a week, just like the between-innings clock. There is room for improvement that would allow for baseball to remain a sport that’s compelling because of its deliberate pace, not in spite of it.
Quick break for the teenagers and 20-somethings who can’t make it through a full article without six seconds of looping stimulation.
But then there’s the other arm of this, in which hits are acknowledged as inherently exciting parts of baseball, which in turn would compel unfamiliar or younger fans to stick around. That’s where eliminating or reducing shifts would come into play. We’ve already been through this argument.
No, shifts aren't my favorite part of baseball. They're not the reason I tune in, not even close. Except, here's the more important counterpoint: They're not the reason people tune out, either. There isn't a casual fan out there thinking, "Boy, I'd sure love to watch more baseball, but, ugh, those shifts." They're not the reason the hardcore fan is losing interest, either. No one cares enough either way.
What fewer shifts might do, though, is create more offense. Which would lead to longer games. Which would lead to more drastic measures to reduce game times. If you think this is the end of the idea fountain, you’re going to be disappointed. Baseball has all kinds of ideas to shorten games, including, but not limited to:
- mercy rules
- a limited number of pickoff throws per batter
- no-pitch intentional walks
- limiting pitching changes
- starting extra innings with runners on base
There isn’t a single one that would make a younger non-fan suddenly curious about baseball. But they would all be means to an end. The goal would be to get baseball back to a state of equilibrium, where the time commitment to watch a single game wouldn’t be so onerous. It would take about 20 different rule changes, give or take, to shave a half-hour off the average game. Little nips and snips here, little nips and snips there, and it will change the game substantially. With no guarantees that New Baseball™ would appeal to the sassy youngsters with the goldfish-like attention spans.
At the same time, all of those little tweaks would be undone by the desire for more scoring. It’s weird, the timing of this juiced ball coinciding with the league’s stated desire for more offense. What are the odds, ha ha? We already know that baseball wants to raise the strike zone, and that the changes might be in place before the 2017 season.
Smaller strike zones mean more scoring. Baseball also might consider limiting pitching changes, which would give the hitters the platoon advantage more often. Which would lead to more scoring. More scoring means longer games. Which means, uh, let’s see, FIVE SECONDS BETWEEN BATTERS, HURRY, GET UP THERE, OR THE ON-DECK CIRCLE OPENS UP AND SENDS YOU TO THE RANCOR PIT BELOW. That is, more fidgeting with the rules.
Contrary to popular belief, there really isn’t much of a difference in between-innings commercial time now and the time allowed 40 years ago. I timed a recent broadcast as having one minute and 45 seconds of commercials, which was roughly the same as the time for commercials in a random 1988 game and the 1979 NLCS (dig that Bobby Murcer Skoal ad). I guess there would be a way to go back to the minute-long breaks from the ‘50s, but that would have a financial impact that I can’t possibly fathom, and it would shave maybe 20 minutes from every game — substantial, but not something that would force an army of baseball agnostics to become lifelong fans.
The real answer is that there isn’t an answer for Manfred’s Paradox. That’s why it’s a paradox. Baseball can’t have more offense and shorter games. Not without taking away an out in every half-inning. Not without changing the game drastically. Even if baseball didn’t care a lick about more offense, getting shorter games would still be a huge struggle. Asking for both at the same time is like drinking a beer on a treadmill.
My suggestion? Make sure that young people have access to the most exciting baseball moments at all times. Say, in a format that’s easy to digest and widely share on social media. In a way that isn’t controlled in a short-sighted attempt to squeeze every last drop out of digital ad sales that forces the shareable moments into a bottleneck that limits the potential audience. Which gives both people who care about baseball and don’t care about baseball a chance to see a great highlight like this:
Well, trust me, it was a great highlight. Silly in all the right ways. Easy to share. Easy for non-baseball fans to see if it came across their Vine, Instagram or Twitter feed. It would make younger people think, "I guess interesting stuff does happen in baseball! I should check this stuff out more!" But I guess following @MLBGIFs and hoping you’re online when they tweet a highlight once is also a great way to see it.
Because no matter how much tinkering baseball does to scoring and pace of play, baseball will always be a time commitment. It will always be action-break-preparation-tension-setup-action-break-preparation-tension-setup-action-break because that’s what baseball is. It will always appeal to some people, just as it will always turn others off. Fewer infield shifts, a higher strike zone and 10 fewer minutes at the ballpark isn’t going to change that much.
There’s no way to turn a toaster oven into a PlayStation, even if that’s what the kids want these days. You just have to make sure you’re making the best damned toaster oven you can make, and that everyone knows about it. That’s the real formula. Messing with the rules of the game to get incremental gains will never be the slam dunk that baseball hopes it will be.