Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred insists he’s simply trying to be proactive, thinking that new rules to speed up his sport will provide more action and keep Millennials engaged.
Among those who play the game, however, Manfred has provoked only disgust.
Manfred wants the 20-second pitch clock that exists in the minor leagues to be implemented in the big leagues. He wants limited visits to the pitcher’s mound by catchers and infielders. He wants to eliminate the low strike in the strike zone. And if he doesn’t get cooperation from the players union, he’ll implement them himself in time for the 2018 season.
The players think these new rules will cause so much collateral damage to the sport that the game will become unrecognizable.
“If you put a clock on baseball, you take away the sanctity of the game and the character of it,” Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy told USA TODAY Sports. “The game has been played like this way for 150 years, and now we’re going to change it? I understand trying to speed up the game to create more action, but this isn’t football. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Says Kansas City Royals slugger Brandon Moss: “I’m just very glad I will not be playing this game in 10 years. It won’t be recognizable. It’s going in a direction where it’s not the same game. Every year they keep trying to think of some stupid new rule. It’s getting old. Real old.”
Similar reactions echoed throughout Arizona and Florida, with players weighing in on baseball’s potential rule changes, which could be mandated without union approval in 2018. The new developmental league rule of extra innings beginning with a runner on second base, however, is not under consideration in the major leagues.
Yet Manfred and the executives on Park Avenue worry about the game’s lack of action. There were fewer balls put in play last season than at any other time in history. The ball was not in play during 30.8% of plate appearances last season, according to Sports Illustrated, with the ball entering play once every 3 minutes, 25 seconds. They stress over dominant relief pitching suffocating offenses. They’re troubled by the lack of late-game lead changes.
And they’re scared to death that if they don’t make changes, they’ll lose the younger audience forever.
“You commend the commissioner for wanting to appeal to the younger generation,” said 37-year-old Royals pitcher Chris Young, one of the game’s most respected union leaders. “His mind is in the right place. He wants to make the game better, like we all do. It’s good to have a progressive mind, but I just don’t know if these are the right ideas.
“There’s been a lot of dialogue by players, and the consensus is that nobody is assured this will truly speed up the game and make it better. There needs to be more of a discussion and less of a proposal.”
The union did formally agree to eliminate the intentional walk, which now will be replaced by a signal without throwing four pitches. There will also be a two-minute limit on instant replay. Yet considering there’s only one intentional walk issued every three games, we’re talking about perhaps saving 2½ minutes for an entire evening of games.
“That’s the worst,” Moss said. “What if it’s Game 7 of the World Series, tie game in the bottom of the ninth? Someone hits a one-out triple, and Miguel Cabrera comes up to the plate. That pitcher should have to throw four pitches to Miguel Cabrera, whether they’re intentional balls or not. That’s a nerve-racking situation, and now it’s gone.
“What is this, high school baseball?”
Nope, 38-year-old Royals reliever Peter Moylan said, “It’s like PlayStation.”
“I read Manfred’s comments about how we have to concede to what the fans want,” Toronto Blue Jays veteran reliever Jason Grilli said, “but our health and our careers is more important than making sure they beat the traffic home.”
Besides, San Francisco Giants shortstop Jimmy Rollins says, whatever happened to the days when no one cared about the length of games, which increased by four minutes last season to an average time of three hours?
“The beauty of our game has always been that there is no clock,” Rollins says. “So now they want one? If you’re making the game an hour shorter, OK, you’re making an impact. Or even 30 minutes shorter? But five or eight minutes, come on.”
The theory is that the pitch clock will speed up the game, making the action flow, which could potentially result in greater offensive output, and that makes Royals veteran pitcher Ian Kennedy cringe in disbelief.
“If you want to make it strictly an offensive game,” Lucroy says, “then why not cork everyone’s bats? Why not bring back steroids? Tell (New York Yankees closer) Aroldis Chapman he can’t throw that hard. Let’s ban every pitcher who throws more than 95 mph.”
If baseball implements a pitch clock, Rangers pitcher Cole Hamels says, it should at least be grandfathered into play, considering most big-league pitchers like himself never have had to concern themselves with such a mechanism.
“I don’t want to see it at all,” Hamels said. “If you do that, performance levels will go down. Now you’re rushing a sport not known to be rushed.
“If they’re so worried about the time of these games, how about shortening the season. That will give guys more time to recover.”
If baseball really wants the game shortened, Young suggested, then go to an electronic strike zone. There still would be an umpire behind the plate, but the ball-strike calls would be automatic. And since calls are automatic, it eliminates the pitchers from walking around the mound to regain his composure over a borderline pitch or a hitter stepping out of the box in anger.
“Guys can’t complain to a machine,” Hamels said. “In a bowling alley, you’re not complaining at the machine if you hit the pin and it didn’t go down. It would be the same in baseball.”
In time, perhaps there will be a greater understanding. The players will be willing to sacrifice tradition for innovation. They will become accustomed to the pitch clock, just as they did to the new home-plate and second-base slide rules.
“Making the game appealing to the young audience is something we have to be aware of,” Rangers veteran reliever Wesley Wright said. “We want to leave the game in a better state than we found it, and if that means making some adjustments to what we’ve come accustomed to, I think we’d be more than able to do it.”
For now, the emotions are simply too raw for anything to get accomplished.
The players need time to digest it and listen to MLB’s explanation behind the specific proposals. Manfred needs to sit down with Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and reach a compromise that both sides can live with on at least an experimental basis.
“It can’t be just unilateral that we’re going to implement this,” Young said. “That’s just not fair. The game’s a partnership between the players and the owners. We can’t just mandate that every team has a $200 million payroll. They can’t mandate that the rules are going to be changed without our consent, either.
“I think there are definite ways to improve the game, but let’s do this together.”