Many people were happy that Bud Selig retired as Commissioner of baseball and was replaced by a younger man, Rob Manfred, who presumably would be open to new ideas.
In an interview with reporter Karl Ravech that aired on ESPN Sunday, we found out that he is open. Maybe a bit too open, as evidenced by this transcript posted by David Brown at CBS Sports:
Rob Manfred: "For example, things like eliminating shifts -- I would be open to those sorts of ideas." Karl Ravech: "The forward-thinking, sabermetric defensive shifts?" RM: "That's what I'm talking about." KR: "Let's eliminate that?" RM: "Mmm-hmm." KR: "So all of the work that the Cubs and/or Angels and/or whoever has done, you're willing to say, 'I appreciate that, good idea, but it's killing the game in a sense'?" RM: "Yeah ... I mean, we have really smart people working in the game. And they're going to figure out way to get a competitive advantage. I think it's incumbent on us in the commissioner's office to look at the advantages that are produced and say, 'Is this what we want to happen in the game?'"
Oh, man. Oh, oh, man. Rob, you really went there?
Look, I understand what Manfred was trying to say, or at least I think I do. Baseball is one of the most conservative of sports, by which I mean that change happens at a glacial pace, if ever. Look how long it took to get even the rudiments of a replay-review system started -- more than two decades after the NFL had one and a decade or more after the NBA and NHL. What Manfred appears to be saying here is, "Let's not be bound by the past, let's try new things, let's open things up for discussion."
But eliminating defensive shifts? Seriously? That's something designed by smart baseball guys to try to adjust to offensive players who hit in one direction. Karl Ravech said it was "forward-thinking," but defensive shifting has been around since Connie Mack used to wave his outfielders to different spots with a scorecard from the Philadelphia A's dugout. Wearing a suit. In the 1910's. Granted, it's been taken to new heights recently, but I don't see how taking away this sort of strategic thinking would be a good thing for the game. Might as well tell hitters to hold their bats upside-down on a 3-0 pitch. Or tell pitchers they can't throw 95+ mile-per-hour fastballs in the ninth inning when trying to nail down a save. Hey, go back to letting fielders leave their gloves on the field when they're at bat, so their opponents can trip on them!
Plus, what would be the penalty for an "illegal defense"? Five-yard penalty, repeat first down? As noted in the CBS Sports article:
Manfred, though, seems to be all about fixing something that might not be broken. What have extreme shifts done to the game, exactly? Studies by Jonathan Judge at The Hardball Times, along with Dave Cameron at Fangraphs, show that the recent decline in offense is due to something other than shifting. Not only have batting averages on all balls in play remained steady as runs scored have dropped, but BABIP on all balls hit into fair territory has been stable, when compared to team runs scored per game. If shifting were impacting the game that much, both of those numbers should be in decline. Judge and Cameron conclude that the decline in runs scored relates to a decline in walks, along with an increase in strikeouts, rather than more shifting. They say strike-zone enforcement by umpires is a much bigger deal than shifting.
Ah, yes. Strike-zone enforcement, something not really addressed in the Manfred interview. There have been some who have suggested ball-and-strike calls should be automated, and I'm not against that at all. It's been shown -- and this FiveThirtyEight article did a great job on the specifics -- that umpires are biased in any number of ways and those biases can affect the results of baseball games. The strike zone ought to be called by the book, and as long as we have 96 different men making those calls, we're going to have 96 different opinions on what the strike zone is -- and it's also called differently at different times of the game, as shown in this example cited by FiveThirtyEight:
Consider a forgotten game in April 2010 between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox were up a run with two outs in the eighth. Their set-up man, Matt Thornton, was on the mound, protecting a lead with a runner on first and the right-handed Jhonny Peralta at bat. Ahead in the count with one ball and two strikes, Thornton froze Peralta with a slider on the outside half of the plate, a couple inches below the belt. For a pitch like that, the umpire, Bruce Dreckman, would normally call a strike — 80 percent of the time, the data shows. But in two-strike counts like Peralta’s, he calls a strike less than half the time. Sure enough, that night Dreckman called a ball. Two pitches later, Peralta lashed a double to right, scoring the runner and tying the game. Neither team scored again until the 11th, when Cleveland scored twice to win the game. Had Peralta struck out to end the top of the eighth, Chicago almost certainly would have won.
