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Does Rob Manfred Hate Baseball?

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What kind of game does he want?

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

If you haven’t heard by now, Rob Manfred is considering adding onto the current playoff structure. I guess the Wild Card single lightning round game didn’t punish the top non-division winners enough. Now the bottom two division winners in each league, along with the top four in the wild card race, will play a best-of-three opening round series to advance to the Division Series. After that, the division winner with the best record gets to select their next opponent. As if last year’s playoff series loss wasn’t bad enough, under this structure the Braves could have been bounced in two games by the Diamondbacks or worse, by the Mets.

Seriously? This is not the fictional baseketball playoffs, but it’s close.

Baseball has already undergone a raft of changes Rob Manfred took over as Major League Commissioner. Largely, these rules came from MLB’s pace of play initiatives. For the most part, the game has seemed to move quicker, but the average game in 2019 is three minutes longer than in 2014. Here is a summary of MLB’s rule changes since 2015:

Florida Marlins v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

CHANGES EFFECTIVE IN 2015

One foot in batter’s box, time limits on commercials, warmup pitch limit changes, batter in the box after 20 seconds, manager challenge signal rules changed with several instant replay changes

CHANGES EFFECTIVE IN 2016

10-day Injured list from 15-day, runner sliding rules (around second base chiefly), 30 second limit in pitching visits

CHANGES EFFECTIVE IN 2017

No-pitch intentional walk, manager video review time limit, crew chief video reviews, 2-minute limit on video review, no grounds keeping markers, Carter Capps balk rule, coaching box rule change

CHANGES EFFECTIVE IN 2018

Limiting mound visits to six, between-inning breaks shortening, timing of pitcher changes, more instant replay changes, and sign-stealing ability monitoring

CHANGES EFFECTIVE IN 2019

Inning breaks changes again, single trade deadline, All-Star Game fan voting, Home Run Derby changes, mound visits from six to five

CHANGES EFFECTIVE IN 2020 (with possibly more to come)

Active roster provisions (26/28 rule), three-batter minimum for pitchers, 10-day injured list back to 15-day.

San Diego Padres v Miami Marlins Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

These changes were made for pace-of-play, player safety, and in-game fairness (hey, how are those sign-stealing rules working out?). I guess you could file grounds keeping markers under player safety. We are legislating lefty one-out relievers from the game to move games along. We have eliminated most manager arguments for that reason as well. I guess I would like to know if you can tell a major difference. Is the game better or more enjoyable because of these changes? Is it more marketable or competitive as a television viewer?

Since 2016, MLB viewership posted year-over-year gains of 1%, a 6% loss, 2% and 2%. Game 1 of the 2019 World Series set the record of the lowest ratings on record, only to be broken again in Game 2. MLB.TV subscriptions were up big in 2019 with an 15% increase, as cable TV continues to shrink. Even with the home run team records of 2019, people continue to greet baseball with a collective meh.

It seems that MLB is willing to change to become more marketable. But they are eating away at the edges without making significant changes (at least until now). So I’m not sure why they should bother. Besides, they could make positive changes without affecting the rules. They could go ahead and negotiate on a sensible collective bargaining agreement with labor much earlier than next year to fend off a possible work stoppage. They could move batting practice to a local high school once a year or have a high school night, giving young fans more access to MLB’s stars.

They could have actual punishments for intentionally hitting batters rather than the slap on the wrist they get now. Football protects their skill players but baseball doesn’t bother to protect 20-year-olds from being hit with a 97 MPH pitch. They could move the MLB.TV free games to YouTube and get a lot more eyeballs. And no more Facebook games.

None of this would require a rule change. Ivan asked MLB and everyone what your favorite run environment is. I would love to know baseball’s answer to this. I would like to know what exactly they want. I mean, I know they want buckets of money, but how they want to achieve it? Strategy has changed over the years. Ted Williams gave us more walks. Analytics killed the bunt, but gave us more infield shifts. I hate that teams’ strategies are all in lockstep toward the three-outcome at-bat. Speed is not really used on offense. So I guess keeping mediocre teams in the playoff hunt is supposed to keep baseball fans’ attention?

Honestly, I don’t really have a favorite run environment or style. I like 1-0 games. I like 12-11 games. As long as there is baseball and beer, I will consume it. I mean, you could carry any argument to absurdity by having beer-league softball or a league full of Bartolo Colons, but I can enjoy any baseball.

Rule changes aren’t scaring me off. And this NBA and NHL-style watering down of the playoff field probably won’t do it either. But it’s worth asking the question of what Manfred and the owners want. Because even after playing with a supercharged baseball, new fans still aren’t watching.