Throughout the negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement between the players and team owners, Major League Baseball resembled someone who, diagnosed with cancer, says: “I want to fight this — but, first, I want a knee replacement.” Misplaced priorities. Baseball’s problems are fascinating because they are the result of everyone acting reasonably on the basis of abundant, accurate information.
The players union did what unions are supposed to do: It fought over the distribution of the industry’s revenue. Young players, who are more numerous and productive than ever, lack bargaining leverage (e.g., free agency). So, the union succeeded in tilting the compensation system toward the young (e.g., higher minimum salaries). Now comes the cancer treatment.
Games become ever longer but with fewer balls in play — more than a third of all at-bats result in strikeouts, walks or home runs, which are four seconds of a flying ball followed by the batter’s jog. Longer games with less action is an atrocious recipe for an entertainment business.
Players spend much more time with leather on their hands than with wood in their hands, but today’s players’ dazzling athleticism is too infrequently displayed because “analytics” — a.k.a. data; baseball participates in the national plague of linguistic inflation — make too many players’ “tendencies” predictable.
Baseball has been overwhelmed by pitchers’ velocity: They throw secondary pitches (not fastballs) 93 mph. Because they expend maximum effort on so many pitches, they take extra recovery time between pitches, and the game congeals. A pitch clock (say, 14 seconds with no runners on base, 19 with runners on) would force pitchers to work faster, relying more on less-strenuous pitches.
Some fans will remember when matchups of great starting pitchers — Sandy Koufax against Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson against Tom Seaver — were riveting spectacles. If a pitch clock causes pitchers to economize their energy, we can recapture the magic of two great ones going deep into games.
The clock would address baseball’s most infuriating dead time — hitters wandering away from home plate during an at-bat, as though puzzling about Fermat’s Last Theorem. If the batter is not in the batter’s box when the pitch is delivered, it would be called a strike. Pitchers might resent having to pick up the pace, but they will benefit from batters not having time to ponder the next pitch. And if two infielders have to be on either side of second base, all four with their spikes on the infield dirt as the pitch is delivered, there will be a premium placed on fielders with range, rather than on more one-dimensional players whose defensive shortcomings can be disguised by a 23-year-old math major who positions the defense where each batter’s proclivities require, given the pitcher’s “spin rate,” the batter’s “launch angle,” etc.
In 2021, there were 1,070 fewer stolen bases than 10 years earlier. Bigger bases (18 inches square rather than 15) would shorten the sprint between bases, increasing the likelihood of action. Think how often instant replays show an attempted stolen base coming up two inches short. If the MLB’s attendance is going to get back to its peak of 80 million fans in 2007, it must restore the energy of the game as it was when arguably the greatest game was played.
Game 7 of the 1960 World Series — Pirates 10, Yankees 9, won by Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run — was played in 2 hours and 36 minutes, during which there were no strikeouts. In last year’s Series, the shortest game — Astros 7, Braves 2 — was 3 hours and 11 minutes, and there were 23 strikeouts, 45 percent of all the outs.
Now MLB must tweak its rules or find a slew of Rod Carews. He wielded a bat with the delicacy of an orchestral conductor’s baton. The first time Tony La Russa managed against Carew, he moved his shortstop up the middle. So, Carew singled through the spot that La Russa’s shortstop had vacated. In Carew’s next at-bat, La Russa, chastened, left the shortstop where he normally played. So, Carew — don’t tug on Superman’s cape — singled through the spot where La Russa had placed the shortstop in Carew’s first at-bat . Carew’s third at-bat: a bunt so perfect he reached base without a throw.
Today’s analytics could not have helped opponents cope with Carew. He, however, was a genius. Better to change baseball’s rules than to count on reviving the game with an abundance of genius, which is always scarce.
An earlier version of this column incorrectly described a possible size change for bases. This version has been updated.