Rob Manfred took over as Commissioner on Sunday, and in a short time he has already achieved the impossible - make people miss Bud Selig. Well maybe not completely yet, but many baseball fans were upset with Manfred's suggestion that perhaps radical defensive shifts should be banned in the name of increasing offense.
Among the issues the new commissioner faces is a decline in offense, a rising length of game time, a new instant replay system, a new PED policy, greater technology for umpires, front offices, and fans, a decline in African-American players, potential globalization of the sport, stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay, growing concerns about domestic violence in sports, and of course, labor issues with players.
Manfred laid out some other policy proposals upon taking over, so let's take a look at his ideas.
Banning Radical Defensive Shifts
Manfred is concerned with the decline of offense in baseball - last year teams scored an average of 4.07 runs per game, a full run lower than output fifteen years ago, and the lowest output since 1981. The decline can be attributable in large part due to a drop in home runs, and a dramatic rise in strikeouts. However, Manfred suggests eliminating the recent trend of radical defensive shifts could help offenses. It has been suggested that without defensive shifts, batting averages could rise by two percentage points league-wide. Is this enough to justify banning a useful tactic?
"We have really smart people working in the game, and they're going to find ways to get a competitive advantage," Manfred told ESPN. "I think it's incumbent upon us in the Commissioner's Office to look at the advantages produced and to say, 'Is this what we want to happen in the game?'"
Defensive shifts add another wrinkle of strategy in the game, which in my opinion, makes the game more interesting. And of course, players can always hit against the shift, or as Mike Moustakas did in the ALCS and Brandon Belt did in the World Series, bunt against the shift. Taking away the ability to position fielders where you think hitters might hit the ball strikes me as one of the silliest suggestions to improve offense. If hitters are making outs because of shifts, they should adjust - and they certainly will over time.
If Manfred does want to help offense, he should look at ways to reduce boring strikeouts and incentivize putting the ball in play. Tightening the strike zone or reducing the number of relievers a hitter must face each game could help.
Improving the Pace of Play
The length of the game, or "pace of play" has been a worry for baseball for the last two decades. The total length of time in a game isn't really the full issue, as fans seem more than willing to sit three hours for a football game, although it is an issue, especially for those with children. However the big problem is the pace of the game. It is the endless delays from hitters adjusting their batting gloves, pitchers shaking off signs, throwing over to first base, umpires calling timeout, coaches walking to the mound. It is all the dead time where no action is taking place. Football gets away with this more readily thanks to video replays of each play (and beer....lots of beer).
A pitch clock will be introduced to the minor league years on a trial basis, and MLB will look to reduce the time between innings. Other ways Manfred could reduce dead time in games is to require hitters to keep one foot in the box at all times, reduce the number of total visits to the mound by players or coaches, or limit the number of pitching changes.
"Pace of play is an issue that's driven by our society today," Manfred told ESPN. "Our society is a very fast-paced society. Attention spans are shorter."
"Now get off my lawn!" he yelled as he shook his fist.
Attracting Young Fans
"We need to make sure we capture the next generation of fans in a way that baseball has always captured fans. To me, that's about parents and grandparents taking kids to the park at an early age so they learn to appreciate the game and the bonding experience that takes place when a young person goes to an outing like that with a meaningful adult in their lives."
Baseball has been giving lip service to this for decades now. I'm not sure there are too many tangible things it can do, and I'm not even sure its a big problem. Yes, baseball's viewership skews much older than other sports. Yes, those fans will die off before the younger fans do. However, baseball has seemingly always been an older person's sport. Back in 1996, baseball was lamenting that 30 year old weren't watching baseball in great numbers. Well those 30 year olds are 50 now, and are apparently making up a core part of baseball's viewing audience.
Even if baseball had a youth problem, what's the solution? Most corporate attempts to attract youth consumers will either fall flat or alienate its older core base of fans (i.e. louder music in stadiums, the mall-park attractions). Tangible things baseball could do is ensure that important games such as the playoffs are at times and on channels accessible for kids. But I fear any trendy solution built on buzz words will come off as cloying or phony.
What do you think of the Commissioner's ideas? What other priorities should be on his agenda?