Commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday used some of his most forceful language yet to signal Major League Baseball’s intentions to “be bold” in addressing the existential crisis facing the sport, with defensive shifts, relief pitcher usage patterns and rising strikeout totals — fueled by the spreading influence of the analytics movement — increasingly conspiring to rob games of action.
“We are at a point in the evolution of the game where the owners . . . feel that the game has changed in a way that we do need to be more aggressive with respect to managing that change,” Manfred said in an address to the National Press Club in downtown Washington on the day before the 89th All-Star Game at Nationals Park.
“We’re not up there in New York thinking, ‘Baseball has been this way for a long time. How are we going to change it?’ ” he said. “[But] we’re watching it change organically in response to decisions that are made by 30 different [general managers] in 30 different markets in an effort to win two more games in a year. . . . I think it’s going to be a proactive decision-making process. I think our owners are very united. I think they share a common view in respect to what’s going on in the game. It puts the institution in a position to be bold.”
Manfred did not use the word “crisis” to describe the state of the game. In fact, he pointed to the steady rise in revenues — estimated at $10 billion last year — as well as the sport’s positioning as an industry leader in new media and the continued influx of talented young players to conclude baseball “is in a great spot.” He also downplayed this season’s attendance drop of about 5½ percent through the same date in 2017 as largely the result of weather issues in April and May.
But after first acknowledging he is “an analytics-based decision-maker” himself at heart, Manfred said that same mentality “has permeated the individual clubs” and “has driven the way they have decided to put teams together.” And what is good for an individual club is not always good for the industry as a whole.
“It has changed the way the game is played on the field. I just think that’s beyond debate,” he said. “So the issue for the industry with analytics is: You can’t change the way people want to think, so there’s only one path available to you. [But] do you want to alter the rules of the game in a way that manages that change and prevents it from making the product something different than what it has been traditionally?”
Among the steps the sport is believed to be considering are limiting the use of defensive shifts — which increasingly turn hard grounders and line drives into outs — and the deployment of relievers, who are appearing in greater numbers and taking a larger share of innings than at any time in history. But any such changes would need to be negotiated with the union, which traditionally has resisted significant rule changes.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, union chief Tony Clark said that while players have told him they barely recognize the game as its played now, the blame belongs to front offices that have intruded upon the strategy decisions that were once the province of uniformed personnel.
“I think if you read all of Tony’s comments, he agrees and his players agree that the game is being played differently on the field, and that is not necessarily a positive thing,” Manfred said Monday. “Tony ascribes that phenomenon to the intrusion of analytics and off-field personnel into how the game is played. That may in fact be correct. But that is a product of business decisions that are made by people who want to make more money, win more games and run their business that way.
“Where we will ultimately find common ground with Tony is that those changes that are being driven by these management decisions may have to be regulated. And you can’t regulate it by telling people, ‘Don’t think about your business that way.’ Instead, what you have to do is look at the outcomes of those decision-making processes, decide which of the outcomes have to be managed and adopt some rules that are designed to do that. And ultimately I think that’s where we’ll wind up.”
Manfred has signaled his willingness to limit defensive shifts since his first days as commissioner-elect in 2014, but in those first few years he was also willing to see whether batters would adjust to the shifts in a way that made rule changes unnecessary. However, while shifts have only increased in both degree and frequency — they will be deployed on about 36,000 total pitches this season, Manfred said, up from about 2,500 per season at the start of this decade — hitters have not adjusted in the way everyone expected.
“When it started to happen, people said, ‘Hitters will just learn to hit the other way, because they will adjust and they’re great athletes.’ Well, two parts of that were correct. They did adjust and they are great athletes. Unfortunately, the way they adjusted was they decided to try to hit it over the shift, as opposed to hitting it the other way. And why did they do that? Because analytics tells you the home run — even discounting how often it’s going to occur — is worth so much more than a hit to the opposite field.”
Fielding questions from attendees of Monday’s lunchtime event, Manfred touted the sport’s recent successes in bringing women and African Americans into the game, highlighted its efforts to connect with millennial fans and said there were no plans to play any weekend World Series games in the daytime.
“We play more daytime postseason games than any other sport,” he said. “[But] when it comes to the World Series, we . . . do what any good business would do: We try to put the game on in the point in time when we are going to attract the largest audience. That will continue to be our guidepost.”
In a matter of particular interest to local fans, Manfred also discussed the dispute between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals regarding rights fees from MASN, which has been the subject of ongoing litigation and was recently sent back to an internal arbitration panel that is expected to take up the case in November.
“We have made some progress on this issue. We unfortunately had to litigate extensively in order to get to this progress,” Manfred said. “But I think it is now clear that whatever challenges the Orioles have decided to mount, that ultimately the revenue-sharing committee of baseball will decide [the matter]. I’m hopeful we will get to a resolution that will not motivate someone to attempt further litigation.”