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Manfred pumps the brakes on big rule changes

Commissioner halts radical changes for ’19, but what's his real agenda?

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred today said that the MLB Players' Association's proposals for major rule changes—universal designated hitter rule, draft rules that penalize losing teams—are not under consideration...for now. Rather than declare such ideas dead on arrival, Manfred instead declared that the time for discussing such things is in the negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement. The current one expires at the end of 2021.

The rationale for this is simply that those sorts of changes would require significant lead time for clubs to adjust. True, but absent is any consideration of whether the proposals are actually good for the game in any way, shape, or form.

Manfred is still, however, pushing for quick adoption of his proposed changes, which relate to his unceasing obsession with quickening the "pace of play." To wit, Manfred wants a 20-second pitch clock and a three-batter minimum for every pitcher that enters a game, as well as a return to 15 days as the minimum duration of a disabled-list stint and five days added to the minimum stay in the minor leagues for any player optioned down during the season. Manfred has the power to implement the pitch clock unilaterally, but historically he has been reluctant to impose any change without approval from the union. “Some of these items need to be part of broader discussions that certainly will continue after opening day," Manfred said, "and I hope we can focus on some of the issues that need to get resolved quickly in the interim.”

The MLBPA's focus seems to be, naturally, on matters relating to player salaries and the free-agent market (universal DH). Manfred is zeroed in on in-game rules intended to make games shorter. Neither side appears interested in the greater good of baseball as a whole. "I think what needs to be sorted out is how closely the two agendas are tied," said Manfred, "in other words, the on-field stuff and the economic stuff.”

Year Average time
of game
Pitchers
per game
Attendance
per game
2018 3:04 4.36 28,659
2017 3:08 4.22 29,908
2016 3:04 4.15 30,131
2015 3:00 4.11 30,349
2014 3:07 3.98 30,345
2013 3:04 3.95 30,451
2012 3:00 3.99 30,806
2011 2:56 3.86 30,228
2010 2:54 3.87 30,066
2009 2:55 3.93 30,218
2008 2:55 3.92 32,382
2007 2:55 3.97 32,696
2006 2:51 3.85 31,306
2005 2:49 3.71 30,816
2004 2:51 3.76 30,075
2003 2:49 3.67 27,831
2002 2:56 3.63 28,006
2001 2:58 3.63 29,881

Data provided by Baseball-Reference.com

Of course, in the end, everything is "economic stuff," at least as far as Manfred is concerned. The commissioner always speaks of issues in terms of "marketing" and refers to baseball as "an entertainment product." This isn't wrong, of course; baseball is entertainment, and requires a degree of marketing in this day and age. But the verbiage is an indicator of Manfred's mindset as a bean-counter rather than a custodian of the game.

Manfred may or may not be truly bothered by the average length of a Major League baseball game; what he is bothered by is the drop in ballpark attendance—aggregate ticket sales have been in decline since a high-water mark of 79,000,000+ (or, a per-game average just shy of 32,700) in 2007. But why is that? Does "pace of play" really have anything to do with it? "Our research tells us that it's a fan issue," claims Manfred when discussing game length. OK, but can you elaborate, please? What specifically is the collective fans' issue, and does it genuinely affect their decisions to attend games or not?

As has been said before, repeatedly, the largest factor in game attendance is simply cost. Tickets are expensive. If you want to buy concessions or park your car conveniently, it's much more expensive. And it continues to get more expensive year after year. There's your correlation—it's a self-inflicted wound. In that record attendance year of 2007, the average MLB ticket price was $22.77. Last year it was $32.44, or 42% more. According to the U.S. Dept. of Labor Statistics, when adjusted for inflation, the increase in U.S. median income from ’07 to ’18 was just 2.4%. Plus, teams have been more and more focused on soaking wealthy fans and ignoring the masses, not much caring about fans of more meager means. Angels executive Robert Alvarado admitted as much in 2015, telling the Orange County Register, "Those people, they may enjoy the game, but they pay less." Instead, by focusing on the wealthy, "we’re getting a higher yield per ticket, selling [fewer] tickets [and] making a little bit more money." Alvarado was forced to resign over the PR problem this admission caused the Angels, but its not like they or any other club changed their ways.

Cost isn't everything, though. If corporate greed is too big a problem to target, then look at trends in the standings. Contention is a big player here, too. Good teams have better attendance, and more competitive parity would help matters a lot more than a pitch clock would. Much as some of us deplore the Bud Selig era—a canceled World Series, threats of contraction, a blind eye to steroids, throwing up his hands in futility at a tied All-Star Game—Selig's implementation of Wild Card berths and expanded playoffs did achieve its primary goal of keeping more teams in contention late in the season, which helped sell tickets. Spreading the wealth and making it more likely that a given team could see the playoffs, say, more than once a decade (we can dream, right, Seattle?) is a far more sensible goal than making sure managers can't make six pitching changes in the late innings.

Even with declining attendance, though, revenues as a whole are not down. In fact, they're higher than ever, having just seen the 16th consecutive year of record-breaking gross revenue league-wide, thanks largely to mammoth TV contracts. So why is Rob Manfred so intent on attendance, and, given that he is, why is he pushing rule tweaks that won't have any positive effect on it?

Commissioner of Baseball is not the job it once was. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the very first commissioner, insisted on independent authority and was under the mandate to act "in the best interests of baseball" as a whole. Say what you will about Landis (and there's much to say), but he was no pawn of Major League owners. Subsequent commissioners have been independent to varying degrees—Happy Chandler, Bart Giamatti, and Fay Vincent were true stewards of the game—but since Vincent's ouster and the elevation of Bud Selig in 1992 there's been no disguising that the commissioner's job is to act not in the best interests of baseball, but in the interests of ownership's bottom line.

Manfred may be seen as having been good at that job so far—though it can be argued that technology and a proliferation of pay TV services get more credit than he does—but his obsessive need to monkey around with the rules of the game to achieve nothing of consequence (shaving two minutes off the length of a game is not an accomplishment, and shaving ten minutes is not an accomplishment in and of itself) is not serving him well. If he gets more of the items on his wish list, he'll be remembered among the villains of the game.

Comments

  • Posted by ROBERT REYNOLDS on February 9, 2019 (8 months ago)

    I think also that the hitter has to stand in the batters box and not call time like it was back in the old day's.

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