Kudos to the Mets’ Mark Canha, who delivered some welcome common sense into baseball’s endless conflict between so-called traditionalists and people actually living in 2022.
With Friday’s announcement of rule changes for next season triggering the expected blowback, and the usual rubber-stamp rejection by the Players Association, Canha spoke for the adults in the room.
“I am open to change,” he said. “I think I can evolve with the times and be open-minded. I think the rules are really good for baseball.”
Hallelujah. “Open to change.” What a concept.
Has anybody complained this season about not having pitchers hit? Nope. And I maintain that the automatic runner on second base for extra innings has been a universally beneficial innovation — more action, quicker resolution, less wear-and-tear on players over the course of a six-month schedule.
Canha was approached by reporters for comment Friday in Miami because he’s known for taking his time in the batter’s box, thereby making him a presumed enemy of the incoming pitch clock. While the clock — 15 seconds for bases empty, 20 with runners on — primarily targets pitchers as the ones controlling the game’s tempo, it also carries a penalty for hitters, who must be in the box, ready to hit, with eight seconds left.
It speaks to the glacial pace of baseball as a whole, whether we’re talking about four hours to play nine innings or a 99-day lockout that froze labor negotiations, that everyone had to wait this long for a pitch clock. And before we start pointing fingers at who loves the sport or not, do you really enjoy watching players obsessively adjust their batting gloves? Or pitchers circling the mound like a vulture waiting for your attention span to die?
Of course not. Either that, or people hadn’t really noticed because they’re looking at their phones rather than the game anyway. And reducing the time between pitches not only means more action in a shorter time span but quicker games that should keep the fans in attendance sticking around until the final out.
The implementation of the pitch clock in the minor leagues has produced significant results, with the average game time being reduced 26 minutes from 3:04 a year ago to 2:38 this season. The last time it was that low in the majors was 1985 (2:39).
Obviously, MLB makes money between innings, and those commercial breaks jump from 2:15 to 2:40 for nationally televised games, then up to 3:10 for the postseason (cha-ching).
The skeptics — including suspicious players — suggest MLB will find a way to tack on a few more minutes of ad time in that space. Let’s hope the practice stays true to its stated mission.
As for players adapting to the pitch clock, plenty already have bounced between the minors and majors this season, with mostly positive reviews.
“You notice the pitchers we call up work faster,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said. “Most people whose opinion I value in the organization — especially guys that have been around for a while — love it. Absolutely love it. They talk about how much the rhythm of the game, the tempo of the game, how much better it is.”
No kidding. The players have pushed back against the pitch clock for a decade, primarily because they just wanted to do things the way they’ve always been done (even though that technically isn’t true — grinding down the game’s pace was something that proliferated in the past quarter-century).
The extreme defensive shifts are a different story. While stacking the right side of the infield, or using a short fielder in shallow right, was something used against the likes of Ted Williams, the precision of that strategy has been sharpened to near perfection thanks to the analytics powered by modern tech. It’s a Frankenstein’s Monster built by front office supercomputers and the army of analysts employed to pull on the puppet strings.
And that’s not some Luddite perspective. Theo Epstein was among the GMs who prospered by following that blueprint, using it to help end the two longest championship droughts in baseball history with the 2004 Red Sox and 2016 Cubs. Now that Epstein essentially has switched sides, working to undo the evils of analytics as an MLB consultant for on-field matters, he’s a huge proponent of outlawing the shift in order to create more action for the sport.
“The game has evolved in a way that nobody would have chosen if we were sitting down 25 years ago to chart a path toward the best version of baseball,” Epstein said at Friday’s news conference in Manhattan. “Nobody would have asked for fans to have to wait more than four minutes for balls to be put into play. Nobody would have asked for generational lows in stolen bases, triples and doubles.”
Baseball is an entertainment industry, first and foremost. But that’s not a concern of data-driven front offices whose mission is to win games, using the most efficient methods possible. Mining data to maximize run prevention has been at the core of that and, in the process, robbed the sport of some of its entertainment value. The new rule forcing teams to use two infielders on each side of second base, and no deeper than the outer border of the infield, should facilitate more balls in play and produce more spectacular moments when that happens.
“I think fans will cherish the moments absent the extreme defensive shifts when games are decided not by whether their team’s infield is positioned by the perfect algorithm,” Epstein said, “but by whether their team’s second baseman can range to make an athletic dive playing with everything on the line.”
While these may seem like radical measures — because even the tiniest change in baseball always does — just look at what other sports have done. The NBA added a 24-second shot clock in 1954 to prevent stalling, elevate scoring and increase fan interest in the sport. Sound familiar?
Manfred said Friday these rule changes were incorporated with the fans in mind and that surveys were factored in along with MLB’s own research.
Only time will tell how these rule changes actually perform in the majors, and there tends to be unintended consequences. Epstein and Manfred expect teams to devise new tactics in response, but they also said the 11-member competition committee will regularly evaluate the state of the sport and determine what tweaks or adjustments have to be made going forward.
“This game is about the players and it’s for the fans,” Epstein said, “We hope these rule changes underscore that and we’re confident that they help move us closer to the very best version of baseball.”