Baseball has seen a decline in interest over the last several decades, as more young people turn to football and basketball. This is due to a variety of reasons, including the regional-nature of Major League Baseball (MLB), but a reason cited by many is the perceived “slowness” of baseball compared to other sports.

When Rob Manfred took over as MLB Commissioner in January of 2015, one of his primary focuses became increasing the pace of play. The average MLB game was taking three hours, and Manfred began taking measures to shorten this. First, hitters were no longer allowed to step out of the box between pitches. Additionally, a pitch clock was implemented in the minor leagues.

These changes faced an initial resistance, but they have gradually gained support from the players and led Manfred to push for a pitch clock in the big leagues. While these changes have shortened games and time between plays, Manfred still felt that more needed to be done. The initial changes implemented by MLB have not changed the actual gameplay, but some of the recent changes proposed by Manfred would change the game itself.

Naturally, these have faced more resistance from fans, and, more importantly, the MLB Players Association (MLBPA).

Changing the Game

Yesterday, on Feb. 22,  MLBPA head Tony Clark confirmed reports that the union had agreed with MLB’s proposal to implement pitch-less intentional walks. Thus, a pitcher will no longer have to throw four wide pitches to put the batter at first base. The new rule will seemingly, though they have not announced this, operate similar to high school baseball; there, the coach informs the umpire of his intention to walk the batter and the batter takes first base.

While this may not seem like such a big deal, it is the first time Manfred has changed the rules of the game in his quest to increase the pace of games.

This will be the only rule change for 2017. However, baseball purists have to be asking themselves, what’s next? Manfred already has proposed raising the strike zone and beginning extra innings with a man on second; the latter of which will be tested in the low minor leagues this year. Now, the union has rejected all of these ideas, much to the dismay of Manfred, but the current collective bargaining agreement allows for the commissioner to exercise unilateral power in implementing new rules.

If the commissioner gives a one-year notice to the union, he may unilaterally impose them with or without the consent of the players. Why would the players agree to this? I do not know, but maybe they were talking to their player union counterparts at the NFL. At any rate, this is a growing cause for concern amongst traditional baseball fans.

Beginning in 2018, Manfred and MLB will potentially be able to raise the strike zone, change extra innings, and possibly other things that were discussed with the union but not disclosed. By instituting these rules, the way baseball is played will be changed for the first time since the implementation of the designated hitter in 1973. In fact, Manfred has gone as far as to say the raising of the strike zone is “on deck” for 2018.

At a Crossroads

Manfred has already gone forward with new rules to increase the pace of game and all signs point to him continuing to exercise his power to do so even without the blessing of the union. Many players, fans, and reporters have voiced their concerns about some of these new rules being too drastic.

Similarly, many would agree with St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Adam Wainwright, telling the St. Louis Dispatch earlier this week, “I don’t think we need to change the game of baseball. It’s a great game. It’s a beautiful game.”

While many players and fans alike may share Wainwright’s opinion, Manfred can still push forward with his changes. Hopefully, Manfred will understand the objections of the players and stop his encroachment on the game, but based on his recent comments about the union not accepting major changes, I will not be holding my breath.

It would really be shameful if the commissioner bypasses the union and imposes rules that would radically change the game, but he is well within his legal right to do so under the “best interests of baseball” clause. If Manfred continues down this road without the backing of the union, the players could strike and force his hand, but this is a drastic move and would end a great period of labor peace so I find that scenario unlikely.

It is tough to predict what the game will look like once games are shortened to Manfred’s satisfaction. Hopefully, he listens to the players when they say that the longest down periods during games are experienced as they stand around waiting for the end of a TV timeout.

Of course, shortening commercial breaks would increase the time between action and shorten the game as a whole. But this would cause MLB to lose out on potential revenue, which the owners would certainly not approve of.

So, at the end of the day, are we  going to be left to watch the commissioner hack away at America’s pass time in order to appease the ever-shortening attention span of millennials? It sure seems that way.


Sources

  1. Associated Press, MLB players’ union agrees to pitchless intentional walks, Chicago Tribune (Feb. 22, 2017).
  2. Derrick Goold, Wainwright not a fan of changing the game, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Feb. 22, 2017).
  3. Doug Lesmerises, Runner on second in extra innings?, Cleveland.com (Feb. 9, 2017).
  4. Ed Bouchette, Steelers warned of NFL commissioner’s dominion long before Brady riftPittsburgh Post-Gazette (July 29, 2015).
  5. Jamie McCauley, MLB may make unilateral rule changes for 2018, Chicago Tribune (Feb. 21, 2017).
  6. Marc Fisher, Baseball is struggling to hook kids — and risks losing fans to other sports, Washington Post, (Apr. 5, 2015).
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