Column: MLB serves up ... softball
As owner of the Kansas City/Oakland Athletics from 1960-80, Charles O. Finley had more creative ideas than all his fellow owners combined. He outfitted his teams in colorful uniforms and tried to convince his fellow owners to adopt orange baseballs and bases. Finley was roundly criticized by fans, media and players for confusing baseball with softball. Decades later, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is impersonating Finley.
In an effort to speed up the game and save pitchers’ arms, MLB plans to test a rule change this season in the Minors that would place a runner on second base at the start of each extra inning. Different rules for extra innings are not without precedent. A similar rule has been used in international baseball for nearly a decade and will be implemented in the World Baseball Classic this spring. Putting a runner on second for extra innings has also been used in softball.
Pace-of-play has been a Manfred obsession since he assumed office two years ago. In 2015, MLB restricted players from leaving the batter’s box between pitches, quickened the pace of pitchers’ warm up tosses, and expedited replay reviews. Average game time in ‘15 was 2 hours, 56 minutes, a reduction from 3 hours and 8 minutes in ‘14. However, average game time crept back up over the three-hour mark last year, exasperating Manfred and propelling baseball into what can only be described as panic mode.
In defending the experiment, Joe Torre, former player and manager and now MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer said, “Its baseball. It doesn’t mean you’re going to score.” Either Torre is ill-informed or, more likely, toeing the party line.
Statistics show that teams score in about 27 percent of innings, but they score 61 percent of the time when there’s a runner on second and no one out. No, putting a runner on second base to start an inning doesn’t mean “you’re going to score,” but it more than doubles the chances. Furthermore, it isn’t baseball if you put a runner on second base when he hasn’t earned the right to be on base at all, let alone halfway home.
Even if adopted, the rule won’t have much effect on pace-of-play. Only about 8 percent of games go into extra innings, and last season almost half of them ended after the 10th inning even without putting a runner on second base.
Rather than taking drastic action that will change the game as we know it, baseball should be nibbling around the edges of the rulebook. Keep strict time limits on pitching changes, cap mound conferences by coaches, managers and players, and reduce hitters’ antics in the batter’s box. Additional time will be saved by eliminating the four-pitch intentional walk, another rule change that will be adopted for trial in the Minors this year. MLB has also limited the time between pitches in the Minor Leagues, a change that reduced game times by 16 minutes in one Triple-A league and was well received.
A bullpen gets extended and overworked? There are other ways to address that. Put three members of your starting rotation on the inactive list when it isn’t their day to pitch and replace them with relievers (or position players) from the Minors. Nonstarters are only on the roster to tempt the manager into using them for non-pitching duty, as John Farrell of the Red Sox did last year with Steven Wright, his number two starter, with disastrous results. Farrell inserted Wright into a game as a pinch runner whereupon he promptly injured his pitching shoulder sliding into second base, putting him out for the season.
Fortunately, MLB can’t implement changes in the big leagues without the approval of the players’ union and most players seem opposed to the new extra inning rule.
The rule would change the fundamental nature of the game, which is something baseball should avoid at all costs. Manfred should quit imitating Charlie Finley and shelve this idea before it’s implemented.
Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.