Sure Sounds Like We're Getting Pitch Clocks and Shift Bans Next Season, with Robo Umps Coming in 2024

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Sure Sounds Like We’re Getting Pitch Clocks and Shift Bans Next Season, with Robo Umps Coming in 2024

Chicago Cubs

Commissioners, like managerial bullpen decisions, are rarely liked. But even still, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred hasn’t done himself any favors.

Just off the top of my head, Manfred has (rightfully in most cases) taken heat over the years for (1) his handling of the COVID season negotiations, (2) the multiple, significant cheating scandals under his watch (Astros, Cardinals, Red Sox, Yankees), (3) the many broadcast blackouts, (4) juicing the baseballs, (5) de-juicing the baseballs, (5) the timing of the draft, (6) the stakes of the All-Star Game, (7) the lack of movement on new ballparks for Tampa Bay and Oakland, (8) calling the World Series trophy just “a piece of metal,” (9) contracting the minor leagues, (10) not supporting minimum wage pay for minor leaguers, and of course (11) the lockout ….

Because of all that – and more – there’s a common refrain around MLB that “Rob Manfred hates baseball.” So common, in fact, that ESPN writer Don Van Natta Jr. actually asked him – like, to his face – if he hates baseball. Which, just … it makes me chuckle to think about.

Manfred scoffed at the idea, saying that everything he has done, and is now doing, is an effort to preserve baseball.

I’d argue that at least SOME of his decisions seem to prioritize short-term profits over the long-term health of the game (or the happiness of the stars that make the game successful), but you’d be wrong to assume he doesn’t want baseball to succeed. Of course he does. Ensuring the success of the sport is quite literally his job. And I agree with his sentiment that anytime he (or anybody, for that matter) even acknowledges that there are problems to address, they’re almost immediately targeted as someone who just doesn’t like baseball.

The fact of the matter is the average age of fans is increasing every year, right alongside the average length of games. More importantly, the time BETWEEN action is increasing, especially as we drift further into the era of the three true outcomes.

So whether or not you – a long-time, probably harder-core baseball fan – are happy with the current product is not really the point. You and I will continue watching baseball regardless of how it operates. In the meantime, the sport needs to keep the more casual fans and attract new fans, and it won’t happen without some changes.

As you are likely aware, some of those changes have already arrived.

Rosters are now limited to just 13 pitchers and no longer expand to all 40-man players in September, the DH has come to the NL, relievers must face a minimum of three batters, extra innings start with runners on second base, the next draft will feature a lottery, the replay process is improving (featuring actual explanations from the umps now!), and so on. That’s all a good start, but it’s fair to say there hasn’t been ENOUGH of an impact just yet.

Fortunately, some of the biggest changes are still on their way. And from the sounds of it, on their way VERY soon.

According to the story at ESPN, Manfred said “in far more certain terms than he has laid out publicly before” that he will attempt to (1) institute a pitch clock *and* (2) ban shifts at the big league level NEXT SEASON. On top of that, he is inclined to push for some form of electronic balls and strikes in 2024.

Many of these changes were supposed to be addressed in the last round of CBA negotiations, but because they were barely able to come to an agreement on the more immediate issues (like, should we even play baseball this year?), rules changes were set aside in service of the agreement. However, the league was granted the ability to implement new rules with just 45-days notice to the union. That means that if Manfred wants a pitch clock in 2023, he just waves his hand and it happens. Even if the players are against it. He would prefer to get them on board, however.

Personally, I think both a pitch clock and banning shifts are good ways to improve the pace of play. On the surface, forcing the pitchers (and hitters!) to keep things moving should tighten up the game – we’ve seen its effectiveness in the minor leagues – but it’ll also probably benefit the hitters, which could help return a more watchable type of offense. And banning the shifts, while less popular, could help shift momentum away from the fences, and back to an all-fields approach that results in more singles, doubles, and triples. (Brett: That one is not going to be an immediate-impact kind of thing, and will have to be followed over a long enough horizon for players and organizations to recalibrate what kind of hitting is most valuable, and how much power can/should be traded for more contact.)

And, hey, if the league also expands the size of the bases and/or limits pick-offs, as has been discussed and tested out in the minors, it might also lead to more stolen bases.

These are all good things for baseball, even if the game will look a little different than it has in the past. Er, well, it could make the game look MORE like it looked in the more-distant past, actually.

As for robo umps, well … I’m not quite there yet, personally. I do appreciate the importance of getting everything correct, but I still just *like* seeing umps call the game. Fortunately, the second of the two options floating out there right now works just fine for me: (1) robo umps that call every ball and strike, vs. (2) robo umps that are used only to challenge a finite number of pitches throughout the game. Both options are being tested in the minor leagues.

In any case, this isn’t an announcement that these rule changes DEFINITELY ARE coming in 2023 (pitch clock, shifts, and maybe bigger bases) and 2024 (robo umps), but I think you’d be silly to expect anything else at this point.


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Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami