For the past 147 years, the National League has survived and thrived to become the oldest professional league of any sport. The American League began play in 1901, and the two circuits have coexisted under the umbrella of major league baseball. Over the past century and a half, rules have been created, altered, and eliminated, but for the most part, the game today still resembles what baseball’s founding fathers envisioned long ago.
However, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is seemingly fixated on revising the national pastime into an unrecognizable product to attract more fans, one that has baseball purists, old and young, longing for the days of wool uniforms and twinight doubleheaders. Commissioner Manfred’s mandated rule changes for 2023 will prove to be a bridge too far and will ironically result in precisely the opposite of what the rule changes were designed to accomplish.
The most popular reason cited by those in favor of altering the dynamics of baseball is to attract a wider fan base and promote a better experience for all at the ballpark. The NFL and NBA are far more popular with younger people; the fast-moving athletes and action keep that generation’s collective and dwindling attention spans better than a major league baseball game. MLB consultant Theo Epstein said, “We’ve been asking hundreds, thousands and, through surveys, tens of thousands of baseball fans and players and executives and scouts and everybody else. And you do see some common trends in what the best version of the game means to people.” Plainly said, the consensus was action, balls in play (i.e. a lower percentage of plate appearances that result in home runs, strikeouts, and walks), athleticism on the basepaths and in the field, and, above all else, a faster pace.
Truth be told, games have taken less time to complete. As a piloted experiment last year, the pitch timer reduced the average game time in the Minor Leagues last year by 25 minutes. But, in order to fully appreciate that statistic, one must fully understand, or at least attempt to comprehend, all of which that rule consists.
THE PITCH CLOCK
The most egregious and invasive modification to this year’s rule book is the creation of the pitch clock. On the surface, the basics of this new directive appear quite busy. In order to create a crisper pace of play, there will be a 30-second timer between batters and then a 15-second timer between each pitch with the bases empty, and a 20-second timer between each pitch with runners on base. But, as they say on the late-night infomercials, wait, there’s more. The pitcher must go into his motion prior to the expiration of the timer or else be charged with an automatic ball. The pitcher is allotted two “disengagements” (a step-off or a pickoff attempt) without penalty. A third disengagement will be ruled a balk unless an out is recorded on the bases (i.e., a successful pickoff attempt).
Did you think this only affected the pitchers? Guess again. The batter must be in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher by the 8-second mark on the timer or else be charged with an automatic strike. Also, based on last year’s minor league experiment, an unintended consequence of the pitch clock was the increase in stolen bases. Isn’t that a good thing, you ask? More action on the basepaths and overall action is what they want, right? Maybe, but think about it from the pitcher’s perspective. For them, this rule change means less time to think about which pitch to throw, which leads to more hittable pitches and baserunners, then those runners moving into scoring position more readily because of the limits for holding a runner on base.
Did you get all that? Are you able to translate and spit out the relevant details on a pop quiz? I didn’t think so. And I haven’t even talked about the limits of defensive shifts and the bigger bases. That is a whole other onion to peel.
WHERE WILL IT END, MR. MANFRED?
Nothing is more frustrating than changing simply for change’s sake. I mean, it is pretty obvious based on player salaries that baseball is not suffering economically; owners and players have never made more money than they do now. So, in order to attract the fringe fan with new and innovative rules, Rob Manfred and major league baseball are thereby ignoring the opinions of their true fans: the baseball purists. A true baseball fan will tell you that in baseball, the action is the inaction; the excitement and intrinsic value of the sport is analyzing the action while nothing is happening.
In other words, baseball requires thought and does not need to have all of your senses piqued while watching it. I tell friends of mine who are not baseball fans that it is a thinking person’s sport and requires intelligence, so hang in there and hopefully, someday you will figure it out. As Leo Durocher once said, “Baseball is like church. Many attend, but few understand.” By dumbing down baseball, Commissioner Manfred is coming dangerously close to making baseball less unique by jacking up the rules. Unfortunately, these changes will probably work to attract the uneducated fan, and this will prove to be just the beginning of the sport’s overhaul.
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