Major League Baseball is on a winning streak.
Last year’s World Series was dramatic, historic and the most watched since 2004. The Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association averted a work stoppage by finalizing a new five-year collective bargaining agreement. The fourth World Baseball Classic was the most compelling and most watched in history.
So why is Rob Manfred pushing for seismic changes to the sport?
Think of him like the Dennis Quaid lead character in “The Day After Tomorrow.” He sees dire possibilities in the future if behavior is not changed — immediately — to which he is being met often by disbelief and/or resistance.
As a confidant of the commissioner said, the easiest path for Manfred would be to do nothing and simply ride the current gravy train. Being proactive is a more treacherous path. Manfred nevertheless is investing the power that comes with his title to, in particular, focus the industry on quickening the pace of play.
Yes, MLB is verging on a $10 billion-a-year product with projections to do better, attendance is good and local TV dollars and ratings are better.
But Manfred believes, based on instinct and surveying done by his office, that if more is not done to remove so many dead spots within games that MLB not only will bleed fans, but fail to generate enough new ones to keep the sport thriving.
There is worry the sport is heavily financed by local TV dollars, which cannot keep rising forever, and attendance is fueled ever more by attendees looking for a night out rather than true passion for the game or even their favorite team. As one scout said, “I wonder if you stopped in mid-game and asked everyone in attendance the score, how many are paying attention and care enough to know.”
Mainly, though, this is about enticing a younger demographic that theoretically has shorter attention spans and craves more consistent action; a demographic that has more sports and other entertainments to lure it than ever before.
That is why — like it or not — this issue is going to impact and hover over the game in 2017.
For Manfred was unable to push through all of the changes he desired, getting just the no-pitch intentional walk and small modifications to quicken replay, notably that managers have 30 seconds now to decide whether to challenge.
Manfred has stated he wanted to go further, but was blocked by the players. To show his seriousness on this issue and the extent of his power, Manfred said if there are not negotiated modifications in the near future, he would simply implement the changes he desires next season, which he is empowered to do.
Union head Tony Clark has said the players take the matter seriously. However, he has noted he deals with one body but two constituencies — hitters and pitchers — that often are on opposing sides of rule changes. Also, he has expressed concern about rushing into changes without fully appreciating the unintended consequences that could emerge. For example, the commissioner’s request to raise the strike zone may indeed lead to more balls in play, but perhaps more walks also that further slow play.
MLB and the union will continue to talk during the season, and it would not be shocking to see the sides agree to either immediate alterations or ones that would be implemented for 2018.
MLB is worried that just about every recent innovation has favored run prevention, resulting in less offense, fewer balls in play and more dead spots. Think about more velocity, more matchup relievers, more defensive shifts and more use of hot- and cold-zone technology to better pinpoint hitters’ weaknesses.
Strikeouts have risen every year since 2005, to just over 16 per game last season. Between strikeouts and walks last year, nearly 31 percent of plate appearances ended without a ball in play. The flood of information has led to more on-mound conferences, particularly catchers going out to chat with the pitcher, than ever before. Those conferences also are designed to smother offense by changing signals to deceive thievery by runners at second or just reiterating scouting reports to stymie a particular hitter.
The combination of more and more balls not put in play and more and more on-field deliberation has fueled wide swaths of inaction in the game, more three-plus and four-plus hour games. That combination, the commissioner believes, will bore away fans.
The most popular league in this country, the NFL, consistently tinkers with rules, especially when it feels offense needs rejuvenation. MLB, as a more tradition-bound entity dealing with a way more powerful union, faces far greater scrutiny and pushback when it ponders revisions.
However, after loud gruff, the new becomes the familiar and acceptable, whether it is the DH or one wild card per league or two wild cards per league or modified home-plate collision rules. More importantly, players adapt to whatever is implemented because that ability — after talent — is the biggest reason they have reached this level.
And the commissioner is hoping that trait flourishes — if enough small things are done, whether it is putting in a pitch clock, or mandating no hitter ever leave the batter’s box or pitcher the rubber, or all visits by catchers and pitchers be limited if not outright banned — and players not only will adapt, but get a near-subliminal message to pick up the pace.
Perhaps before long, MLB and its team will find ways to get some, if not all, innings sponsored by companies, limiting commercial breaks and, thus, allowing play to resume quicker from half inning to half inning.
It is all in play and will linger over the 2017 campaign because the commissioner sees the day after tomorrow and is fixated on averting disaster.