ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Before he took questions at Tropicana Field on Thursday evening, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed his excitement about the upcoming season. He said he was anxious for it to start. He noted he enjoys the optimism a clean slate offers the 30 clubs. Then he spent most of the next 20 minutes discussing the two buzzkills deflecting attention away from the excitement: pace of play and the unprecedented surplus of free agents.

While the fates of dozens of free agents remain unknown, Manfred said the league will announce rule changes to quicken the pace of play before spring training games start next week whether the Major League Baseball Players Association is on board or not. Though he’d prefer to come to a specific agreement on specific rules changes with the MLBPA, Manfred said he’ll install the changes unilaterally if needed, which he can do through the collective bargaining agreement.

“We have gone out of our way to solicit player input,” Manfred said. “We’ve delayed taking any action. We’ve made clear from the very, very beginning that our strong preference was to have an agreement with the players and, in fact, we have significantly altered our substantive positions based on input that we’ve had from players. That’s the bargaining process.”

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Manfred didn’t offer any specifics, but he said the changes will focus on limiting downtime, including mound visits, time it takes for batters to get in the box, and breaks given to players.

“I am hopeful that the changes we make directed at downtime will eventually get us into a spot where we’re comfortable with pace of play and the length of the game,” Manfred said. “But if not there can be conversations about other types of changes that might go beyond downtime.”

Manfred spoke minutes away from where some free agents are participating in a spring training camp organized by the MLBPA at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. He acknowledged the market’s pace has been unusual, but added he isn’t concerned about the glut of unemployed players. To him, so many players remain without teams because their perceived values haven’t matched their actual values in the current market.

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“There’s a difference between not having a job and having an offer for a job and not being prepared to accept that offer,” Manfred said. “There’s a lot of activity out there on the market. Just based on press reports, there are offers out there being made and I firmly believe that players who are major-league quality players are going to be signed.”

As for pace of play, Manfred explained MLB has found that fans’ biggest gripes with the league’s product are game lengths — the average game time was 3:05 in 2017 — and dead time. Players have said they recognize both are problems and require fixes. How to fix it has created some resistance. For example, Manfred has been a proponent of a pitch clock and MLB proposed a 20-second pitch clock with bases empty to the MLBPA in January. A pitch clock was installed in the Arizona Fall League in 2014, and was added to Class AA and AAA in 2015.

The commissioner reportedly agreed recently to delay the introduction of a pitch clock at least another season, but could implement one unilaterally if an deal with the union isn’t reached.

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Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer said he has been involved in pace of play discussions since last August. He said players recognize there’s a problem. They don’t want to play in four-hour games just as fans don’t want to sit through them. But the two-time reigning National League Cy Young award winner is skeptical about the league’s approach.

“The pitch clock doesn’t seem to solve the problem, in my opinion,” Scherzer said on Thursday morning. “When I talk to minor leaguers, they talk about how you can just call time at any time and it can reset the clock. Or you can just step off and it resets the clock. So if the pitch clock is really not going to accomplish what MLB’s overall, arching goal to speed up the game.”

Scherzer said he believes the problem derives from how liberally umpires award time. He pointed to hitters having the option to call timeout in the batter’s box almost whenever they please.

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“If you really want pace to quicken up, we got to allow pitchers to work quicker,” Scherzer said. “I know there’s gamesmanship. I’m not saying pitchers can work at the expense of hitters, but pitchers have to be incentivized to work quicker. Hitters have to be ready more.”

Both sides agree there’s a problem. Next week, the players will find out the league’s first significant attempt to solve it, whether they like it or not.

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