Manfred Wasting Time Combating Pace of Play

Rob Manfred has had a couple of personal goals during his time as baseball’s commissioner to improve the status of the game on the global sports market. One such mission was accomplished earlier this week, when the Cleveland Indians announced that they would retire the logo of Chief Wahoo from their jerseys on the field and from possible use on signage at Progressive Field, incidentally just in time to host the 2019 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

The other focal point, so it seems, has been for Manfred to speed up the three-plus hour marathons occurring on a nightly basis throughout the six-month regular season schedule, believing that part of the reason that baseball has struggled with younger audiences is that games take too long.

As a lifelong baseball fan, the attack on the flow of a baseball game can drive me crazy.

The reality is that we live in a quick-fix society with many clinically diagnosed cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and several more cases of temporary ADHD caused by the rapid flow of information and entertainment readily available at our fingertips on a daily basis. There are those who fail to learn to appreciate the subtle nuances of a baseball game. There are others who attend more for the social aspects of it – being seen at the game has social value and increases one’s self-worth in a social media driven world. People spend more time tweeting and Facebook posting and snapping and instagramming their time at the game than actually paying attention to what’s transpiring on the field, and baseball is not the only sport that is afflicted by such behavior.

For me, I’d rather have a seat, a hot dog, and an ice cold refreshment and no other social distractions around me. When I’m at a game, I’m there to watch. I can socialize just as well before or after a game than during one. I’m not paying for the experience of hanging out with a group of fans (although that can, in the right circumstances, heighten the experience), I’m paying for the opportunity to watch some of the world’s best athletes take their battle to the diamond with hopes of pennants, playoffs, and parades at the end of the season’s long grind.

Manfred’s most recent attacks seem to have angered the players, and therefore their union, and the thought of the dreaded work stoppage came to mind. The game has been able to avoid one for years, but seems to be walking a dangerous line now.

Does baseball have problems? Absolutely. But is trying to cut 10-15 minutes off of a game at the expense of the players (and to the fans who appreciate baseball in its purest form) really worth all of the attempts to tweak things along the way? Do the top minds in baseball really believe that more fans will come out to a game that takes two and a half hours to play, or a quarter hour short of three? It seems to be a ridiculous waste of brain power, one that ultimately misses the point.

Baseball cannot get back to the days of consistent two-hour contests. It just won’t. The game has changed far too dramatically, both from an on-the-field product and from a broadcast sense, and in regards to the latter, MLB will not sacrifice ad revenue to speed things along. Removing one 20-second ad during each break between innings could shorten a regular nine-inning game by five to six minutes, but “contractual limitations”, according to Manfred in Forbes in 2017, complicated considerations of such a change.

The game has evolved, especially in my lifetime, and the advances made to improve the competitiveness of teams have caused a natural slowing to the game.

Bullpens specialized. That change, slowly in the ‘70s and ‘80s with the emphasis on closers, and certainly much more so in the last 20 years with consistent implementation of matchup relievers, has led to more frequent trips to the mound for coaching advice and pitching changes. The object of the day is to win the game, and if a team wants to burn through as many bullpen arms to do so, so be it. If the move pays off, a tip of the cap to the opposing manager for utilizing the research and statistics available to him to find a way of improving his team’s odds of taking home the W.

Advanced scouting, improved training staffs, sabermetrics, expansion, expanded rosters for September call-ups, the replay system (something that should be far more a focal point of baseball’s brass), and infield shifts (another concept threatened by Manfred in recent memory) have all changed the game and certainly not in a bad way.

Teams have taken advantage of the opportunity to use technology to improve their on-the-field product. Baseball has always been considered the “thinking man’s game”, even as it has wavered in popularity. Good managers out-think and out-plan the opposition and use the tools available to take their teams to the promised land.

Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau busted out the shift on Ted Williams in 1946, recognizing that Boston’s left-handed great had a strong tendency to pull the ball. Instead of doing the same thing over and over again as a flirtation with insanity, Boudreau kept trying harder until he found a way to beat Williams, something few had been able to do. The shift has been around in some facet since, and players can choose to continue to bash the ball into an overloaded infield, or figure out a way to beat it, even if it means an embarrassing bunt down the vacant third base line.

These things can make baseball exciting, even if it means tacking on extra seconds every so often to the length of the contest.

This week’s consideration, bringing back bullpen cars, could shave a little time off of the clock, but it isn’t going to be worth it. Not every team has a Vinnie Pestano sprinting in from the bullpen on a nightly basis, but hitching a ride to the center of the diamond isn’t going to dramatically cut down average time of game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan for some of the fun rides that were used in yesteryear and it would be yet another ad revenue source for teams to plaster marketing on.

During Manfred’s time, he has tried to reduce time out of the batter’s box by hitters, enforced a pitch clock to move action along right after commercial breaks, and eliminated the need for pitchers to throw all four pitches for an intentional walk. Minor league levels have been the guinea pigs for the in-game pitch clock, which may help keep the action moving along, but it is not going to cut substantial chunks of time off of the game.

Baseball’s issue with attracting and retaining fans has less to do with all of these alterations to the pace of action and much more to do with the failed marketing that Major League Baseball and its 30 teams have done with its very marketable players. The game has survived the black eyes of the steroid era, even though we now get annual reminders of those times when staring down the heavily-debated Hall of Fame ballot while listening to the arguments for and against the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and others. That will only flare up again in a few years when Alex Rodriguez makes his appearance on the list. The perceived rampant use of performance enhancing substances in the era undoubtedly left a sour taste in the mouths of some fans and may have even driven some away permanently, but the improved testing process kickstarted by Bud Selig (who had the task of cleaning up the excessively profitable, but ultimately costly, home run barrage mess that occurred during his own watch) has gone a long way to reduce cheaters impacting the game.

