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Rob Manfred Has Good Intentions, But Bad Ideas, About Changing Baseball

The Commissioner has some radical ideas about changing the game.

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Al Yellon

In the very first interview Rob Manfred gave as Commissioner, he mentioned banning defensive shifts as an idea he had about changing the game.

Well, you can imagine -- you probably remember -- the kerfuffle that stirred up. Nothing was said about that again until last week, when the Commissioner gave a wide-ranging interview to Bob Nightingale of USA Today, in which he not only raised this idea again, but quite a few more radical rule change ideas that MLB owners might bring before the players in the next labor negotiation. The current owners/players Basic Agreement expires December 1.

Commissioner Rob Manfred said that baseball is contemplating everything from altering the strike zone to limiting the number of pitching changes in a game, to curtailing the number of shifts, to even installing 20-second time clocks for pitchers.

If these changes are implemented, it would lead to perhaps the most radical rule changes since baseball reduced the number of balls to four in 1889 to constitute a walk. Certainly, it would have more impact than the American League installing the DH in 1973.

One of the things not mentioned here, but something that Manfred has consistently stated is his desire, is to speed up the pace of the game. Note! That doesn't necessarily mean shorter games, though Manfred has said he'd like those. He just wants the pace to be quicker, which means less stepping out of the batter's box, among other things. That's been in place since last year, with mixed results.

Let's look at these ideas one by one.

Banning or limiting defensive shifts

This has to be the worst of all the ideas. If the infield shifts all the way to the right side, with the third baseman occasionally in short right field, as teams often do against (for example) Anthony Rizzo, why, then, the lefthanded hitter should be able to bunt his way on base. Rizzo did that twice in one game last year. Of course, you don't want a power hitter like Rizzo bunting for singles all the time, but if he'd do that once in a while -- or if any hitter shifted on would -- then the likely response would be for the defense to spread out.

It's something that requires adjustments, just as any change in playing the game does. Let the offense adjust to defensive shifts, don't ban them.

Modifying the strike zone

From the USA Today article:

If we’re going to see any instant change, Manfred acknowledged, it will be altering the strike zone. Shrinking the strike zone is the easiest solution to enhancing the offense, without altering the height of the mound.

Manfred's right about this, and there have often been adjustments made to the strike zone over the years to help a perceived decline in offense. Of course, more offense means longer games, which might be an unintended consequence of shrinking the strike zone. It would also likely mean more home runs, which, the article notes, are already at the second-highest rate in MLB history. (Strikeouts are at an all-time high.)

More than this, though, I'd like to see the zone called by the book. That means automated ball-and-strike calls. Is MLB ready to go this far? (Probably not, considering how long it took just to get replay review instituted.)

20-second clocks for pitchers

There's already a pitch clock in use at the Double-A and Triple-A levels, and according to Craig Calcaterra, that resulted in reduction of game lengths from anywhere from six to 16 minutes across five leagues at those levels. However, Calcaterra cautions:

Still, the only reports of the pitch clock in the minors we heard were of game times. We have not, as far as I have seen, heard much in the way of feedback from the players as to how it affects them and whether or not they like it. That would be useful information.

It would, indeed, and I'd like to hear about that first before I'd say, "Sure, let's do it." A test in a spring training or two might be useful. 20 seconds, which is the rule-book time for a pitcher to deliver a pitch (or get a called ball) is only in effect when the bases are empty. So far this year about 57 percent of plate appearances are with the bases empty, so it wouldn't be used all the time. I could get behind this one.

Limiting pitching changes during a game

There are a number of ways to do this. Perhaps the most effective one would be to require any relief pitcher to face at least two hitters (unless the one hitter they face is the last out of an inning). This would greatly reduce the number of LOOGYs used, and might even make bullpens smaller. It would mean general managers and managers would have to find more relievers who can get both righthanded and lefthanded batters out.

There are other ways to do this, but I think that would be the most useful one and something I could live with.

So, what about you? I'm posting a poll in which you can express your thoughts about these (and perhaps other) ideas.