New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would consider eliminating shifts
0:56 | MLB
New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would consider eliminating shifts
Tuesday February 10th, 2015

The lie we tell ourselves is that baseball is a tidy game, not much more than a better-lit version of our Little League memory, a simple game that after every final pitch can be put neatly away until next playtime in three clear plastic bins: runs, hits and errors. The truth is that baseball is growing increasingly complex. The mining, acquisition and deployment of data is adding layers to organizational structures — analysts to front office staffs, multiple hitting coaches, defensive coordinators and replay experts to coaching staffs, soft tissue therapists and "mental performance" experts to medical and support staffs, etc. All of it also adds to how slowly the game is played.

Commissioner Rob Manfred is committed to continuing to modernize the game, a mission that essentially comes down to this: How do you excise the 37 minutes of inaction that have slowed the average baseball game over the past two generations? It seems an obvious mission now that runs — already the hardest to come by since 1976 — will continue to grow scarcer and the games longer if he provokes no change. Giving customers less over a longer period of time is the antithesis of the culture in this age of technology.

His mission to get people to follow the games, however, is made more difficult by his duty to those whose jobs depend on winning them. Consider the backlash when Manfred merely suggested he was open to the idea of restraining defensive shifts. It was regarded as an insult to modern baseball intelligence, a curb on innovation. When it comes to improving pace of play, Manfred must strike a balance between the demands of the customer and the ethos of the worker.

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​"I'd like to know the real reason why we need to do something about it," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. "What is the purpose behind the faster game? I'm not really clear on that. So that, I don't understand.

"To me, I think it's more of a media kind of thing — probably deadlines at the end of the night based on more items being carried simultaneously as opposed to the newspaper the next day. It has to be tied into that somehow. Little Joey, 10 years old, wishes the game is four hours. I was wishing for extra innings every night. I never cared about how long a baseball game was. Listening to it on the radio or watching it on TV, [I was] hoping it goes longer."

Maddon's voice matters. He is an expert on the balance between pace of play and offense. For one, Maddon was an early adopter of advanced baseball information, and still operates on its cutting edge. For another, it was Maddon who pointed out to me two years ago that every information-based development in recent years (Pitch F/X, Trackman, spray charts, defensive shifts, advanced video, etc.) favors run prevention over run production. He saw this dip in offense coming, and now all of us can see it deepening.

Moreover, as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays last year, he presided over a team that played the longest games in baseball with the worst offense in the league. Think about that combination; no team in the sport's history took so long to generate so little action.

"There were some pitchers that were slow. I know that," he said. "I also know that's a group offensively that you teach or pursue guys that see pitches. I think that plays into it somehow. Primarily I think the slowness of that would be pitchers' timing between pitches. Combine that with hitters seeing a lot of pitches."

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I pointed out to him that his catchers filibustered more than anybody in Washington. Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan acted as if every pitch were a complicated mathematical equation — waiting, pondering, deliberating, running probabilities through their head … until finally a finger or two would go down. They visited the mound with numbing regularity, but with an almost defiant lack of urgency, choosing a painfully slow pace to conceal their paranoia (A runner on second base — must be stealing signs! The hitter just fouled off a pitch — must have figured something out!) or their amateur degree in psychology (Hand-Holding for Pitchers 101). Molina and Hanigan were far from alone in running a game this way — the art of slow-playing a game now is flatteringly considered "taking charge" by a catcher — they just took it to the greatest extreme.

"That's something, too. It depends," Maddon said. "Runners on second base, if you do in fact feel as though people are stealing some signs possibly … If there is a breakdown in communication..."

For 100 years, baseball was played with few such visits to the mound. Legend has it that Bob Gibson famously would scowl at Tim McCarver if his catcher dared approach him, explaining, "Get back there. The only thing you know about pitching is you can't hit it." That's not how the game is played now. The thought and information that go into every pitch have mushroomed.

Few Cubs fans will mind how long the games are as long as Joe Maddon turns the team into winners.
M. Spencer Green/AP

"I'll tell you one thing," Maddon said, "you'd much rather your catcher go out there and talk to guys as opposed to sit down there and make a bad choice, something bad happens, he comes in after the inning and says, 'I wish I had gone out there and talked to the guy.'"

The volume of information has changed the game. The more there is to consider, the longer it takes. And the fewer runs that can be had while more playoff spots are at stake mean, the more is on the line with each pitch.

"Again, there is so much more nuance involved in this game. Nothing is cut and dry," he said. "Furthermore, the Rays are playing these teams that are really good, and a lot of thought [goes] into it. And there is a razor thin line between winning and losing [now]. It's not even razor — it's laser thin. And you are looking for edges all the time.