There's more on what Manfred's thinking in this New York Times article, which includes this particularly interesting quote from the new commish:
Further, in an open letter to fans that I (and perhaps you) received by email Sunday, Manfred expanded on that thought:"You hear a lot about our game, our society — how do the two fit together? — and is baseball and its pacing consonant with our society," Manfred said. "I think it’s really important that we use technology to make the game as user-friendly in the ballpark and during broadcasts as we possibly can. You can enhance and provide real fans with information via technology that makes the game move faster and keeps people engaged during the game, without distracting from what’s the core, what’s out there on the field."
I look forward to tapping into the power of technology to consider additional advancements that will continue to heighten the excitement of the game, improve the pace of play and attract more young people to the game.
You know how I feel about the pace-of-game issue and I'm not going to rehash that, although this is a good opportunity for me to post a poll on that topic, so please vote.
Here, though, is the truth about how to make the game "user-friendly" and "keep people engaged," particularly younger people through technology:
Ways to make game appealing to younger fans: end local blackouts & make every game accessible on mobile devices.— Wendy Thurm (@hangingsliders) January 25, 2015
Now that's more like it. You know, despite Manfred's claim in the Times article that he was "a Bobby Murcer fan during the down years," he doesn't seem to really be a baseball fan, at least not one who's tuned in to what most modern fans want. Another example:
THE ALL-STAR GAME RESULT DETERMINING HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE FOR THE WORLD SERIES "I’m in favor of it staying. I understand people have different theories about why it doesn’t make sense. I think the one thing that’s very, very difficult to argue with is when we went to the home-field advantage rule, the way the game was played by the players, how seriously they took it, changed and changed for the better. Why you’d want to go backwards on that issue is something that really escapes me."
The answer to that is that home-field advantage in the World Series isn't about the All-Star Game. It is -- or at least should be, in my view -- about which actual team that is in the actual World Series has played better during the regular season. The All-Star Game is still not "changed for the better," as Manfred claims. It's still pitcher-dominated (only one team, the 2012 A.L., has scored more than five runs in the last nine ASG, and in the last seven, the losing squad has scored 3, 3, 1, 1, 0, 0 and 3 runs), it's not played the way most games are with its incessant substitutions not for baseball reasons, but for roster reasons, and the thought that RBIs by Mike Trout and Jose Altuve, two players who weren't in their league championship series, determined home field last year is just plain wrong.
Maybe some of the younger, more forward-thinking owners can disabuse Manfred of this notion.
Many of you will be happy with this, though:
THE DESIGNATED HITTER "I have never experienced one moment of mental dissonance over the fact that the American League has it and the National League doesn’t. I just never have. It’s interesting, right now, given where offense is in our game. I can’t see the American League clubs giving it up, and right now, given the composition of our National League owners, I don’t see them buying into it. So I think we’re staying where we are."
I've been over this too and won't belabor it, except to point out this fact: that we really don't have two "leagues" anymore, we have one league with one commissioner and one set of umpires. We ought to have one set of rules. In some ways, it's surprising to me that you'd even have votes that include separate "league" groups of owners. There are 30 major-league owners and they all have a Major League Baseball team. In my view, votes should be among all 30, not "league" groups of 15 each. Obviously, Manfred disagrees, and unless N.L. owners push for it when the next labor agreement comes up after 2016, those of you who enjoy seeing pitchers strike out in 45 percent of their plate appearances will get to keep seeing that in N.L.-hosted games.
Once again, I understand something of where Manfred's coming from. We don't have to necessarily be bound by all the rules and regulations of baseball's past. I'm as traditionalist as they come in some areas, but I also realize the game has to adjust and change with the times -- you know, kind of like how many teams these days are trying new types of defensive shifts. Let's open up baseball dialogue on any number of topics, sure. But let's also make certain that we're not changing things just because we can.
I realize I've thrown a lot at you in this article and even so, haven't scratched the surface of things that Commissioner Manfred might want to address. But hey, it's Monday morning and we're entering a new era with a new leader in baseball. Have at it.