In a dimwitted attempt at explaining why offense in Major League Baseball has taken a shit over the last decade-plus, commissioner Rob Manfred blamed, among other things, defensive shifting — in this interview he did with ESPN’s Karl Ravech in January of 2015.
From his dialogue with Ravech:
RM: Eliminating shifts, I would be open to those sorts of ideas.
KR: The forward thinking, sabermetric defensive shifts?
RM: That’s what I’m talking about, yes.
KR: Let’s eliminate that?
KR: So all the work that the Cubs and/or Angels or whoever has done, you’re willing to say, ‘I appreciate that, good idea, but it’s killing the game’ in a sense?
Baseball is and always has been operated by a bunch of dinosaurs, supposed gatekeepers who continually preach about some Right Way To Play The Game that’s never actually existed. These are the people who maintain that baseball is America’s Pastime, and it is in the sense that it’s been largely racist, has had trouble with rampant drug use, and has been checkered with gambling and corruption for good measure.
Arguably most damning among the compendium of faux pas is the anti-intellectualism we are seeing present day.
Yesterday the owners and Manfred had their quarterly meeting, one of the last before MLB’s collective bargaining agreement runs up on December 2nd. According to the Associated Press:
Limiting pitching changes, restricting defensive shifts, altering the strike zone and installing pitch clocks are among the ideas Major League Baseball may consider as it undertakes a multiyear review of the game that could include the sport’s most radical changes in decades.
Theoretically I think pitch clocks are a decent idea to help speed up the action, but theory and practice are different bags. You can’t tell me, in the bottom of the 9th of a one-run game with the bases loaded and two outs, that pitchers and hitters don’t require a bit of extra time to focus. I can’t picture any sane person being willing to forfeit balls and strikes, or runs, or outs, based on some silly little clock.
Limiting pitching changes might be the best option I’ve seen put on the table, since it at least rewards those pitchers who are capable of getting out more than a batter a time. We are living in the era of the specialist, particularly on the pitching end, particularly on the left-handed pitching end, those who are elite at getting only left-handed hitters out.
If you limit the pitching change to, say, a guy is obligated to face at least three hitters, then you’ve got me wondering. It would take roster spots away from LOOGY’s (Lefty One Out GuY), and would replenish them with pitchers who have the ability to get multiple outs at a time. That’s something at least.
“We did not and we are really not at the point of making recommendations or having the owners make decisions about what if any changes are necessary,” Manfred said. “I think when you have sort of a new administration, it’s a good time to take a really hard look at the product. I think there are pieces to this project that are not yet complete, including figuring out what are fans are seeing, what they like, what they don’t like in a more comprehensive way than we’ve done in recent years, having interactions with the other stakeholders in the game, the ESPNs, the Foxes, the Turners, our big partners, and sharing with them how we see the product and getting their reaction.”
Personally, I don’t care what the fans like. For the most part fans are idiots.
What’s more noteworthy in that bit are “[The] ESPNs, the Foxes, the Turners, our big partners,” because if pace of play and creating more action is something that baseball is focused on, they shouldn’t be looking any further than advertising.
The reason frequent pitching changes are a problem isn’t because they take a crazy amount of time. It’s pretty cut-and-dry, actually: a pitcher is called in from the bullpen, he throws eight warmup pitches, and the game resumes.
What takes so much fucking time away from the game are the commercials, the two-and-a-half minute breaks so MLB can pay its bills. If you keep the commercial intervals to between innings only, and not for every single pitching change, then you are probably shaving off something like 10-12 minutes of game action per night. Which is significant given that the average game is up to three hours in 2016.
Of course, this isn’t something MLB is ever going to do, because they would actively be hurting their pockets in the process. Above anything else this is a business, and the goal of any business is to make money.
That’s where the anti-intellectualism comes into play. Since profits cannot, and will not, be affected, MLB is going to use anything they can to deter casual viewers away from that. And how is that accomplished?
Well, first you blame pitchers for taking too much time. How about a pitch clock! Then you blame too many pitching changes. How can we limit those! And while we’re at it, since pitchers are so much better than hitters, let’s try to limit offense by taking away one of the great advantages of the modern era: defensive shifting. (Which, in fact, is not the cause of lower run totals.)
For over a century baseball was played a certain way. The Right Way, as some call it. This was a time before front offices were smart enough to find practical advantages over the competition, the things the sport should be applauded for, not penalized for.
Forget performance enhancing drugs; that was a top-down smear campaign that started from the commissioner’s office down to baseball writer shills down to the fans. Offense was once celebrated when the sport was in its dying days in the mid-90’s, after the player’s strike of 1994, and it became a reason to vilify the participants.
Now baseball is again at a crossroads, where there isn’t enough offense to support a dwindling fan following. We need offense, and defensive shifting is not the culprit. It won’t fix anything.
The problem, to put it mildly, are the dominance of pitchers and the ineffectiveness of umpires being able to accurately call pitches at higher velocity. If baseball wants offense to return, they shouldn’t care what defenses are doing or what hitters aren’t doing. They should be looking at strikeout rates, how they are higher now than they have ever been. They should be judging their umpires with more ferocity.
It doesn’t surprise me that Rob Manfred hasn’t identified the problem, or isn’t willing to identify the problem publicly, because that problem directly influences the revenue coming into the sport. Whatever changes baseball makes should not be to the detriment of the great progress the game’s front offices have made over the last 20 years.
If MLB wants offense to return, it should look no further than shrinking the strike zone. Baseball advances at such a glacial pace that instant replay wasn’t introduced until the 2010’s. Eventually — and this won’t come for another 20 or 30 years — robot umps are going to be a part of the game, and the strike zone is going to be objective.
In the meantime, pitcher velocity will continue to rise — as will strikeout rates — and in turn offense will continue to go down. Only when you take subjectivity out of the strike zone will the balance between offense and pitching begin to stabilize. But humans eyes are flawed, and umpires still use those.