MIAMI — Whatever may be different about the baseballs this season, commissioner Rob Manfred reiterated Tuesday that they remain within MLB’s specifications.
And if more home runs are the result, Manfred sounds fine with that, too.
“I actually really like the game,” Manfred said during a meeting with the Baseball Writers Association of America. “I think the question is not what I think, what I like. I think the issue is what the fans want to see. And I think that our research suggests that the home run is actually a popular play in baseball.”
As for the proliferation of strikeouts, a trend that has boomed along with the 2017 power surge, Manfred also said it’s something that fans enjoy — if the right pitcher, such as a Clayton Kershaw, is racking up the K cards. But the preponderance of down time in a game has concerned Manfred, as well as the omnipresent pace of play issues, and neither of those vexing problems is easily solved.
“I think where it gets troubling, from a fan perspective, is tons and tons of strikeouts, no action, and lots of pitching changes,” Manfred said. “That combination is troubling to me.”
Union chief Tony Clark also spoke at the BBWAA meeting and acknowledged those differences. But more than seven months after hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement, the two sides still can’t agree on definitive causes.
“I think a lot of that change is the result of how the game has been taught and what people are valuing along the way, and I think a lot of that is unfortunate,” Clark said. “Having said that, fans like home runs, it seems, and fans like strikeouts, it seems. And we have a lot of both.”
Despite the repeated juiced-ball questions, the commissioner wouldn’t bend on his defense of MLB’s quality control efforts. With a total of 3,343 home runs before the All-Star break, the sport is on pace to shatter the single-season record of 5,693 set in 2000, but Manfred refused to blame the baseball or the possibility of a spike in the usage of performance-enhancing drugs.
“This is one of those situations where I can’t tell you that I know the answer,” Manfred said. “But let me tell you what I do know. I do know that we have done more testing of the baseball in the last couple years than ever has been done historically, and I do know with absolute certainty that the baseball falls within the tolerance of the specifications that have existed for many years.”
Another area that Manfred and Clark said they’d look into is the bat manufacturing, which now uses harder wood, in some cases.
“One thing we’re thinking about is the bats,” Manfred said. “That we’re kind of taking for granted that bats aren’t different.”
In the meantime, Manfred was thrilled by the success of Monday’s Home Run Derby and didn’t hesitate to point out that the event received the highest television ratings since 2009. Much of that was because of Aaron Judge’s spectacular display in winning the Derby crown.
“The great thing about the Home Run Derby, when you think about it, it’s the one thing that we do on a national scale where you go out there and it’s about you as an individual player and (Judge) certainly stepped up. I can’t say enough about how pleased we are with this event.”
Although Manfred praised MLB chief operating officer Tony Petitti for fixing the Derby — adding the four-minute clock, making it a head-to-head competition — correcting some of the sport’s flaws continues to be elusive. Manfred wants to implement a pitch clock, but the union has objected, and the commissioner wants to avoid forcing it into the game, as the CBA allows him to do, for next season.
“I remain hopeful that the Players Association recognizes that something has changed in the game and it’s time for us to think together about what the game looks like on the field,” Manfred said. “Secondly, if there’s any one thing that I think that has been true about my career in baseball is I’m a deal guy at heart. I would much rather have a deal than proceed unilaterally.”