Baseball is a wonderful game we like to pretend is timeless and immutable. We cling to the mythology that the game doesn’t change, that Giancarlo Stanton is playing Babe Ruth’s game. We prefer to forget the evolution that, for instance, has changed the height of the mound and the composition of the ball and bats, and brought about the DH, interleague play, wild cards, instant replay, artificial turf and tablets in the dugout.
The game moves as does Earth itself: perpetually, though we tend not to notice. Here’s just one example: In 1957, there was only one player 6’ 5” or taller who came to bat 200 times (Walt Dropo). Twenty years later, there were three. Another 20 years later, there were seven. And 20 years after that—last season—there were 19, an all-time record for so many hitters so big. There were more home runs hit in August last year than in the entire 1943 season. Bigger men are shrinking the size of the field.
The modern game is wildly successful, judging by how more people consume the sport in more ways than ever before. Baseball is no longer a pastime; it is one of the world’s great content companies, each year cranking out about 7,500 hours of live, DVR-proof content, from which springs a deluge of highlights, narratives, statistics and memes.
The subtle trick is to keep the game modern and attractive in a marketplace with more entertainment choices and diversions than ever. Other sports do this routinely with nary a word of complaint. Did you know the NBA this season adopted rules changes (timeouts, free throw procedures, halftime) specifically to improve pace of play? Their passage was no big deal. The league’s goal? “Fewer stoppages and less time without action, especially at the end of a game.” It’s a guiding principle in entertainment, be it movies, television programs, e-sports, games, and, yes, baseball.
With evolution, not revolution, in mind, here are 10 ways to make baseball even better. Think of these as software updates. Better to bring the game up to date, rather than waiting until there is a crash.
1. A pitch clock
The pace of game measures agreed to this week by MLB and the players association were a nothingburger when measured against the threats of commissioner Rob Manfred to implement serious change. A limit on visits to the mound—with provisos to add additional ones—is an incremental improvement that hardly dents the growing dead time between pitches. (Teams are allowed six visits, two below the average last year, but with certain conditions that allow more.)
In the past decade, players have added an average of 2.6 seconds between pitches. That dawdling doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up to 13 minutes of pure nothingness to the average game. That baseball can talk for years about pace of play and to this day still do nothing about Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez taking half a minute to throw each pitch is a dereliction of duty.
Basketball, soccer and football successfully keep fans engaged with the visual stimulation of motion that our tech-addled eyes crave; even the adoption of the no-huddle offense in football gives the appearance that action is ongoing. That each pitch in baseball requires the preparedness of brain surgery, and as more and more at-bats extend to full counts, is a recipe for trouble with young demographics. The chess aspect of baseball is fantastic as a strategic element; but chess is not a very good TV sport.
2. Automated Strike Zone
It’s not quite ready yet, and you better have 100% faith in such a system when you roll it out, but it’s coming. Now it’s only a matter of perfecting the technology. Major League Baseball’s pitch tracking technology is getting there. Last year its margin of error was 1.7 inches in all directions—or about half the width of a baseball. With its Trackman 2.5 upgrade, which is expected to be rolled out in all 30 parks by Opening Day, MLB intends to reduce that margin of error to 0.5 inches horizontally and 0.8 inches vertically, resulting in an 86% reduction in pitch tracking margin of error.
It shouldn’t be that hard to develop algorithms that define personalized strike zones. The width, of course, is universal. The height depends on the position of a batter’s body as his bat passes over the plate—a range that should be easy to establish with enough frames of video.
You would still have umpires on the field—just as you still do a chair umpire in tennis despite the presence of Hawk-Eye – but for balls and strikes they would simply inform people whether the pitch passed through the automated zone.
3. Softer, Tackier Bases
Imagine if the NBA lost LeBron James and Steph Curry to injuries caused by slick courts. Baseball lost Mike Trout and Bryce Harper for weeks last year due to injuries caused by bases. More preventable injuries will occur this year, because the bases are too hard and too slick. I’m stunned that after years of star players being sidelined for extended periods because of workplace safety (Trout, Harper, Carlos Correa, Dustin Pedroia, Josh Hamilton, etc.) that neither the MLBPA nor MLB still have done anything about it.
4. Tackier Baseballs
In Japan, new baseballs are unwrapped from a foil cover and tossed directly into the game—no need for rubbing mud, pine tar, resin/sunblock recipes on the off pitching arm, etc. to protect against the slickness of the ball.
5. Rolling 25-man September Rosters
September baseball is one of the game’s great travesties, especially now that teams are using their bullpens more than ever. Suiting up 40 players for a nine-inning game is a joke, especially when the other team might have fewer players.
The answer: call up anybody you want from the 40-man roster, but you must designate an active 25-man roster before each series. (All call-ups get service time credit, even if they don’t make the active roster.) Don’t give me 28-man rosters or daily rosters—that’s inviting shenanigans. Let your opponent prepare for a series properly. Let’s keep the rules as close as possible to those of the first five months.
6. Switch Interleague Rules
Use the DH in NL parks; use NL rules in AL parks. Why? So fans can see a different style of baseball, and so that when a true DH star such as David Ortiz comes to, say, Philadelphia once every four or five years, the novelty of interleague play actually has some meaning, instead of the DH being forced to sit on the bench.
7. No Mid-Inning Pitching Changes in the All-Star Game
You’re an All-Star and you can’t get through an inning? Or the manager wants to play “match-up” in a game that doesn’t count? Really?
8. Replay Decisions Announced by An Umpire
Fans in a ballpark are treated poorly by instant replay. They don’t know why a decision was made. Sometimes they don’t even know what aspect of a play was being challenged. Who treats paying customers with such disrespect?
Further, because no detailed announcements are made in the press box, fans watching at home also often don’t know why a call was upheld, confirmed or overturned. More transparency is needed.
9. Everything is Reviewable
Why are some plays, such as fair or foul up to the corner bases, off limits for a challenge? (The official answer when it comes to balls hit down the line is that not every park has a camera peering exactly down the line.) If the replay is conclusive, use it. If it’s not, move on.
10. Free Tickets for Youth Groups
MLB has done research that shows that one of the strongest influences for developing loyal fans is to get them to the ballpark as kids. Experiencing Major League Baseball in a very tangible way at a young age has a very powerful impact that goes beyond any slick advertising campaign. There are dates and ballparks when giving free tickets to youth groups is impractical, but for the many times when there are many empty seats, baseball should look for ways to introduce itself in a first-hand way to kids who might not otherwise go to the ballpark. And you might just develop a baseball fan for life.