To put it mildly, Major League Baseball is doing rather well right now.
The sport has maintained a high level of popularity, and is enjoying a period of extremely strong financial stability. Moreover, the 2016 season was one of it’s finest in years. With the two teams with the longest championship droughts in baseball squaring off in the World Series, engaging in an epic battle capped off by the greatest Game Seven of all time, it was arguably the best thing that could have happened to an already stalwart state of baseball.
But hey, what’s the point of having a boat if not to rock it?
Baseball is a business after all, and like any business, you strive for health and growth. Health isn’t a problem right now for MLB as we just examined. Growth is the goal here, in the form of gaining new fans by way of increasing the pace of play. This, however, could likely come at the price of alienating as many, or more, fans than might be gained. More on that later. Back to the boat-rocking.
This budding tidal wave comes in the form of several proposed, and potentially proposed, rules changes, ranging from the possibly sensible to the ludicrously absurd. Let’s take a look at each one a little closer and how they may, or may not (or, in some cases, shouldn’t) work.
- Raising the strike zone. The idea here is to put more balls in play and thus create more offense. We get it, offense is sexy. Data shows that umpires have increasingly called low strikes below the knees, and by raising the zone to above the kneecap (essentially two inches from it’s current location), this likely creates favorable counts to hitters and gives them more chances for contact.
- Eliminating the four intentional walk pitches. This one seems to be the most likely to actually be implemented, but how much impact would it really have on pace of play? In 2016, there was only one intentional walk every 46 1/3 innings, or one every 5.2 games. That tells me the effect that eliminating the four soft lobs would have on speeding up the game would be negligible. Perhaps they could utilize it on a case-by-case basis. Say a game is already running very long and there is an IBB in the late innings. In that instance it may make sense to just forego the four tosses. But doing it every time would not only not speed the game up, it would eliminate the chance of a wild pitch, or one in the zone that the hitter could get to. Such things are rare, but entertaining when they happen.
- New extra-innings scenario. Dear Baseball Gods, please don’t let this one happen. Starting extra innings with a runner on second base is ridiculous. Teams should attempt to score runs the same way whether it be the first, or ninety-first inning.
- Shortening games to seven innings. Really? Who came up with this gem? This isn’t Little League here. I’d be shocked if this ever gets much support.
- Decrease the regular season schedule to 154 games. This has been talked about for years, and it may happen someday. The six-game difference would have several impacts, resulting in more days off during the season, and certain improved travel scenarios. Also, the shorter schedule would greatly decrease the likelihood that the World Series bleeds into November, where the threat of wintery weather for Midwest and east coast teams is always near. (Then again, April weather can be unfriendly too.)
- The Pitch Clock. This one is already present in college and Minor League Baseball with some success in shortening game times. Whether this tactic makes it to the Majors remains to be seen.
- Automatic Strike Zone and Base Sensors. Am I the only one who shudders at the thought of an automated system of governance for our game? Those who hate the Don Denkinger’s of the world may support these high-tech solutions, but purists will despise them. Bad calls, unfortunately, are part of the game and although ideas like this are sound, it takes certain elements of chance, one of the very founding principles of baseball, away. The human element should be kept in decision-making, and the use of high-def cameras, slow-motion and replay review should help keep umpires on the field where they belong.
While some of these potential changes to the rules are interesting, will they really help the pace of play enough to bring new fans to the game? I think this is a risk vs. reward scenario that MLB needs to look at. While gaining new fans is always rewarding, the risk of possibly alienating the long-time fans and purists is worse. These are the diehards who have no qualms about shelling out their money for tickets, apparel, books, decor, etc. To risk losing any number of that group outweighs the odds of gaining new fans because you throw a few new toys on the field, or start extra innings with a runner in scoring position like some silly off-the-cuff rule in a college drinking game.
Like most fans, I’m all about improving the game of baseball. Just as long as it remains the game of baseball.