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Around the Horn

Manfred's wish list

Unable to leave well enough alone, the powers that be at Major League Baseball are seeking more changes to the league rules, according to a source that spoke to the Associated Press this week. The proposed changes just heard about would be in off-field rules concerning the Disabled List and minor-league options, and they're not necessarily bad ideas, but these days when I see "new rule coming" I immediately become suspicious.

The Commissioner's office has been responsible for quite a few changes to the game since the Bud Selig era—big stuff like Wild Card berths, interleague play, and video replay review; little stuff like what constitutes a legal slide and clarifying the balk rule—but current commissioner Rob Manfred is seemingly on a mission to maim the game of baseball little by little in a "death by a thousand cuts" style of attack.

Manfred's stated goal is to shorten the average time of a game, but he's unwilling to do any more about the things that actually draw out the length of any given ballgame—between innings time for TV commercials and time spent on replay reviews—than has already been done. Instead, he's focused on other ideas that fall under his umbrella term of "pace of play."

Thus far he's succeeded in implementing the no-pitch intentional walk and limiting the number of mound visits—one bad change, one good one—which have minimal effect on the length of a game, and tried to enforce existing rules like keeping batters in the batter's box, which has some. I hate the no-pitch walk, but it's a minor offense; Manfred's wish list, though, is frightening. Here are some things he has either formally proposed or floated as possibilities, starting with the least egregious:

  • A pitch clock, limiting the pitcher to 18 seconds form the time he steps on the rubber to throwing the next pitch (20 seconds with runners on base). Not the most heinous idea out there, but it would all but remove the pick-off as part of the game if it was that draconian. Other leagues already have some form of pitch clock and this could be fine if not applied with runners on base or if there were otherwise enough thought put into it. There's a school of thought that postulates that this would increase the number of pitcher injuries, though, so would saving a few seconds be really worth it?
  • Raising the lower boundary of the strike zone to above the knee. This seems to be intended to address the epidemic of strikeouts the game has experienced recently, but it does nothing to address the time of games. In fact, it seems to be counterproductive in that regard. The strike zone has evolved over the years and a corrective adjustment isn't necessarily a bad idea, but be clear on the goal before going further with it.
  • Limiting pick-off throws. This seems like lesson in the law of unintended consequences waiting to happen. Tension with a speedy baserunner at first is not dead time in a game, it's strategic. Besides, this won't help shave any time—we'll just have pitchers step off the rubber a bajillion times and after the inevitable stolen base more pitches will be thrown to subsequent batters in efforts to keep fat ones from scoring the runner, more walks, longer innings. Don't screw with it.
  • Require relievers to face a minimum number of batters. This rule already exists, and the number is one batter. Expanding it to be more than one might be something to think about, but it would fundamentally change strategies. The lefty-specialist, for instance, would essentially vanish as a thing. In the end, this would be too drastic a limitation on how a manager can use his bullpen. There are better ways to cut down on excessive pitching changes, if that's the goal.
  • Restrict the number of pitchers on a roster. OK, I can see this working—not having a million relievers means fewer potential pitching changes, and teams have been going a bit bananas with eight or even nine-man bullpens recently. But it again changes strategy: If you carry extra pitchers, you have fewer bench players, and thus can't utilize pinch-hitters/-runners or defensive replacements as much, and what do you do if there's an injury? Fun as it might be to see tomorrow's starting pitcher take the field at third base, I don't think anyone would want to risk it regularly. But that might not be incentive enough given what we've seen in the American League, anyway. This might be all right. Maybe.

Now, here are the real whacko ideas:

  • Start extra innings with runners on base. This has already been implemented in the minor leagues, and while it's OK for short tournaments like the WBC, it's absurd for Major League Baseball. Baseball doesn't need some kind of answer to an "overtime shootout," it requires full innings to be played and that's the way it should remain.
  • Mercy rule. What is this, middle school? No. Just no. Play a game to completion.
  • Ban the infield shift. This also would not help with length of games, but instead seems to be intended to generate more offense. Here's a better idea: teach batters to hit to the opposite field now and then. Fielders should be permitted to play anywhere on the field that they or their manager want, it's a strategic move. The batter's job is to beat the defensive strategy, not complain because the defense exploits his weaknesses. Would Manfred also want to prohibit playing the infield in? What about a bunt defense like the wheel play? Leave this alone, let batters and baserunners adapt to make the shift ineffective and this will solve itself. Or it won't. Let it be.
  • Allow managers to reset the lineup in the ninth inning. What. The. Actual. F-bomb. This is obscene. The batting order is the batting order. If you want to change it, you use a pinch-hitter, that's one reason you carry a bench. The degree to which this is a terrible idea is immense. No freakin' way.

Sigh. Look, if you truly want to shorten the length of the average game, you need to reduce TV commercial time and either do away with or seriously tweak the video replays. All this other crap won't help enough to justify the strategic damage it would do to the game itself.

Time of game is not the real problem, anyway. The problem is attendance and broadcast eyes and ears. The theory is that the modern audience has a short attention span and can't handle a three-hour game as well as a two-hour-and-fifty-two-minute game, which is, to put it charitably, silly.

Are there issues that need to be addressed in baseball? Sure. Strikeouts are alarmingly commonplace, ball-and-strike umpiring has become sloppy, and the DH experiment hasn't been mercy-killed yet. The financial structure and inequity among teams needs attention. But that isn't why attendance is down or getting TV viewers is tricky.

Attendance is down because (a) it's too expensive to go frequently (or, for some, at all), and (b) some teams lose a lot. There's not a lot to be done about (b) except address the payroll and revenue structure of the league, which is a bigger issue unto itself. But (a) is easily handled by making it cheaper to buy tickets or offering other kinds of discounts when poor attendance is predicted. 100 butts in seats at half price is better than 30 butts in seats at full price. And as for TV, well, there's a lot of competition out there; Netflix and Xboxes demand time too, and you know what, the TV contracts are pretty solid these days anyway.

Commissioner Manfred, if you want to make the game better, then get out of the way. If you want to grow its audience, make it cheaper to attend. But enough with this pace-of-play garbage and strategy-neutering brain cramps. It's a great game as it is.

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