The problem facing baseball right now is not the amount of time it takes to play the game. Manfred should be far more concerned with the status of free agency (just look at a list of unsigned, viable players just weeks before the start of spring training) and the fact that nearly one-third of his teams are in some state of rebuilding, AKA tanking the season to try to snag the top draft pick in the 2019 draft. Someone can try to tell me that the Indians’ path in the AL Central has not been made easier by the demolition jobs on the Royals, Tigers, and White Sox rosters, but they would be lying. None of those three should sniff competing, and it was done in a purposeful, intentional, and organized manner. The Rays cleared money by moving Evan Longoria while several key contributors hit the open market via free agency, but the team has not spent to bring anyone of substance in to the organization. The A’s are young, and always seem to be young, and have a devastatingly difficult path in front of them in the AL West. On the National League side, the Marlins have been almost entirely gutted (give it a couple more weeks…), the Braves, Padres, Phillies, and Reds have been in perpetual rebuild, and the Pirates dealt away two of the more valuable players to the organization this offseason.

None of these teams are spending, and that is hurting the game and dramatically hurting the volatile relationship between players and owners.

The lack of competitive balance, whether based on poor organizational structure and bad talent evaluation or the disparity in spending, is bad for the game. Fan bases of those eleven franchises have little to root for this year. Sure, fans will come out for the love of the game and to watch young prospects work towards becoming regular MLB contributors, but baseball is better when everyone has a fair and realistic chance, year in and year out.

If you want to fix baseball, figure out a salary cap. Realistically, setting a ceiling seems unlikely, as it wouldn’t be as profitable for MLB to do so, even if teams like the Yankees and Dodgers have spent this offseason bucking their own trends and not paying out for the big name talent on the market. These teams have instead looked to get just below the luxury tax threshold, just in time to make a big play in next year’s free agent class, which is expected to be one of the bigger ones, in regards to talent, so far this century.

Teams aren’t spending like they used to. I’m not saying it’s ownership collusion but maybe I am saying exactly that. Maybe it’s a result of years and years and years of bad contracts paid out for players (whose own best years incidentally happened to be behind him all too often). For as many Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and Grady Sizemore contracts that fans have seen in Cleveland, teams around the league have their own horror stories – the Josh Hamilton contract with the Halos, Shin-Soo Choo with the Rangers, Jason Heyward with the Cubs, Jayson Werth with the Nationals, Barry Zito with the Giants, Pablo Sandoval with the Red Sox – the list goes on and on and they have all handcuffed their respective franchises for a stretch. For teams insisting on playing the small to mid-market card, one such deal could set a franchise back for years.

In reality, how are the Angels and Tigers going to feel about the amount of money that they are paying out to Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, respectively, in the next few years? The Angels owe Pujols $114 million from 2018 to 2021, when he will be 41 years old. They paid him $26 million last year to slash .241/.286/.386 with 17 doubles, 23 homers, and 101 RBI in 149 games. He has stayed healthy, or played hurt, for much of his time in Anaheim, but he is far removed from being one of the game’s elite. The Angels have spent heavily, but the investment has not paid off in the win column and they have failed to make the playoffs in seven of the last eight years.

The situation could be just as ugly for the Tigers, who will pay Cabrera $30 million each season from 2018 to 2021 and $32 million in both 2022 and 2023 before a pair of $30 million vesting options based on his finish in the MVP voting in 2023 and 2024. For a rebuilding Tigers club, paying out $184 million to a man who will be 40 when his contract could end could have been organizationally crippling and still could be – especially if he repeats his .249/.329/.399 numbers with 22 doubles, 16 homers, and 60 RBI in 130 games last season or tails off even worse as age and injuries catch up to him further. The Tigers will have to hope for a quick turnaround in their attempts to rapidly rebuild, or they will be paying out a lot of money to one guy while consistently sitting near the bottom of the AL Central.

Manfred should be far more concerned with the product on the field, and making sure that the fans see that their local clubs have a fair shot at contending. We in Cleveland have seen plenty of lean years for the Indians organization with some light spending and numerous threats to move the club from its perch on Lake Erie. The thought of an eventual rebuild is nauseating, but thankfully, it would appear to be further down the road with the way the roster is currently constructed. The only thought worse than said rebuild is labor discord to the levels of those in 1994, when the game was taken away from fans altogether.

So if Manfred wants to “make baseball great again”, fix the real problems. The focus needs to turn to the product on the field, not the time that it takes to play, while finding a way to make sure the collective fan bases of the country and the world have championships to pursue instead of acquiring top draft picks with eyes affixed five years down the road. Nothing alienates and drives people away from sports quicker than watching rich people bicker with other rich people, and if these actual concerns don’t get the attention that they deserve and soon, baseball could enter another dangerously dark period in its otherwise storied history.

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Another “real” concern that Manfred ignores concerning “young people” is that they DO NOT PLAY the game anymore…traveling teams and all their expenses are now the norm in most places…casual leagues for beginners and for those without much financial means are virtually nonexistent today…kids develop a LOVE for the game by PLAYING the game!!!..basically it’s not the length of the game that matters…it’s that kids DON’T PLAY that matters the most!!!!

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