Rob Manfred: Baseball is changing quicker than ever

ESPN’s Buster Olney is on vacation this week, but he’s still compiling roundups. View his latest roundup here.

Baseball is the greatest game in the world. If you need proof, look no further than the fact that baseball, like no other sport, has an amazing capacity to spark genuine and even heated debate. Baseball fans and media like nothing more than to talk about what is good and bad about the game. The designated hitter rule has been with us since 1973. Forty-three years later, fans regularly and passionately weigh in on whether the rule is good: Should it be expanded or eliminated? I have stacks of fan mail on both sides of the issue, and I can always count on a DH question to energize a news conference.

Buster Olney recently co-hosted Mike Mike with Mike Greenberg, and they devoted the better part of two shows to a discussion of what should be changed in baseball. When they asked me to participate, I gladly accepted. Those of you who listened to the program know that I was not supportive of some of the suggestions put forward but was receptive to many others, such as rule adjustments regarding relievers and alterations to the All-Star Game. I hope I left the impression that I am open-minded to the possibility of making changes to the national pastime.

I believe there is a clear distinction between giving thoughtful consideration to an idea and deciding to move forward with it. It’s good to have a healthy conversation about baseball and the way it is played today. But that conversation should take place against the backdrop of three fundamental points.

First, a major part of baseball’s appeal is its history and tradition. While adjustments can be made to protect and improve the game, we must always give due respect to history and tradition. Each July, I go to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. A visit to the great Hall of Fame Museum and the opportunity to spend time with the greatest living legends of our game serve as an annual reminder of the importance of the history and tradition of the game.

Second, baseball is a healthy sport. Each year more than 73 million people attend major league games, and another 41 million go to minor league parks. Our in-park experience remains the best in professional sports. MLB.com is widely regarded as the best digital offering in sports. And while we are continuing our efforts to increase youth participation, more kids age 12 and under play baseball and softball than any other sport, and of the estimated 58.1 million children in the U.S. between the ages of 5 and 17, 45 million (78 percent) have played baseball/softball in some form at some point in their lives. While baseball can be improved, it certainly does not need to be “fixed.”

Third, some traditionalists talk about changing the game as if the alternative is to maintain some static, pure form of play. The fact is that the game has changed and is continuing to change — in my view, at an accelerating rate. Games have become longer. In 1975, the average game was 2 hours and 30 minutes. Now the average game is three hours. In 1988, 272 pitches were thrown in an average game. Today, the strategy of working counts and taking pitches means that it takes an additional 22 pitches to complete that same game. Back in 1988, the average major league club used 17 pitchers over the course of the season. In 2015, the average club used 27 pitchers. We are seeing less of our star starting pitchers, more delays for pitching changes, and less action at exciting points late in the game.

Today, major league players are hitting home runs at a record pace, but the number of balls put in play is at a historic low. There have been more strikeouts this season than in any other season in baseball history since 1871. Offensive strategies like situational hitting and stealing bases, which often create exciting moments for fans, are less prevalent today than at any point since the Year of the Pitcher in 1968. These changes have occurred not due to new rules but almost exclusively because of decisions made by creative general managers and managers in an effort to win as many games as possible.

So the question is not whether there should be change — the game is going to change and evolve no matter what. The question is whether to let the change happen or, instead, to manage the change. For me, the answer is easy: Those of us charged with the enormous responsibility of protecting the great game of baseball have an obligation to manage change so that the beauty of our game is preserved in a way that future generations continue to embrace the sport. We will confront difficult choices in discharging this responsibility, and we will make the right choices because our guiding principle will always be the best interests of the fans.



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