You know what this painfully slow and frustrating offseason needs? A league-wide debate on pace-of-play initiatives that drives a further wedge between the owners and the players, as well as fans against other fans. Oh we got one? Cool.
You know the story by now: Last winter, the league wanted to get serious about some pace-of-play initiatives and tried to negotiate some rule changes (pitch clock, mound visits, etc) with the Players Association. Unfortunately, the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement, so everything stalled out as a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was wrapped up and the season got underway.
In response, throughout the year, the Commissioner publicly signaled his intentions to use his unilateral authority to implement rules without the players’ consent after a year, and, frankly, it wasn’t met with much resistance (to be fair, I think the union probably thought negotiations might’ve gone better or that this market wouldn’t have turned out the way it has, but who knows) … until this offseason free agent ice-out happened.
I can’t say for sure that the accusations of collusion and the strangest market in, maybe, MLB free agency history are the sole reasons for the breakdown, but I can definitely say it doesn’t help. After all, the Commissioner represents the owners and they’re the very people who “aren’t paying free agents what they’re worth” this winter. In support of the argument that the technically unrelated free agent market played a role in the union’s position, according to Ken Rosenthal, the Commissioner and MLB’s Chief Legal Officer, Dan Halem, were “blindsided,” by the union’s decision to formally object to the compromised proposal, because as recently as two weeks ago, “they were close to an agreement.” Clearly, something changed very recently.
Needless to say, this is a very sticky situation all around and, frankly, doesn’t bode well for future labor negotiations (but we’ll get there when we get there).
For today, I wanted to point out some details that have been leaking out here (Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports) and there (Ken Rosenthal, The Athletic) regarding what the league plans on implementing now that the Players Association has left the table, versus the agreement they *had* been working on together, which struck a balance between the players’/league’s desires.
Maybe the sides can still figure out a way to come to a compromise agreement, or maybe the league will just go ahead with its original plan
Before we get to the details that are different in the two plans, some things are the same:
In Both Deals
- The pitch clock will start when the pitcher has the ball on the mound and stop when he begins his windup/comes set.
- If the pitcher steps off the rubber, the clock resets. [Brett: So, doesn’t this totally neuter the clock? 3, 2, … steps off rubber. I’m sure I’m missing something here, but the details in the reports say what Michael says here.]
- Batters must be in the box five seconds after the clock starts.
- Any time a coach OR player visits a pitcher on the mound, OR if the pitcher comes off the mound, it counts as a “visit.” Upon a pitcher’s second visit in the same inning, he must come out.
Penalties: Should a pitcher/hitter break the rule, he’ll get one warning per game – the next violation results in an automatic ball/strike (it doesn’t say “strike” for hitters explicitly, but that seems to be implied).
Okay, now for some of the differences in the two deals:
Abandoned Comprise Deal
- Pitch Clock set at 18 seconds with bases empty, off with runners on.
- 35 seconds between batters.
- Six “no-change” visits per team, per game. As in, six freebie visits that don’t count against the you-gotta-take-him-out rule.
- Penalties for breaking rules begin May 1.
Unilaterally Imposed Deal
- Pitch Clock set at 20 seconds regardless of baserunners.
- 30 seconds between batters.
- No “no-change” visits (other than the 1/pitcher/inning). As in, no freebies. If a manager talks to a pitcher, and then the shortstop later hops over to ask about positioning … the pitcher is out.
- Penalties for breaking rules begin Opening Day.
Passan also adds that if the union officially rejects the plan, MLB will make inning breaks 2 minutes, 20 seconds for local games and 2:40 for national games, and will institute a six-pitch maximum for warm-ups that must be finished with 35 seconds left on the between-innings clock. In this case, commercial time between innings will stay the same (90 seconds), which means it probably shouldn’t be much of a sticking point for the players – but also, I’m sure it will be.
Okay, so … the players are clearly walking away from a much softer implementation of these rules. I’m definitely not saying they should agree to something they don’t believe in, but they are giving up a lot by walking away (and MLB was clearly using its leverage here). Together, pitchers would not have to worry about the clock when runners were on base, batters would get five more seconds between ABs, coaches/players could visit their pitchers one free time per inning and another six(!) times throughout the game without consequence, and none of the penalties would start until May.
Instead, well, I won’t rehash it again, but you get the point.
Okay, so about these changes, in general (takes a final sip of his drink, flicks his e-cigarette away). I’m on board and I think you should be, too. But before you go racing to the comments to drag me, hear me out. And then you can drag me.
Let me set up the baseline point that pace-of-play is an important consideration for the future of the sport, because if we don’t agree on that, we probably won’t agree on implementing the actual changes. If you don’t agree, I’d be interested to hear your perspective.
First, from my perspective (and the league’s), baseball’s increasingly slow pace (*NOT* necessarily just overall game length) is a critical issue for the future of the sport. Put differently, a 3-hour, 10-min game filled with actual baseball action from start to finish is better for the average future fan than a shorter, 3-hour game with loads of mound visits, checks on the runner, batting glove adjustments, etc.
(By the way, there’s reason to believe that pace-of-play is only going to get worse with more pitching changes, mound visits, walks, and strikeouts than ever before. The trend is clear and strong.)
Second of all, I tend to think, if you’re on this site right now, you’re probably not “the average fan.” Like me, you’re probably a hardcore baseball goon, who’d watch a ten hour game if your husband/wife/boss/professor/dog would allow it. Personally, I do not think games need to be shorter or have more action – I love baseball just as it is – but I also recognize that what I want isn’t necessarily best for everybody, or for the future of the sport.
And that brings me to my third point, which is really Brett’s point:
Keep in mind, pace of play changes aren’t about boosting viewership in the next five years. They’re about making the game more accessible to wider groups of fans to help survival in the VERY long term. Average baseball fan age is mid-50s, and it goes up 1 year every year. Scary. https://t.co/KZSfvn24yR
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) January 19, 2018
According to this study by Market Watch, the average age of MLB fans in 2016 was 57 years old. That’s considerably older than the average age of fans from the other major sports:
NFL: 50 years
NHL: 49 years
NBA: 42 years
MLS: 40 years
Moreover, the average age of an MLB fan increases nearly every year. As in, new fans are not coming on board to replenish the fans lost, and the fan base is simply aging right along with the sport. Yikes.
Sure, baseball is making a ton of money … right now. But if you don’t agree that getting the fan base younger is a long-term concern, we may never make up the ground between us (P.S. the average age of MLB fans just ten years before this was 52, so as Brett indicated, it’s going up rapidly).
Now, if we’re all there, we can debate whether these particular changes are a good way to help the process of making the game more accessible to future fans over the very long haul. For me, I think they’re a good start, but I understand there may be differing viewpoints.
I think these changes are relatively manageable, and could be successful. If the league can limit the time between pitches/at-bats by instituting a clock and preventing superfluous mound visits, that should increase the time during a game when there is action happening. And if the league can add a higher percentage of action on the field without severely damaging the sport, why wouldn’t they? Because, history? Because you like it the way it is? That’s not the spirit of baseball. Not at all. This has long been a sport of change, and there’s no reason for that to stop.
Now, with all of that said … I’m pretty bummed the league couldn’t get the players behind this. I would have FAR preferred a deal the players had some agency in, but that may be a lost cause (and also seems, frankly, to be about more than just these issues in isolation).
Hopefully it’s not too late for some common ground to be found before there’s a unilateral rule change.