New MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred inherited some flaws in the game from his predecessor, Bud Selig, and in an interview that aired Sunday on ESPN, he revealed some aggressive thoughts on how to fix them.
Baseball moves too slow? Enforce a pitch clock, which he thinks would be helpful “in terms of moving the game along.”
Offenses have stagnated and are scored runs lasts year at a lower rate than in any full season since 1976? Then think about eliminating the dramatic defensive shifts that many teams now employ.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us in the commissioner’s office to look at the advantages produced and say, ‘Is this what we want happening in the game?’ ” he told ESPN.
In a strange way, those two ideas could help unify the old-school and new-school baseball minds. Large factions from both groups figure to be strongly in favor of the first idea, and strongly opposed to the second.
The first seems like a no-brainer. The average length of an MLB game in 2014 was 3 hours, 8 minutes. Just 10 years ago, it was nearly 20 minutes shorter; a generation ago, games that lasted 2:30 were the norm.
So the old-school ball fans want it to go back to the way it was, and the new-school thinkers who love innovation will hail this as a way to move the sport into the 21st century.
But taking away defensive shifts? Manfred is unlikely to find much traction. Old-school baseball fans tend to enjoy good defense, good pitching and good strategy. Defensive shifts, particularly dramatic ones for power hitters that have major tendencies at the plate, are often very smart.
Sure, Ted Williams faced shifts in the 1940s. But widespread use of defensive shifts has come about thanks to advanced stats and being able to analyze batted ball data. So the new-school thinkers love them.
The argument for allowing shifts to continue is simple: batters need to learn to adapt and exploit the holes in the defense. If enough lefthanded hitters bunt down the third base line, and it leads to enough big innings, Manfred will get the runs he craves.
That said, it’s not crazy to think about eliminating shifts. The NBA has legislated against zone defenses, the NHL restricts where goalies can play the puck behind the net, and the NFL has countless rules geared toward more offense.
But if Manfred is serious about championing the two issues he raised Sunday, he shouldn’t expect much enthusiasm for one of them.