The New Commissioner

Rob Manfred has officially taken the reins as Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He inherits a sport that is in better shape than a lot of people seem to realize. Financially, baseball as a whole is doing very well. Attendance is high and steady, even at a time when fans have many more ways to follow the sport than showing up in person. A lot of the griping one sees is from people who don’t appear to be fans anyway.

But there are a few issues that need to be addressed, and it looks like Mr. Manfred is willing to jump right in and get down to business.

The one overriding problem that covers all the little issues is the matter of “pace of play”. Games are, on average, taking longer to complete (but not significantly longer – just about a minute per year over the past decade or so, and still no longer than an average NFL game), with less “action” as offense is declining miserably. A number of proposals are on the table already, but the two most talked about aren’t necessary.

There’s talk of adding a “pitch clock” to keep pitchers from dawdling on the mound. As many commentators say, all you really need to do is enforce the rules already in the books to keep both pitchers and batters from stalling. An order from the Commissioner’s Office to remind umpires to enforce those rules, as well as letting them know that they will be supported in that enforcement, will help a great deal.

Another thing at the top of the list is the increasingly common use of defensive shifts. Talk of banning the most extreme shifts is underway, along with statistical evidence that shifts don’t really have that great an effect on offensive numbers. Some argue that batters should just learn to hit against them – a few bunt singles down the third base line will get rid of these shifts soon enough. While probably true, it won’t be easy to force hitters to change their styles.

Other proposals include sending the batter to first on an intentional walk rather than waste time by throwing four pitches, reducing the number of warm up pitches a new pitcher can make, or limiting the number of times a coach or manager can make a trip to the mound.

The first of those is silly – intentional walks don’t happen often enough for the change to make a difference (and things like wild pitches can still happen on an intentional walk), and the second might help a little bit. The third one of those hints at where the real problem might lie – pitching has become too specialized and too dominant.

Even back in 1968 (the “Year of the Pitcher”), some people understood the core of the problem:

“Modern managers have come up with new strategic concepts. The main difference is that they now platoon their pitchers and there is no way of platooning the hitters. Fresh pitchers keep streaming in. Once upon a time a hitter could adjust to a pitcher after he’d come to bat a couple of times and the pitcher is beginning to tire. Now they get no chance to tire and the hitter has no opportunity to adjust. The game has become one-sided.

“My idea would be to clamp a ceiling on the number of pitchers on a squad. If a manager was limited to eight, he wouldn’t be so quick with the hook.”

– Tony Kubek, NBC baseball analyst, NY Times, 7/12/68 (as reported here)

Teams these days regularly carry at least twelve pitchers on their rosters. With five of them being starters, that means that a manager has at least seven fresh arms to choose from later in the game. And when rosters expand late in the season, that number goes way up to the point where a manager can easily trot out a fresh arm every inning, or even every batter.

In addition to Kubeks’ idea of capping the number of pitchers a team can have on the roster, other ideas focus on the minimum number of batters a pitcher must face in a given appearance. No more bringing out a new pitcher for each batter. The Players’ Union might have something to say about that – players want to play; it’s what they get paid for – but there’s room to compromise in there.

A related issue that I’ve read about is that when rosters expand to forty players after the minor league seasons end, it becomes too easy for a manager to throw out more and more pitchers whom no one has ever seen before. This becomes annoying to teams in pennant races, who are fighting to win against a veritable parade of brand new pitchers; pitchers whom the batters have no idea how to hit against. This really isn’t as big a problem as it’s made out to be, but I do like the proposal that you do keep the expansion of the roster as it is, but before each series a manager must select twenty-five players from that forty-man roster that will be eligible for that particular series (the other 15 wait their turn to get in a game).

These are significant problems for Mr. Manfred to deal with, but they are not major. Thanks to Bud Selig, he’s got an easy job. There are no problems seriously threatening the future of the sport, especially when compared to the NFL.

Baseball isn’t sweeping the health issues of its players under the rug, as the NFL has been doing with concussions. As evidenced by the World Baseball Classic, and the number of MLB players from foreign countries (and not just Asia and the Caribbean), baseball has an international appeal that the NFL can only dream of. A large and vibrant minor league system means that the MLB doesn’t have to rely on colleges to produce athletes, and thereby join in the hypocrisy and inanity of the NCAA when it comes to “amateurs” and “student-athletes”. Yes, MLB has had problems with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in the past (the legacy of which still haunts the game), but they’ve learned from that and now have the toughest PED system of any major sport. Just ask Alex Rodriguez… And do you seriously think that the NFL, which places a premium on sheer size and brute strength – the exact things that PEDs produce – is “steroid free”?

Getting a new generation of baseball fans isn’t going to be easy, but that’s more a reflection of the multitude of entertainment choices now available than with any problems inherent in the game. Baseball is in fine shape. Mr. Manfred just needs to do a few tweaks rather than a complete overhaul.

Personally? If I were the Commissioner, I would:

* Instruct the umpires to rigorously enforce the rules covering delay of game already on the books (6.02 for batters, 8.04 for pitchers). Let everyone know that they WILL be enforced.

* Propose either a cap of 10 on the number of pitchers a team can have on its roster, or a rule change requiring a pitcher to face a minimum of two batters per appearance. I don’t think there’s anything in the rule book that specifies how many pitchers must be on a roster; the cap can probably be put in place without much trouble (assuming it’s approved). The other option will require a rule book change. I’ll give people the choice – either one would lower the number of pitching changes per game, and I’d be OK with either one.

* Use the “25 active out of 40 on the full roster” mentioned above.

* Keep the designated hitter rule exactly as it is (it’s the only way to tell the leagues apart!), but when it comes to interleague play, it will be used according to the league of the visiting team. Let’s see what pitchers can do against Fenway’s “Green Monster”. Would a DH in Coors Field be fun?

* I’d like to adjust schedules so that they are equally balanced – you play each team in your division X times, each team in the other divisions of your league Y times, and Z interleague games – but that’s going to be too hard to get the owners (who want all the revenue from more games with specific rivals) to agree with. But it’s nice to talk about.

* Allow players to show a little more emotion on the field. Celebrate your successes (within reason, of course), as long as you don’t insult your opponents.

Again, little tweaks. Nothing major or radical. Baseball ain’t broke. It doesn’t need “fixing”.

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