Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred, laughing maniacally as he continues to mold the game of baseball like a toddler pounding a lump of play-doh into an unrecognizable blob
He's at it again.
The Commissioner of Baseball, one Robert D. Manfred, has made it his mission to turn the game he is the current custodian of into something all of its previous custodians would not recognize. So far, he has instituted a swarm of smallish rule changes as well as a few huge ones to Major League Baseball and he's got more coming next year.
If I may paraphrase J. Jonah Jameson, the man is a menace.
Manfred simply does not like baseball, at least not in the sense of the game as a whole, balanced concept that requires strategic thinking and intellectual trade-offs to navigating the game. Nor does he value competitive integrity or the richness of detail. He likes simple. He likes not to have to think. He likes short attention spans.
Thus far, the Manfred regime has given us:
- The no-pitch intentional walk
- The "universal" designated hitter (ugh)
- Requiring teams to declare in advance who is a pitcher and who is not and imposing a limit on how many pitchers a team can carry
- The "zombie runner" in extra innings (which some of a certain age have humorously taken to calling the "Manfred Man")
- An entirely avoidable and self-inflicted labor stoppage that delayed the opening of this season
- Expanded playoffs, the first taste of which we'll get next month, which now allows nearly half the teams in the Majors into the postseason and devalues both the season as a whole and the winning of a division title
- Advertising on the fields, not just on stadium walls and scoreboard signage, but on the fields themselves (in foul territory and on the pitcher's mound)
- Advertising on uniforms, which we'll start to see in this year's playoffs and will be an everyday thing starting next year
- The three-batter minimum for pitchers (this one I actually don't have a problem with, though the reason it came into being is no better than the rest of this)
- Ugly unis for the All-Star Games
- Effective acceptance of the Houston Astros' cheating scandal with virtually no repercussions for the perpetrators
Starting in 2023 we will also now have:
- A pitch clock. No longer will baseball be the game with no clock, there will be one to mandate that pitchers and batters move things along regardless of circumstance. Well, not quite regardless—the clock will have 15 seconds on it when the bases are empty, 20 when a runner is on base. If a pitcher takes too long before delivering a pitch, a ball will be added to the count; likewise, if a batter steps out or isn't ready to go within eight seconds (he will be permitted to request a time out once per plate appearance) a strike will be added. Further, only 30 seconds will be permitted between batters; if the next batter in the lineup isn't ready to go 30 seconds after the previous play, he starts with a count of strike one. Despite this having been experimented with in the minor leagues in recent seasons, it remains to be seen how this will play out; it might be OK. Used to be that the players that were slower to deliver a pitch or who took "excessive" time at the batter's box between pitches were relatively rare, but today they're more commonplace and it will at least be interesting to see if this cuts down on so-called dead time without disrupting anything else. But the law of unintended consequences pretty much guarantees there will be issues.
- A limit on how often a pitcher can try to pick off a baserunner. This is a clear and blatant declaration that pitchers should not care about runners; Manfred has openly said he wants to "create more action," which apparently means preventing a defense from trying to get runners out. I love the stolen base, it's one of my favorite plays, but all this does is cheapen it.
- A restriction on where defenders can play. For the history of the game, only the pitcher and catcher were required to be at any specific point on the field. No longer. Two infielders must begin each play on either side of second base and forward of the outfield grass. No more shifting three infielders to one side, no more moving your second baseman into the outfield, no more four-outfielder defenses. This also is based on Manfred's desire for "more action," and because batters as a whole have chosen not to combat defensive shifts over the years, it probably will result in more base hits as fielders will be prevented form playing where they should be allowed to play. The language of the rule is vague enough that someone will at some point cause it to be clarified; it's intention is to maintain the restriction until "the pitcher releases the ball," but it also says the infielders "may not switch sides during the game." So when J.P. Crawford makes a great play running from his shortstop position to flag down a hard grounder on the outfield grass at the right side of second base, is he in violation of the rule? I think not, but someone will exploit the language to challenge such a play.
- Larger bases. The bases on the field will grow from 12" square to 15" square. This will be odd at first but quickly folded into expected norm, I think. Again, this is to give offenses a boost by making it that much harder to get baserunners out. The one positive to this is the extra area will give first basemen a little more of a safety margin on potential collisions on close plays at first, but this could have been accomplished simply by extending the base an inch or two into foul territory instead.
- The completion of the destruction of the American and National Leagues as anything more than labels. Manfred's predecessor started this process in the ’90s, but with this year's adoption of the designated hitter rule (pause for dry heaves) by the National League and next year's change in the schedule that has every team play every other team in both leagues during the regular season, the merger from two distinct entities into one is concluded.
Not one of these changes was made with the good of the game in mind. Every one has been with an eye toward getting bigger short-term profits for a business that already rakes in $10 billion in annual revenue.
Manfred believes that the game needs to be dumbed down and sped up in order to attract younger viewers with short attention spans. He thinks that making the game into something else will get him bigger television ratings. He things more playoff games will mean more TV money overall. He thinks that the baseball audience likes hitting and doesn't care about fielding and by making these changes to unbalance things a bit that people who do not watch baseball will decide they now will watch baseball.
Which is just dumb.
You don't say, "hey, non-fans, I know my game is slow and boring because it requires thinking and thus doesn't appeal to you, so I've dumbed it down closer to your level and made it a little bit more frenetic! You like that, right?" and expect to convert everyone. People who come to baseball come to it because it's different. Because if you know what's going on, that so-called dead time isn't usually so, there's actually tension and stuff going on strategically.
A pitcher worried about a stolen base threat on first was actually valuable to both sides if you understood the situation. Having the pitcher in the lineup made for decisions during the game and a thought process about building your team and planning a game that are just wiped out now. Having the option to dare a batter to hit the other way by leaving a whole third of the field undefended was an opportunity for both teams to exploit. Gone. Sure, few if any people will miss the Nomar Garciaparra-like ritual of stepping out of the box, re-fastening the batting gloves, and taking three practice swings like a mini-hokey-pokey before every pitch, but not many guys did that.
Frankly, the 2023 changes aren't going to be as big a deal as the ones we're already seeing now (or have known are coming, like the jersey ads), which are far more damaging. The pitch clock, the shift ban, sure, I object to them on principle, but in the old days shifts were rare and few players took a lot of time between pitches anyway, so it won't seem too bad. The step-off rule, that I hate and can't figure why any pitcher would approve of it.
Still, I'd accept it all gladly if Manfred would use his new, negotiated ultimate power to impose changes without union approval to abolish the DH and consign it to a fiery death.