While spring training is just getting underway across Arizona and Florida, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has continued his crusade to endorse the initiatives originally set forth in his inaugural January 2015 Letter to the Fans.

That is, Manfred’s top priority has always been: “to bring more people into our game” and to “consider additional advancements that will continue to heighten the excitement of the game, improve the pace of play and attract more young people”.

Some of the instrumental ways he hoped to do that this coming season was to bring about rules changes including a time clock for pitchers, raising the strike zone, and limiting visits to the mound.

But, Tony Clark, Executive Director of the MLBPA (the players’ union) told reporters on Feb 19 that the only rule change players would agree to in 2017 is the no-pitch intentional walk.

He also said the other more radical changes proposed by the Commissioner’s office are unnecessary given the industry is very healthy as evidenced by the huge revenues it takes in, high attendance numbers, soaring players’ salaries, and team values that have climbed to record levels.

Rather, Clark said that we need to “educate fans” to embrace the game as it’s currently being played.

In response to this, Manfred fired back on Tuesday during a press conference and sounded downright frustrated with what he called a “lack of cooperation” from the union.  More importantly, he threatened to impose these new rules changes in 2018 “if an agreement can’t be reached”.

Under baseball’s current labor contract, the Commissioner can alter playing rules only with agreement from the union — unless it gives a one-year notice.  After that time, management can make changes on its own.

Manfred said, “I’ve tried to be clear that our game is fundamentally sound, and it does not need to be fixed.  At the same time, I think it’s a mistake to stick our head in the sand and ignore the fact that our game has changed, and continues to change.”

Still, he did indicate that he is hopeful for a unilateral agreement with the union.

Clark at least opened the door slightly in an email to the AP: “As I’ve said, fundamental changes to the game are going to be an uphill battle, but the lines of communication should remain open.”

Analysis of this Exchange

Unfortunately, it feels like a powder keg has been ignited over how the sport should be governed as we move into the future.

Manfred senses an urgency that we need to make changes to pace of play and add more action now, before it is too late.

Meanwhile, the players are pushing back because they don’t want to mess with a good thing.  Their salaries have been the highest they’ve ever been in the 100+ year sport.

Jason Stark from ESPN also reported on the Baseball Tonight Podcast Tuesday that the players are largely “traditionalists” who don’t want intrinsic changes to the way they played the game all their lives.

But, it feels to me that the overall attitude of the union may be short-sighted.

The fact is, the Commissioner proposes advancements to the game that can only help it in the long run.  Just focusing on the here and now may hurt baseball for future generations.

Consider this: Stark also said that there are “4,000 fewer balls put in play since 2009”.  At the same time, while the strike zone has not changed in the rule book since then, the strike zone umpires are calling “has dropped 2-3 inches”.  That means pitches in that zone are rendered almost “unhittable”, as its very difficult to drive a pitch from below the knees.

Manfred indicated he had sabermetric data to support the idea that raising the strike zone a couple inches would put more balls in play and which ultimately, means more offense.

Also, the average time pitchers took last season in between pitches was 22.7 seconds.  Doesn’t sound like a lot on the surface, but baseball wants that limited to 20 seconds.  I’ll bet Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez wouldn’t be on board with that.  He takes an excruciating 30.2 seconds between pitches!

As for mound visits, the rules state now that a manager or coach can’t go up there in an inning and talk with the same pitcher twice without removing him.  But, that still means the manager can go to the mound every time a new pitcher steps on the rubber. By limiting mound visits to say, only two visits per nine innings, at least it could help stop coaches from delaying the game to give a reliever extra time to warm up.

Still, even without these changes, it would be helpful if the players’ union opened their eyes to the cold fact that standing still without change may benefit them, but could be detrimental to the sport.

I think of what Manfred said in his Letter: “baseball is a game firmly rooted in childhood experiences.”

It is clear that baseball needs to capture the hearts of kids who may be future fans now.  Like when we were younger and got hooked on the game as we watched and listened with our families, it is a sport that relies upon the memories of its fans to keep it going throughout their lifetimes.

And, unlike the NFL, NBA or NHL that are sports of immediate gratification and instant action, baseball is a game that unfolds over a period of time, where action and pace are sporadic.

So, how will we get and keep young people interested as the world evolves with technology and attention spans dwindle without changes to pace of play?  Should we do nothing and hope that the fans will come anyway?

I think the union should try not to be worried.  MLB is obviously open to repealing any new rules changes that don’t work like the All Star Game (“This One Counts”) campaign.

Besides, what’s so wrong with trying to bring down the average time of a ballgame which increased about 4 minutes last year from 2015, especially when it could help keep the sport successful?

In my mind, it’s a good thing that Manfred threatened the union with his power to enact what is essentially an Executive Order for pace of play changes.

Even if he doesn’t use it, discussion about the topic should evoke players into thinking more about the future, and that is a good thing.


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