Some variation of the same question follows the commissioner everywhere and is among the first asked when Rob Manfred is encircled by reporters, as he was Thursday at the conclusion of the MLB owners’ meetings in Manhattan.
“Hey Rob, what’s going on with X, Y or Z and how do you plan to fix it?”
Literally. That’s always one of the chief concerns: no offense. And it’s been under the microscope in recent years because of the discrepancy in the manufacturing specs of the baseballs, which allegedly are either juiced to pump up the entertainment value of home runs or deflated to make the sport less like a video game.
MLB has copped to variations in the ball, and given that it owns Rawlings — the company that assembles them — you can see how people would be suspicious of their motivations. Manfred points to the ball being a handmade product, strung together with natural materials, hence the varying specs from time to time.
But after home runs ballooned in 2019, they’ve been in steady decline, and MLB even admitted the introduction of a “deadened ball” for the 2021 season. Around that same time, offenses should have received a boost with the crackdown on pitchers using banned substances, such as the super-gooey Spider Tack adhesive, but the debate continued to rage.
So where is MLB at the moment? After the season’s pitiful start at the plate, the numbers are creeping upward and actually are settling into a pace more akin to what the sports is trying to accomplish: more balanced power and more action — specifically fewer strikeouts and walks.
To that end, the universal DH was installed, courtesy of the new collective bargaining agreement, and updated rosin materials were provided in conjunction with umpires shifting their scrutiny to hands this season from the gloves/caps/uniforms of a year ago. As for the baseball itself, players suspected it was very much deflated early on, but that seems to be changing as we get closer to the summer solstice (June 21).
The numbers for April (each team/per game) were alarming. Teams were averaging only 4.03 runs with 0.91 homers, 3.28 walks, 8.50 strikeouts, a .231 batting average and a .676 OPS. By comparison, these were the 2021 averages: 4.53 runs, 1.22 homers, 3.25 walks, 8.68 strikeouts, a .244 average and a .728 OPS.
The hitters’ frustration was understandable. They complained that the ball didn’t respond to solid contact and pitchers were annoyed that it was difficult to grip. But the offense has picked up considerably this month, as is expected when the weather improves, becoming more in line with MLB’s targeted numbers. For June, the runs (per team/per game) have jumped to 4.59, along with 1.19 homers, 3.00 walks, 8.17 strikeouts, a .248 batting average and a .724 OPS.
“I think the best form of baseball is a form of the game where there are more balls in play,” Manfred said Thursday. “There’s action to keep the fans engaged. People define offense in different ways — home runs, whatever. I don’t focus on any particular forum, any particular outcome in an individual at-bat. It’s the overall level of action in the game that we’re most interested in.”
And the verdict?
“I think it’s been better this year,” Manfred said. “I really do.”
The past six weeks appear to support the commissioner’s view. And the game’s makeover is only in its early stages, with two big changes that will impact offensive production to be discussed when the competition committee meets next week. At the top of that agenda is the pitch clock and also a potential ban on defensive shifts — two things that could be implemented as early as 2023.
Manfred has been pushing for a pitch clock since 2018, when he came close to imposing one unilaterally (as that CBA allowed him to do) but backed down for the sake of labor peace at the time. Four years later, and after successful experimentation in the minors, the pitch clock — in some form — now appears inevitable.
Using a 14-second clock has reduced the length of minor-league games by 29 minutes this season to 2:35, down from 3:04 a year ago (MLB games currently are running 3:05). Manfred’s initial plan in 2018 suggested a 20-second timer between pitches, so the final draft of the rule could wind up somewhere in between. But with the next generation of players already getting accustomed to the rule at the minor-league levels, it would make sense to push for a clock on the shorter end.
“The pitch clock and all the aspects of the mechanics — the amount of time, whatever — I expect will be a subject of discussion in the competition committee,” Manfred said. “We are encouraged by the results in the minor leagues. We’ve said for years that the minor leagues provide us with a really important opportunity to experiment, learn and make sure we understand how something’s going to work if we deployed it on the field.”
As for the shift, the “defensive-positioning” rule has been implemented at the Double-A level, requiring four players to be on the infield dirt, two on each side of second base. MLB teams, however, devote significant analytical resources to come up with their defensive alignments, which seem to get more radical each year, so it will be interesting to see how Manfred deals with that. t
Some players have been more aggressive in trying to beat the shift this season by either bunting to the empty side of the infield — as Anthony Rizzo and Matt Carpenter have done — or just slapping hits to the open spaces, something Jeff McNeil and Brandon Nimmo have shown an affinity for. Mets manager Buck Showalter has welcomed shifts against those two, saying they are like NFL quarterbacks — surveying the defense as they step into the batter’s box, then adjusting accordingly to beat it.
Could MLB choose the more patient route of letting this change happen organically? Probably not. But Manfred wouldn’t tip his hand when asked Thursday about the plans.
“I don’t want to prejudge the competition committee process,” he said. “I think it’s important that we go in, have the conversation with the committee, let the process work, take the input. Me saying that I’m in favor of X or Y before that process takes place, I just don’t think that’s a good way to proceed.”
The new CBA established a reconfigured competition committee that now includes four active players, six members appointed by MLB and one umpire. Once a rule is approved by that committee, it can be implemented with 45 days' notice. Previously, MLB had negotiated with the union on rules, then had the ability to make unilateral changes with a year’s notice.
One area in which MLB seems to be pumping the brakes is robot umpires, otherwise known as the Automated Ball and Strike system (ABS). While the ABS is being tried in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League this season, it sounds as if it could be a while before the robo-umps get their big-league call-up.
“I don’t see the ABS as a competition committee issue for this year,” Manfred said. “I think we’re continuing to experiment in the minor leagues . . . There are difficult issues surrounding the strike zone that affect outcomes on the field. We need to make sure we understand those before we jump off that bridge.”
MLB offense is blooming again in late spring. An explanation is warming temperatures and improving weather after brutal conditions to start the season. Some might suggest MLB rolling out baseballs with varying specs, which remains part of the discussion, too. Either way, the inflated offense is obvious, along with reductions in two of the three “true outcomes” as strikeouts and walks have decreased month-to-month (statistical averages are per game, per team):
Month Runs Hits HR BB SO BA OPS
April 4.03 7.62 0.91 3.28 8.50 .231 .676
May 4.43 8.30 1.08 3.08 8.20 .246 .711
June 4.59 8.50 1.19 3.00 8.17 .248 .724
2022 4.34 8.12 1.04 3.13 8.29 .241 .702
2021 4.53 8.13 1.22 3.25 8.68 .244 .728.
Home Run leaders
25 Aaron Judge, NYY
19 Byron Buxton, Minn.
19 Pete Alonso, NYM
18 Mike Trout, LAA
18 Kyle Schwarber, Phila.
18 Austin Riley, Atl.
18 Yordan Alvarez, Hou.
63 Pete Alonso, NYM
62 Jose Ramirez, Clev.
56 Paul Goldschmidt, StL.
49 Aaron Judge, NYY
49 Francisco Lindor, NYM
49 C.J. Cron, Colo.
48 Bryce Harper, Phila.
(Through Friday's games)