Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Commissioner Manfred Already Making His Mark

Robert D. Manfred Jr. was elected the 10th commissioner of baseball on August 14th, 2014, and took office on January 25th following the retirement of Bud Selig.  Many assumed he would continue the groundwork laid by predecessor Selig, namely because Manfred has had full support from most owners and Selig himself from the beginning.  Although Selig had brought baseball to unprecedented heights and instituted important changes that have changed the game for the better, one could not deny the deliberate pace of which he did things, to put it nicely.  Not 12 hours into his campaign as Commissioner, Manfred was already making it clear he was going to be nothing like his predecessor with the announcement of a slew of proposed changes.

Some of these changes fly so much in the face of common sense and tradition that I wonder if Manfred really even likes baseball.  Bud Selig has a lifelong history in the game and although many disagreed with him, his love and respect for the game were never wavering and always admirable.  Rob Manfred, on the other hand, comes from an Ivy League lawyer background and sort of fell into MLB as a collective bargaining consultant.  This contrast in backgrounds is very clear in some of the changes Manfred presents, such as eliminating defensive shifts, adding the designated hitter to both leagues, and pitch clocks.  These things all fall under a larger umbrella of injecting more offense into the game and speeding up pace of play to appease the fans, which I can understand the reasoning.  Average runs per game has gone down and average time of game has gone up just about every year in the last 15.  But at the same time, revenues and attendance at the ballpark has never been higher and there is no evidence low scoring long games has affected baseball's bottom line.  Also I think these measures are for the casual fan and are a knee-jerk reaction to alter the game's natural evolution.  There is a certain amount of strategy involved in baseball that most true fans appreciate and I think would really hurt the game if things like managing a pitcher in your batting order or playing sabermetric percentages were removed.  I also think if you like baseball, you invest the time in going to a game - shaving a game down to 2:40 instead of 3 hours is not going to make people who already don't like baseball suddenly start showing interest.  The NFL is the country's most popular sport and is even longer than baseball.  People go for the social experience of being at the ballpark and I don't think get too wrapped up in the time of the game unless we're talking like a 17-inning affair.  If the commissioner really wants to make the game go quicker, the easiest change to make is to enforce the strike zone like it is truly written in the rule book: from just below the knee to just above the belt.  Wider strike zones mean hitters swing more, which in turn means shorter games.  I will say that I do agree with his simple change of eliminating lag time after TV timeouts.  30-60 seconds times 18 half innings goes a long way.  But to make a pitcher throw a ball after X number of seconds or prevent a batter from stepping out of the box is removing part of the strategy that makes this game great.

I don't want to completely write off Manfred before he even gets his feet wet in office.  I get that he wants to make his mark on the game and it's unfair to judge too much before things play out over the course of a season or two.  And there are a lot of things he talks about that just make a lot of sense - continuing to embrace technology, expanding youth and international outreach, and continuing to improve player safety, to name a few.  But so far what I am seeing are superficial things that are unnecessarily tinkering with the game I love, and I am skeptical.  At the same time, I realize that skepticism is kind of the point - in a game that has historically been so resistant to change, maybe mixing things up for its own sake from a man who comes from a completely different perspective is just what baseball needs, whether we as die-hard fans realize it or not.