MIAMI – Somewhere in between baseball’s ongoing debate about the ball’s composition, the sometimes-painful pace of play, the three true outcomes, the spike in home runs drawing headlines and a velocity surge that would make Ferrari blush, lies the future of the sport.
Clearly the game has changed over the past few years, and it was somewhat jarring to hear commissioner Rob Manfred once again do the kind of public navel-gazing over where his product is at and where it’s headed during a gathering with members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
He continued to strike a far more interventionist tone than predecessor Bud Selig when he noted that, "other sports have been more aggressive about managing what’s going on on the field in terms of what their game looks like than we have been, I’m certainly open to the idea that we should take a more aggressive posture."
The NHL’s constant tinkering with the game, for instance, is routine for hockey fans but it’s fairly foreign to baseball, which has fought through all kinds of old-school resistance to implement more benign alterations like instant replay and the slide rules at second base or home.
During the spring, Manfred made clear the pace of play needed to pick up and that if the players union didn’t agree to changes to speed things up, he’d use his powers to change the rules next year. He took a more conciliatory stance this week, saying, "I am a deal guy at heart. I would much rather have an agreement than proceed unilaterally." For his part, players association head Tony Clark said that despite the divergent interests of hitters and pitchers, the union had identified enough common ground to have "things we will be able to present to baseball when the time comes."
How extreme will things go? Pitch clocks? A limit on pitching changes per inning? A limit on mound visits? Despite Manfred’s posturing, games this season have gotten slower, with only the San Diego Padres averaging a time of game under three hours at 2:57, and the Boston Red Sox dragging out things longest at 3:19. Last year two teams were under three hours and three more were right on it, with the Arizona Diamondbacks bringing up the rear at 3:14.
The causes for that are varied, from hitters moving in and out of the box and pitchers coming on and off the rubber to deliberate paces as gamesmanship to frequent mound visits and oodles of pitching changes. But some of the slow-down is rooted in a game increasingly dominated by homers, walks and strikeouts.
No one is saying for certain whether that is the product of organic evolution, something more artificial or, dare we say it, nefarious. But Manfred, along with Clark, both made clear this week that, conspiracy theories about a juiced ball aside, they’re trying to get a handle on things.
"It’s all an interrelated set of issues," said Manfred. "I do believe that baseball can be more aggressive about managing the game but it should not be managing the game to make it like I want to see it, or an owner wants to see it. It ought to be about managing the game in a way that’s responsible to our fans."
That’s been a familiar theme for Manfred, who back in the spring said baseball had conducted market research indicating that fans wanted to see more action on the field. With 3,343 homers in 2,652 games thus far, they’ve gotten some on that end of the spectrum, as hitters are on pace to surge past the high-water mark of 5,693 established in 2000 at the heart of the steroid era.
Manfred pointed out that testing for PEDs is at an all-time high and "is less predictable than ever in the history of the program." And, for the grassy knoll set, added "the baseball falls within the tolerance of the specifications that have existed for many years."
"Absolutely certain about that," he reiterated.
Maybe, he offered, it’s the bats, a variable largely removed from the conversation to this point. "We’ve taken for granted that bats aren’t different," Manfred said, but Clark later countered that the players are focused on the ball for now. "We’ve begun discussions with MLB asking a number of questions ourselves," he said, "trying to appreciate what may be factual and what may be not."
Then there’s the velocity surge, with dudes slanging it 95 mph-plus in bullpens everywhere, as starters are getting to a third time through the batting order less often due to overwhelming data that says it’s a bad idea. Consider that when the home run record was set in 2000, there were a total of 31,356 strikeouts, while at the break this year, there are already 21,855.
"There is a dramatically increased tolerance for strikeouts by offensive players. There is much, much more emphasis on the home run as the principle offensive tool in the game," said Manfred. "There’s a dramatic increase in the use of relief pitchers, even to the point of a rotating bottom of the roster between triple-A and who’s in the big-leagues, all of which has contributed to this phenomenon."
Factor in the 8,655 walks and that’s an awful lot of the type of inaction Manfred has in the past cited as a concern in the market research baseball has conducted. The worry is not so much about the current fanbase – the business as a whole is in good health at present – but about projecting forward and capturing the attention of the next generation of fans with their fleeting attention spans and highlights-on-the-phone mentality.
"The issue is what do fans want to see?" said Manfred. "Our research suggests that the home run is actually a popular play in baseball. Strikeouts some fans actually like, if they’re strikeouts by a pitcher – Clayton Kershaw strikes out however many guys in those nine innings. Some fans like to see that. Where it gets troubling from a fan perspective is tons and tons of strikeouts, no action, lots of pitching changes – that combination is troubling to me."
And that’s what is shaping the conversation with players, who are going to have to accept some sort of changes next year. As for how invasive they will be, that all depends on how far they’re willing to go versus how much Manfred is willing to ram down their throats.
He’s holding out a seat at the table with one hand and holding a hammer with the other.
"I remain hopeful that the players association recognizes that something has changed in the game," he said, "that we’re not out to limit change, alter any individual player’s career and it’s time for us to think together about what the game looks like on the field."
Some other notable points from Manfred’s meeting with the BBWAA:
•The commissioner reiterated his support for the Rays in their pursuit of a new stadium and suggested that other markets – Montreal take note – may not be as appealing as Tampa Bay. "I continue to believe that Tampa is a viable major-league market and I also believe it may be better than the alternatives we have out there. I am hopeful that we get to a resolution. I’ve said to you before, however, there does come a point in time where we have to accept the reality that the market, for whatever set of reasons, can’t get to the point where they have a major-league quality facility and I am not going to indefinitely leave a club in a market without a major-league quality facility."
•Baseball will be seeking to unify the process for signing professional players from foreign leagues, Manfred said. "What we would like to do with the posting systems, not just in Japan, but Korea, Cuba, is get to a consistent approach with respect to the movement of foreign professional players to Major League Baseball and that consistent approach should give recognition to the fact that we want to promote professional play in other countries beside the United States. Read that to mean we’re not going to take too many players; that clubs in other countries that give up players where they have reserve rights should be fairly compensated for giving up those reservations; and that players, particularly star players who want to play in Major League Baseball, should have a meaningful opportunity at a realistic point of their career to play here in the United States. … So I think you can expect that we will be looking for changes."
•On the concerns of teams about injuries in the World Baseball Classic: "The WBC was a huge success for this sport, No. 1. No. 2, we have examined injury histories over a number of WBC events. The fact of the matter is players get hurt no more frequently and no more seriously in the WBC than when they stay home in camp with their clubs. There are a certain number of injuries that are going to take place. Nobody knows, because you can’t know, whether that injury would have taken place if they had stayed right there in camp or not."
•On the usage of the 10-day DL: "The concept of a 10-day DL was a good one in the sense that A, the clubs wanted it, and B, it gave clubs additional flexibility to deal with injuries and minimize the amount of time that great players are outside the game, to the detriment of fans. All those are positives. Unfortunately, and we saw some of this right around the all-star break, any new rule, our guys figure out a way to manage to it, and I don’t like some of the activity that’s gone on in terms of the use of the 10-day DL. We’re having conversations about that internally."
•With the all-star games handed out to Washington for 2018 and Cleveland in 2019, MLB is running "a much more competitive evaluation of various bids" for the next three editions of the Midsummer Classic. There are "way more than three clubs in that mix," he noted. The Blue Jays are interested in hosting an all-star game and are looking to complete an extensive Rogers Centre renovation in the coming years.