"Furthermore, we hire sports psychologists to slow it down. We talk about the best players in the game. What do they do? They slow the game down.

"I need to know more as to why the pace of the game is such a huge issue and who it's bothering. Of course, at the end of the day, I'm like Colin Powell: I'm going to give you my best advice and my strongest loyalty, absolutely. If it's something that comes from the top and it's vital to the survival of the game of baseball, of course, you jump on board.

"Last year with the Rays, we had some slow pitchers. I would agree with that. And that should come from the players themselves. Peer pressure. 'Listen, I'm playing shortstop, I'm catching, let's go man. I'm sitting out there on my heels all the time because you take forever.' A lot of that stuff can be rectified from within."

As bench coach with the Angels more than 10 years ago, Maddon designed a shift against Ken Griffey Jr. In his first month on the job as manager of the Devil Rays, Maddon designed a four-man outfield against David Ortiz. In the first series of the 2012 season, the Rays so frustrated Yankees hitters such as Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira that New York left Tropicana Field muttering about how "lucky" were Maddon and his team.

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"Swish was hitting line drives right at everybody," Maddon said, laughing.

Maddon knew that the Rays would never have the resources to match deep-pocketed teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox, so they had to be better at the finer points, such as assembling a crack team of number crunchers.

"If you try to go conventional, you're going to get your brains beat out," he said.

In Maddon's first two years there, Tampa Bay was last in the league in defensive efficiency, which measures how often a team turns batted balls into outs. Over his next seven years it never was lower than fifth: first, fourth, second, first, third, second, fifth.

"I can't take all the credit for that," he said. "That is really some advance scouting work on the part of the people upstairs in Tampa Bay. We really worked well together. Those guys would provide the intel. The biggest thing we had to do on the field was you've got to get the buy-in from the players. There is still that group of players or that one or two players or that rogue pitcher that's going to want to fight against that — especially if that one ground ball just avoids a fielder that may have been caught had he been in another spot. He doesn't even realize the five or six that were caught because he was already there.

"If you don't like what we're doing, you say it before it happens and not after it happens, all right? Don't dare come say something to me after it happens. I'm just here to tell you, for other organizations that may be getting into it, the biggest sell is to your players and the pitchers to make sure that they are on board more than anybody."

Maddon had a motto with Rays: "We catch line drives." He made sure he left room to interpret the "nuances" in the game rather than relying purely on the schematics handed to him by the analysts. "Your particular pitcher, velocity, count, score of the game, has this guy really been hot or ice cold the last two weeks … The little nuances matter," he said. "The little micro adjustments you may be making off all this stuff you have to pay attention to."

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Moving to the National League, the maestro of nuance has even more detail with which to be concerned, what with the bench, pinch-hitting, double switches and bunting coming more into play. He already has commissioned a study from the Cubs' number crunchers about the wisdom of hitting the pitcher eighth. (The early returns show it is personnel-dependent; it makes sense, for instance, with hard-hitting pitcher Travis Wood eighth and an on-base hitter such as Tommy LaStella ninth, but not so much in most instances.) After interleague games in NL parks as Rays manager, Maddon would find himself more mentally exhausted than after AL games. Now he gets a steady dose of mental challenges.

"I'm going to say the same thing here with the Cubs: We are going to catch line drives, because you are trying to be in position to catch balls by good hitters who probably hit the ball hard," he said. "You are not a good hitter if you don't hit the ball hard normally. And if you hit the ball softly your defense gets bigger. So those are the kind of things you try to talk to your players about and have them understand [about] the little nuances regarding moving."

For 100 years, baseball was an observational game. The "brains" in the dugout were the ones who reacted well on the fly from what they saw on the diamond – a pitch pattern, the arc of a swing, a tell by a pitcher, some deeply buried clue about whether the starting pitcher was tiring or not … the brightest managers were lauded for acting on "hunches" that paid off.

Today, walking into a clubhouse three hours before a game is like walking into a technology class at a university. Coaches and players are huddled over laptops or tablets. A video of the opposing pitcher plays on a continuous loop on multiple televisions. Stacks of color-coded printouts, with spray charts and pitch patterns, are passed around. Much of the information is taped to a wall in the dugout, with the in-depth stuff carted there in a bound volume. A manager better be armed with data to explain himself in his postgame news conference; admitting to playing a "hunch" invites ridicule, not praise.

Information continues to flood the game because it works, and as Maddon knows, it works best at preventing runs, not creating them. Quicker baseball games? Sure, it makes sense. But it's complicated.

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