Last month Rob Manfred took over as the 10th Commissioner of Major League Baseball, replacing the retiring Bud Selig.
In his first interview as Commissioner with ESPN’s Baseball Tonight host Karl Ravech, Manfred listed improvements to the game he would like to implement and immediately stirred up controversy. The most contentious item on Manfred’s to-do list is a ban on defensive shifts in order to generate more offense and make the game “exciting” for baseball fans.
Manfred wants to boost offensive output around the league. Thanks to heavy drug testing, harsh enforcement penalties, and specialization of pitching, scoring has plummeted over the last decade. Since the new millennium, the number of runs scored per game has dropped over a full run, going from 5.14 in 2000 to 4.07 in 2014.
Because of the rise of Sabermetrics, advanced statistics that reveal hitter’s tendencies with certain pitchers and certain circumstances, more clubs are setting their defenses to adapt to each hitter’s tendencies. These defensive shifts are typically used against the big pull power hitters like Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, and Boston Red Sox Designated Hitter David Ortiz.
The third baseman almost always moves to where shortstop would normally be, the shortstop shifts over to where the second baseman would be, while the second baseman relocates to short right, just on the tip of the outfield grass. In extreme cases with a runner in scoring position the third baseman might stay and hold on the runner, while the shortstop and second baseman both shift over towards the right leaving a gaping hole at short. On even more rare occasions, an outfielder might come in to play an extra infield position.
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Manfred believes that there is a need to eliminate these shifts in order to make the game more exciting, allowing the batter a greater chance to get a hit. His way to end the shifts is to install a rule saying there can only be two players on either side of second base. This is a bad idea.
While shifts are believed to be a new idea, there have been different variations of them for decades, going back to the beginning of the game. It is an integral part of the sport. ESPN’s main baseball analyst and reporter Buster Olney, USA Today’s Ted Berg, and Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon have each come out in opposition to the ban. Maddon, while still manager for the Tampa Bay Rays, said it’s an organizational need to teach hitters how to hit the ball to all fields, therefore preventing shifts from being used against batters. Both Berg and Olney have shown that baseball has a tendency to even out over the course of time. This should not be any different.
Pitch Clock Praise
On the other hand Manfred’s idea of improving the pace of play via pitch clock, and improving technology like expanding instant replay, in the game have been well received.
Pace of play has become an issue for baseball over the last three decades. In 1981, nine-inning games averaged 2 hours 33 minutes, according to figures provided by MLB. The length has slowly ticked up since, flat-lining in the 2000s, but then jumping to 2:56 in 2012, 2:59 in 2013 and now 3:02 (a 19% increase since 1981).
The average postseason game this year was 3:26, tied with the 2007 postseason as the second highest average. Playoff games in 2009 averaged 3:30. Games are becoming slower, being stopped almost every minute, either by a batter adjusting his hitting gloves, or a pitcher going through a routine before getting set to throw the ball.
The idea of a pitch clock was proposed and was installed on a trial basis in the Arizona Fall League. The installed rule was that a pitcher had 20 seconds to get a pitch in to the batter; otherwise a ball would be called. A strike would be called against the batter if he is not in the batters box in that same 20 seconds. The idea worked. Games were much faster but it will not be used in the majors just yet. Instead the minor leagues as far up as AAA will be using these clocks to help speed up play. "I think it is incumbent upon us to be responsive to concerns about pace of game," Manfred said. "It will be similar to the way we described the rollout of instant replay in a sense that it will be an ongoing process. Whatever happens in 2015, we'll look at it and be back at it in 2016.”
The new commissioner is well equipped to take on baseball’s challenges in the 21st. century.
Manfred was a New York labor attorney and partner with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. Manfred began working with MLB back in 1987 as an outside counsel most notably advising the league and its owners during the player’s strike in 1994-95. Manfred joined the league full time in 1998 and was the chief negotiator with the Player’s Union in creating a new collective bargaining agreement three separate times in 2002, 2006, and 2011. In 2013 Manfred was named the chief operating officer, a position he held until his election as commissioner.
Despite his long association with the league, and hope for a fresh start, Manfred is falling into the same traps as Bud Selig, showing cronyism towards certain owners in the league.
In a separate interview with FOX Sports’ baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal, Manfred was asked about MLB cronyism, a staple of Selig’s tenure. As one of his first acts as commissioner Manfred named New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon as the new head of the Finance Committee. Wilpon lost reportedly over $700 million thanks to shady dealings with Ponzi scheme crook Bernie Madoff.
The Mets payroll has suffered for it, currently sitting at $96 million or 20th in the league. The Mets have been in the lower half of MLB payrolls since 2011. Manfred dodged answering the question by saying Mets GM Sandy Alderson has done a great job rebuilding the Mets organization from the bottom up. In a separate interview with The New York Times, Manfred defended the decision saying:
“The committee — the finance and compensation committee — really deals with two issues, principally: executive compensation, which he’s more than capable of dealing with, and a central office budget. Obviously, to be a successful businessman, you have to know how to budget . . . He understands how the budget process in baseball has worked, and he’s more than qualified to fill that role.”
Although Manfred has been accused of the same cronyism that Selig has, he is determined to separate himself from his predecessor and make some real innovations. “I do think it’s important for the game to continue to modernize,” Manfred said. “That modernization has to proceed at a pace that allows us to be very respectful of the traditions of the game and keeps us from making a hasty error, as they say.”