As seems to happen every year as the end of baseball season approaches, the conversation has once again turned to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s possible rule changes. But this year, the situation is unique: With MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire in December, drastic rule changes are now more plausible than ever.
Manfred, for some time, has worked to improve the pace of games. In recent years, he’s been behind the implementation of a between-innings clock, as well as a 30-second limit on coaching visits to the mound. Both have been somewhat successful: The average length of games shrank by 12 minutes between 2014 and 2015, from 3:08 to 2:56. But now, Manfred is advocating even more substantial rule changes, none of which will be as successful or as safe.
Among the proposals Manfred has advocated are the banning of defensive shifts, a 20-second pitch clock and limiting the use of relief pitchers. All may seem relatively harmless, but combined, the changes are dangerous, both to professional baseball players and the game’s integrity.
First, the pitch clock. To many, a 20-second limit in between pitches, similar to the NFL’s play clock, is the least harmful of Manfred’s proposals. But it has a downside. Reduced time between pitches can substantially increase the possibility of injury.
“One of the risk factors that we typically look at with muscle fatigue and injury is the amount of time people have to recover from doing effort,” said researcher Michael Sonne, co-author of a recent study on the possible effects of the pitch clock, in an article on thestar.com. A lack of time between pitches, according to the study, increases arm fatigue, and increased arm fatigue prevents pitchers from “stabiliz(ing) the (elbow) joint as they throw.”
The average time between pitches in the MLB is currently about 22 seconds, so the clock would reduce the average pitcher’s rest by two seconds per pitch. While that seems like a small amount, “when a pitcher is throwing at maximum effort, every bit of muscle force matters,” Sonne said.
In a game thrown on 300 pitches total, the pitch clock would save, on average, 10 minutes. Is 10 extra minutes worth endangering the arms of pitchers all around the league?
On, then, to the use of relief pitchers. Manfred’s attitude toward the subject has been almost shocking. In a radio interview in July, Manfred had this to say: “Relief pitchers have really changed the game. The use of relief pitchers — obviously every time you have a pitching change, it goes contrary to our pace-of-game efforts. And the other thing it does — and hats off to them — our relievers now are so good that they actually make the back end of the game — (innings) seven, eight and nine — with less action in it. And when you think about keeping people engaged, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Is this a good thing for the game?’”
First, Manfred asserts that quick games are more important than strategic decisions — that “every time you have a pitching change, it goes contrary to our pace-of-game efforts.” This is overtly ridiculous: the pace-of-play rules are meant to make baseball quicker, not change the strategy behind winning games. Second, limitations on relief pitchers will almost certainly result in higher workloads for starting pitchers, again increasing the likelihood of injuries.
But Even more shocking is Manfred’s contention that relief pitchers’ success might be bad for the game because it diminishes run production.
Here, Manfred’s message is simple: Don’t play the game well — just make it exciting. And that the commissioner of the MLB would hold such a view of the sport is distressing to say the least.
On, finally, to the infield shift. Manfred has considered a ban to increase offensive production. My objection remains. Prioritizing the production of offensive highlight reels over the strategic integrity of the game is simply wrong.
Furthermore, unlike the recent increase in use of relief pitching, defensive shifts aren’t exactly new. In fact, they’ve been in use since the middle of the 20th century. In John Updike’s 1960 essay, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, he described the typical defensive positioning when Ted Williams came to bat: “The Williams Shift — the maneuver, custom-built by Lou Boudreau, of the Cleveland Indians, whereby three infielders were concentrated on the right side of the infield, where a left-handed pull hitter like Williams generally hits the ball,” he wrote, perfectly describing defensive shifts still used today. “Williams could easily have learned to punch singles through the vacancy on his left and fattened his average hugely.”
Williams did not do this, Updike writes, because he considered himself a slugger. But the shift can be beaten: It’s up to players to learn how. Hitters have been overcoming the shift for decades — there’s no reason they should stop now. And hitters who can’t beat the shift should not be artificially elevated to the same plane as those who can.
Manfred, in summation, has taken improving the pace of play — a well-meaning objective — too far. Pace of play is important, but not more so than strategy or player safety. Cutting six minutes here and four minutes there is not worth endangering both pitchers’ arms and the integrity of the sport.
Baseball, the National Pastime, has been around since 1845 and has always been plenty exciting. In fact, even as Manfred has fretted about pace of play, baseball’s TV ratings have soared, teams have seen record revenues and fan attendance is close to the highest it has ever been.
The game is just fine the way it is. Commissioner Manfred, don’t ruin it.
James Schapiro ’18 watches as much baseball as an 80-year-old man. He can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.