MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred realizes he has a problem when it comes to engaging millennials in embracing his sport. Baseball, the slow-moving, pastoral, “Thinking-man’s” game with no clock or time frame has fallen behind the faster-moving sports and Manfred want to stop the bleeding by taking out some of the long standing nuances of the game.
The MLBPA is resisting, however, and Manfred announced on Tuesday there would be no new rules instituted this season to speed up games. But he did vote to keep plugging the issue, even implementing changes against the will of the players, if necessary, in order to modernize the sport.
Baseball has a problem, no doubt. It is not attracting the younger audience it need to compete with football, basketball and hockey. It is also losing viewers and fans to soccer and auto racing. That is due to rewiring of the brains of the American youth. The “gamer” generation that is weaned on constant action and instant gratification. Baseball moves too slow for them. It’s not their fault and Manfred knows it. He wants to tailor the game fit their mindsets.
But changing some of the eternal tenets of the game is not the way. Eliminating the intentional walk and other aspects that have been part of the game’s tradition for well over a century will not make much of a difference. He needs to find a way to inject more action into the game, and there is no clear way on how to make that happen.
Since 1980, home runs and strikeouts are way up but balls put in play are at an all-time low. The ball is not put in play in over 30% of plate appearances these days, up from 22% in 1976, which has increased the challenge and made the game an even more boring watch.
Baseball purists don’t care, but they’ll watch no matter what. The game has become a pitcher’s paradise, with starters asked to pitch only the required 5 2/3 innings to get on the record and give way to the highly specialized bullpens. Hitters are struggling to catch up. One wonders of they ever will.
Manfred contends the game need to keep evolving if it is to survive. Many say eliminate the time in between innings but that has never really been an issue. That time has always been part of the calculus. It’s the on-field time that needs to be sped up and filled with more action. No one is quite sure how to do that or even if it can be done.
In the past, when pitchers began to realize an advantage, they lowered the mound to even things out. They can’t really lower the mound any further but they can shrink the strike zone, implement a time clock and hustle batters up to the plate faster. That could all work but may not add any more action to the game. The pitching and defense could be too far ahead at this stage in time.
Baseball has been their worst enemy, though, sucking three exciting situations out of the game: the play at the plate, the take-out slide at second base and the manager-umpire face-to-face showdown. The first two were done for safety reasons, although many players have gone on record against the changes. The third was a residual effect of replay. Managers have the option to officially challenge an umpire’s ruling and the verdict comes from the central command center, so there is no more dirt-kicking and equipment throwing in protest. I’m not saying to change these back, but fans miss them. The intentional walk with the four ceremonial floaters may not be missed, however.
Manfred has his work cut out for him. He is limited in what he can do here. Baseball is baseball. It moves at its own pace. That is what makes the game so great. Unfortunately, it may be what kills it in the end.