SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — Commissioner Rob Manfred and baseball owners unilaterally instituted a change in baseball rules for this season: managers no longer have to order pitchers to throw four pitches outside the strike zone for an intentional walk. Instead, they can just give a signal (and managers have come up with some creative ones!) and the batter can trot to first base.
This was done, supposedly, to improve the pace of play, something Manfred is concerned has been turning off younger fans. While I share his concern on pace of play, there are two problems with this approach:
- This specific rule change might save 30 seconds per game, and
- This specific rule change won’t make a single bit of difference for younger fans.
Will Leitch wrote an article the other day (linked by Josh in MLB Bullets, but I wanted to elaborate) explaining that the answer can be found in what we’ve seen in the World Baseball Classic:
You have to be a pretty diehard World Baseball Classic skeptic -- that is to say, you have to have made the active, conscious and consistent decision not to watch a single game at all -- not to be at least somewhat entranced and charmed by the joy and the competitive spirit of these games. This is baseball played in a different, more urgent and exuberant, way than we typically see it in the United States. (Plus, as Sports Illustrated's Jon Tayler noted, "the WBC games have all the drama of playoff baseball with all the baserunning and fielding mistakes of Spring Training, which is a fun combo.") It has been a blast.
Will is absolutely right. The fun and outgoing nature of teams like Puerto Rico is what baseball needs, not tinkering with the intentional-walk rule.
Leitch’s article correctly notes that this sort of thing can’t go on all the time, after going through this long explanation of what commentator John Smoltz said about these kinds of displays on the MLB Network telecast:
The first is that individual regular-season games just aren't that important, and there, exuberance does start to look a little too much like aggressive gloating. Every Classic game, more or less, has resembled an elimination game: You're usually one loss away from going home. Thus, this has been a postseason-style blitzkrieg, every play magnified and every big hit taking on outsized importance, and that's even before you bring national pride into it. You'd look awfully silly if everybody ran out of the dugout and congratulated a guy on a solo homer in the second inning of a hot August afternoon game in Cincinnati. The time for celebrations like this is now.
The second is that the season is looong. Not only will you wear yourself out if you try to do that 162 times a year, you will find your celebrations lose some luster when they are just one small moment in a protracted marathon. You maybe need to chill a bit.
But I don't think that's what Smoltz was saying, or at least that wasn't the primary thing he was saying. Smoltz was drawing a line in the sand. That's fine for this tournament, but that won't fly in the bigs. What Smoltz was saying is that if any of these players try this in a Major League game, they'll get a fastball in the ear.
Leitch is correct. You don’t want these kinds of celebrations in a random regular-season game. (Just watch any random NFL game for examples of things like this; the celebratory dances after a random quarterback sack in a meaningless game in November are far too over-the-top.)
But Leitch also gives this as an example (in fact, he calls it “the most exciting baseball play of the last three years ... the one moment, when you think of baseball causing you to lose your damned mind for a second”) of the excitement that baseball can bring:
I love that. It was the perfect moment to do it. The home run wasn’t a walkoff, but it capped a thrilling comeback in the late innings of an elimination game.
The old-school “retaliation” that Smoltz was talking about ought to remain there, in the “old school.” I’m not saying that every single home run or exciting play ought to be celebrated, but the idea that maybe taking just a little too long to admire a baseball that’s obviously leaving the park ought to be met with a “fastball in the ear” in the batter’s next at-bat needs to be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history.
Baseball has changed demographically over the last 20 to 30 years. Nearly 30 percent of MLB players are Hispanic, most of them from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. The type of excitement shown by players on those teams in the WBC is what baseball needs, not tweaking the IBB rule or shifting the strike zone a couple of inches. Will Leitch concludes:
This is what baseball is becoming. This is what baseball needs to become. The World Baseball Classic is just the start. You want to make baseball more fun? This is how it's done. This is how you save it. Isn't it fantastic? Isn't it just the best thing in the world?
Amen, Will. I’ve watched many of the WBC games and the biggest takeaway is the fun the players are having. Bring more of that into MLB and start promoting some of the young stars of the game, such as Puerto Rico’s Javier Baez, Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor, and I think you’d see young people flocking back to baseball.