Rob Manfred's stern message: MLB will modernize, no matter what players want

4:19 | MLB
Was Rob Manfred justified in being upset with lack of MLB rule changes?
Wednesday February 22nd, 2017

PHOENIX — Rejoice, baseball fans. Commissioner Rob Manfred announced Tuesday he will drag the obstructionists of the Major League Baseball Players Association into the 21st century next year, even if it means they are kicking and screaming, which quite frankly is welcome action after all the dead time they’ve been inflicting upon us.

Imagine baseball in 2018 with a 20-second pitch clock, with the ball put in play more frequently, with players, coaches and managers barred from visiting the mound as many times as they want, and with an end to our long national nightmare of watching Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez hold the ball for no good reason. Imagine the same great game we love, only played at a crisper pace. There is only one word to greet such news:

Hallelujah.

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Two days after union chief Tony Clark said he saw no need for any substantive rules changes, Manfred finally had enough of the union’s full-on blockade of attempts to modernize the game. He broke out the threat of a never-before-used hammer: a provision in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows the commissioner to unilaterally impose new rules after notifying the union a year in advance. Manfred said he will send Clark the letter of notification this week.

And so before a single game has been played under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement—one that the owners won handily on all scorecards—Manfred put Clark in a corner: Negotiate change or have it shoved down your throat. The clock is ticking. Short an agreement, MLB is likely to impose the rules changes in December for the 2018 season.

The fact that Manfred pulled this naked power play tells you how bad the talks have been toward modernizing the game. He cited “a lack of cooperation from the MLBPA.” Clark, in a statement, disputed Manfred’s characterization.

Welcome to the first real war in the tenures of this commissioner and this union chief. And it has nothing to do with economics. It’s about the players’ right to dawdle.

I’ve been telling you for years how baseball, despite its popularity and economic largesse, teeters on a terrible business model no other content company would dare proffer in this world of short attention spans and easily accessible and increasing diversions: giving people less action over a longer period of time.

Buoyed by the richness of the moment, and ignorant of the facts, the players are the climate-change deniers of what is going on in baseball. Don’t mess with how we play, is the typical player response, even though every one of them now coming up through the minor leagues has played with a pitch clock there—and nobody has been harmed and the games there have a better pace.

I get it. Players love the status quo. They hate change, even though they are good at adapting. They fought the home plate collision rule, and two months into its use it was a non-issue. They fought the slide rule, and two months into its use it was a non-issue. But players live in the moment. Careers can end at any time. So asking them to understand and to do what’s best for the next generation of fans is a tough ask.

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After Manfred’s bombshell news conference, I asked five players—Adrian Gonzalez of the Dodgers, Jonathan Lucroy of the Rangers, Francisco Lindor of the Indians, Nelson Cruz of the Mariners and Salvador Perez of the Royals—if they would consider rules changes designed to improve the pace of action in baseball. I offered the most common suggestions: a pitch clock, limits on visits to the mound, and raising the bottom of the strike zone. Every one of the five players emphatically rejected every suggestion. Lucroy, for instance, said raising the bottom of the zone could lead to more offense, which would lead to longer games.

Like most people, Lucroy misunderstood the purpose of the proposed changes. They are designed to cut dead time between action, not to shave minutes off the game.

Manfred said he was bound to respond not to the “impressions” players have of the state of the game, but to “research of what our fans think about the game.” The facts must win over impressions. And the facts are indisputable: Baseball never has been played this slowly with this much dead time.

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I gave you facts last week about this trend. Among them:

• Including home runs, a ball gets put in play once every 3 minutes, 25.2 seconds—a 13% increase in dead time in just 10 years and by far the worst such pace in history.

• There were 9,287 fewer balls in play last year than just 10 years ago.

• The ball is not in play for 30.8% of plate appearances, up from 27.1% just 10 years ago, and 22.8% 40 years ago.

As velocity and bullpen usage goes up, we get more pitching changes, fewer balls in play, more strikeouts and fewer comebacks.

More facts: The reason Manfred wants to shrink the strike zone is because umpires are calling more low strikes and because pitchers are throwing harder and lower. It’s all in the data, which also show that batting average on low pitches is much worse than batting average on high pitches.

Check this out: Here is how fast—and I mean fast—pitching has changed in baseball. In just the past eight years, average fastball velocity has increased by 1.1 miles per hour, while the average height of a pitch has decreased by 1.7 inches—and the trend is obvious:

 
year Average fastball velocity (mph) average pitch height (In)
2009 91.5 28.7
2010 91.5 28.3
2011 91.8 28.2
2012 91.8 27.6
2013 92.0 27.5
2014 92.1 27.1
2015 92.5 26.9
2016 92.6 27.0

No wonder there were fewer balls in play last year, on a per game basis, than in any season in baseball history. Moreover, the explosion of information in the game has slowed the pace of play because there is so much more data to consider in the course of playing the game (i.e., conferences on the mound, shifting defenses). Every pitch takes on the deliberateness of splitting the atom. Lucroy and Perez, both catchers, grew animated in their disgust with any suggestion that they be limited on how often they could visit the mound.

Do you remember Game 2 of the World Series last year? Chances are you don’t, because you might have reached a catatonic state trying to watch it. Only six runs were scored—none in the last three innings, when 44% of the hitters failed to put the ball in play. Overall there were 10 pitchers, 20 strikeouts, and no lead changes. The most amazing stat of all: There were more visits to the mound (14) than hits (13). Fourteen visits to the mound!

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Time of game? An abominable four hours, four minutes. On average, you had to wait five minutes for a ball to be put in play.

Let’s be clear about something: The first step by MLB should be to impose rules that address only dead time, and do not target the strategy of the game. The pitch clock, limits to the mound and a smaller strike zone should be implemented in 2018, and you would immediately see a drastic improvement in the pace of game.

The next phase—and it may not be necessary—would be to attack the strategies of the game, such as governors on relief pitching (i.e., facing a minimum of two or three batters, not one; or a limit on changes per inning) or defensive shifts. The rule about the “California tiebreaker” (start an inning with runners at first and second) to bring a quick end to extra inning games that sent so many people into a tizzy? Typical media overreaction. It’s never happening in the major leagues, but it makes sense in developmental leagues, such as the Arizona Fall League or Rookie League.

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Last summer the NBA changed its Hack-a-Shaq rules to improve the pace of its games. Last fall the NFL announced it was considering pace-of-game changes, including shortening commercial breaks. “We want to take as much what we call dead time, non-action, out of the game, so that we can make the game more exciting,” commissioner Roger Goodell said.

The reaction? Crickets, not some holy war between the players and owners.

Baseball has a choice: Do nothing or modernize the game, as all other sports, Hollywood and every entertainment company are doing. Imagine if baseball does nothing. If we continue at the pace of the past decade, by 2026 a ball will be put in play only once almost every four minutes, 35% of all plate appearances will end without the ball in play, and the average game will include 20 strikeouts. It will be the most static sport this side of chess.

And that’s why Manfred, with a stern look on his face and a prepared statement in hand, marched to the rostrum at a ballroom here and took his boldest step yet as commissioner. When it comes to choices, Manfred delivered a message to the union: You have none. Doing nothing is no longer an option.

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