Rob Manfred and the Dangers of Unintended Consequences

Last week, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred declared in Houston that the problems most plaguing Major League Baseball’s current product are an excess of defensive shifts, an excess of relievers and the lack of a pitch clock. I’m not here to debate the specific merits of any of Manfred’s arguments. If you read this site on a regular basis, you likely know the arguments for each forwards and backwards. But I am troubled by the constant insistence that the game needs to be tinkered with in order to make it more appealing to new generations of fans.

No matter what is done to speed up the game, or make it more appealing, the core product is going to remain relatively unchanged. Games are still going to hover in the area of three hours. We’re not going to see a 30-minute reduction in game time. We often hear about the greatness of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series as a spectacle — a 10-inning, 1-0 affair that only featured two pitching changes. It took three hours and 23 minutes. The average game time for the World Series that year as a whole was three hours, 14 minutes. The game has lasted about three hours for roughly 30 years. We are not getting back to the days of two hour, 30 minute game times unless the league institutes a seven-inning game. Even then it might be dicey.

Instead of fretting over the game’s minor details, the game should be out marketing what makes its sport best — its players. This is something baseball does precious little of. Instead, the league is more worried about what I call the NFL Rules Committee-ification of the game. The NFL continuously churns out new rules, designed to make its game more appealing. Sometimes, they do. But the unintended consequences can be significant. Perhaps you remember the Dez Bryant catch? If you don’t, go ahead and watch it again at that link, I’ll wait.

These unintended consequences can often be crippling. Certainly, a wide swath of Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers fans would tell you that that particular playoff game would have finished differently had Bryant’s play been correctly ruled a catch. However pure the intentions of those who altered the definition of a catch, it ultimately forced referees to rule passes that appeared to be caught as incomplete.

We can’t see what the unintended consequences of baseball’s potential future rule changes might be. That’s what makes them unintended. But we don’t have to go back very far to see how unintended consequences have almost derailed MLB in the very recent past. It happened in April of 2014, as Dave Cameron wrote in his piece entitled “Baseball’s New Strategy: Drop the Ball on Purpose” regarding the then-new transfer rule.

To wit:

However, this rule isn’t just being applied to second base; it’s being applied everywhere, including the outfield. And the unintended consequences of defining an outfield catch as including the transfer of the ball from glove to hand have been on full display over the first few weeks of the season.

First, there was Josh Hamilton.

He clearly catches the ball in his glove before dropping it as he moves it from his glove to his hand. It is ruled a catch on the field, and the runner at second base returns to the bag in order to avoid a double play. Lloyd McClendon challenges the ruling, and during the video, the announcers spend most of the delay explaining to the viewers why this was a catch and will not be overturned; he had possession of the ball in his glove, and the drop didn’t occur until he tried to move it to his hand. However, the umpires did overturn the call, because under the 2014 definition, Hamilton’s transfer was considered part of the catch itself, and he did not retain possession of the ball through the transfer.

I’ll spare you the rest of the article. Suffice to say, this was silly. It only went on for another 11 days, and MLB thankfully realized the error of its ways and went back to the prior definition of a catch.

Now, I’ll forgive you if you don’t remember this particular rule change and the subsequent reversal. Really, why would you want to remember something like that? But if MLB keeps persisting with rule changes that won’t materially make the game better, they will end up with these consequences. Lindsey Adler touched on this Friday in her piece about shifts at Deadspin. Extreme infield shifts such as the “Ted Williams Shift” have been a hot topic in recent years, but there are myriad types of shift in the game.

In The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2015, Jeff Zimmerman detailed the statistics on many of these shifts. In 2013 and 2014 teams employed “traditional” shifts — infielders up onto or near the grass, players crashing for bunts and the outfield “no doubles” alignment — 13,358 times in 9,722 games. Is that as high as the more radical shifts we’re seeing now? No. Is it going to be very difficult to legislate one type of shift but not all the others? Absolutely. These are the types of shifts that have been taught to every baseball player for generations.

In my opinion, baseball is complicated enough already. When I sit in the Fenway Park bleachers, as someone who has attended in person somewhere between six and 40 games per year for more than a decade, I often can not tell what the call is on some plays. Making the game more complicated by potentially legislating some shifts, or limiting the time in between pitches, or mandating the number of relievers that can be used in a game, is only going to make baseball harder to learn for the casual fan. This should not be MLB’s goal.

Instead, the goal should be marketing its best and brightest with the full force of their billion-dollar marketing machine. It’s time to stop blaming the rules. It’s time to stop blaming millenials. NBC tried this over the weekend regarding their Olympics TV ratings decline, only to have others note that Canadian broadcaster CBC saw a ratings uptick. The product matters, but the presentation and marketing of that product matter just as much.

The bottom line is this: no rule change that MLB makes is going to lower the time of game or pace of game to a significant enough degree that the game is ever fast paced enough to compete with today’s other product offerings. Products/services like Twitch and Snapchat, iPods and iPads, HBO Go and Netflix will remain at our fingertips, and using them will require less time and focus than a baseball game. The way to get more people to watch and pay attention to baseball is in its marketing. As Adler mentioned in her piece, most casual fans probably don’t even take notice of defensive shifts or times between pitches. These are “inside baseball” issues. The people MLB needs to be capturing are those outside of baseball.

We hear too much about what’s wrong with baseball. We need to hear more about what’s awesome about baseball. Mike Trout is possibly the best baseball player in the last 50, 60, 70 years. Market him! Giancarlo Stanton has some of the most ridiculous power the game has ever seen. Market him! Make sure these guys are on every TV screen in America every night of the week.

MLB has hinted at pursuing a more player-centric marketing strategy in the recent past, with their #THIS campaign. Consider this example:

Even this video, however, represents less an attempt to celebrate certain players — identifiable here only by the names on their jerseys — and more to build on the lore of the game.

MLB needs to make sure that players like Trout, Stanton, Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, Masahiro Tanaka, Kenley Jansen and more are known by every person in America, not just every baseball fan. It can happen. A month ago, I had never heard of Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles or Kyle Snyder. By emphasizing both the talents and stories of those athletes, however, NBC has made them all household names in a span of weeks. MLB can do the same. We’re counting on you, Mr. Manfred.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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7 years ago

It seems to me that 100+ MPH heaters have been more of a detriment to league wide offense than the shift has been. Maybe Manfred should ban Chapman.