Rob Manfred has served as the Commissioner of Major League Baseball for the past two years. A series of aggressive rule proposals, followed by few actual changes, has characterized his tenure thus far. His primary focus has been on increasing the pace of gameplay (or, alternatively, reducing the temporal length of games, although, as many recognize, those aren’t exactly the same thing). To this point, reforms in that regard have been advisory– asking batters to keep at least one foot in the batters’ box between pitches– or nearly invisible– limiting the time between half innings– even as threats of more substantial changes– a pitch clock, for example, which has been installed in lower leagues– loom.
Last month, Manfred finally stepped out with his first substantial rule change at the major-league level, and it wasn’t one– a pitch clock, starting a runner on second base in extra innings, or strike-zone modification– most expected (or, in the case of the former two, feared). Instead, he made an even deeper change to the game’s infrastructure by eliminating the four-pitch intentional walk, to be replaced with a simple signal from the dugout.
Baseball is not a game of summary proceedings, and there’s a reasonable argument to be made that Manfred’s rule change is the most significant change to the sport since 1879, when the rule requiring teams to play the bottom of the ninth inning even when the home team was leading after the top of the night was removed. That change was an obvious one; this one, less so.
Though the opportunities were rare, both offensive (e.g., Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton) and defensive (e.g., Dennis Martinez and John Hudek, both being caught by Tony Pena) players could take advantage of atypically executed intentional walks. Small things, sure, but undoubtedly exciting things.
The underlying goal of Manfred’s pace-of-play reforms, one assumes, is to make baseball more exciting, or, at least, make it seem more exciting. It’s possible that the rule change trades these small IBB-gone-wrong moments for bigger gains in excitement elsewhere, but that seems unlikely in this case, because elimination of the traditional intentional walk won’t do much either to speed up or shorten games. Cursory research by the Wall Street Journal indicates that this change will trim, on average, 14.3 seconds off each game.
In the weeks since the rule-change announcement, an increasing number of defenses– both quantitative and qualitative— of the IBB status quo have cropped up. Even for those whose aesthetic preferences align with Manfred’s expressed desire for a faster or shorter game, it’s tough to ignore the numbers that belie the minimal impact of this new rule in those regards.
What should be frustrating for everyone who likes baseball is that Manfred is aware of these countervailing realities and made the change anyway. From an interview published yesterday:
How about doing away with the four-pitch intentional walk?
RM: That’s a symbolic change. It’s not going to alter anyone’s perception of the pace of the game overall. But you know what? If you can change it and people say, “They’re being responsive to our [desires],” that’s a good thing, even if it’s a little good thing.
In essence, “The change won’t be effective, but people will be glad we made a change.”
It’s difficult to know whether fans should be insulted or merely disappointed with Manfred. It also is unclear who should be pleased by this rule change and subsequent explanation. What is clear is that Manfred will not shy away from making fundamental changes to the game in pursuit of a poorly defined goal. That means that we should expect that his past proposals, including a pitch clock and a ban on defensive shifts, absolutely are on the table going forward. As for changes that actually might help draw a younger audience to the sport, like removing local broadcast blackouts on streaming devices or decreasing the cost of attending games? Don’t hold your breath.
(HT: Alex Hume)