MLB Needs to Take an Honest Look at the Product They’re Selling

11-3-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

I mean, I could easily write a similar piece swapping MLB for “The Pirates” up there in the headline and go off too. I’m quite sure I will in the coming months, but right now, in the immediate moment following the World Series, we really need to talk about the product that is MLB.

I want to touch on some subjects in this piece that I feel baseball needs to in some form or fashion pay attention to, because it’s undeniable this game isn’t as popular as it used to be. Money isn’t everything, actual enthusiasm and engagement matters too.

Let’s dig in. Some I’ll offer solutions for, some I’ll just put out as conversation starters (AKA I can’t conceive a thought as to how to address it, but it’s a problem)

Competitive Balance

People will often show you the charts for how long it’s been since MLB had a repeat champion as evidence this already exists, I of course don’t share that take.

Now, I’ve made pretty clear, I believe a salary cap/floor system with true revenue sharing ala NFL/NHL/NBA would be best for the health of the game on a national level but we also must not pretend that it means every team would be competitive.

The cap leagues have terrible franchises too. Arizona in the NHL has seemingly never really figured out how to build a team and they’ve done almost just as poorly even finding a place to play in their state. The New York Jets have just failed repeatedly to gain traction. And I’m not going to pretend to be a big enough NBA fan to really detail any one team but from the outside it sure has been a while since I heard anything about the Pacers so I’d assume they don’t win a bunch.

Point is, a system like that doesn’t guarantee every team actually knows what they’re doing or make good decisions, it just guarantees one reason you suck isn’t that you are incapable of competing financially. There are also geographic realities to deal with, and I’m not going to get into putting down any other cities in our great country but let’s face it, some are nicer than others. When you even the playing field those are the types of things that become decision makers.

The perks offered by some teams are selling points. As a Pens fan you’ll often hear players come in and when asked why they chose Pittsburgh they’ll always say the Fans and all that other hockey player feel good stuff, but they want to play with the living legend (who this market can afford to keep for life because of the system) and a “First Class Organization”. They’re talking about the travel accommodations, the nutrition program, the training facilities, the family perks. There are still ways to win that don’t hit the official “cap” books.

Yes, back to the point about no repeated World Series winners…

True, it’s a hard league to win. But quick, without looking at Fangraphs or the like, who will be in it next season?

It’s going to be a very similar list if we all were to shout in unison. Every couple years an outlier or team that successfully did what Cherington hopes to accomplish gets their shot. It’s not to say it can’t be done, it’s just a simple fact it’s far harder for some. What if you flipped on the Summer Olympics and two runners lined up for a hurdle race side by side. The runner for the US against someone from Canada. Now say based on their country’s GDP the richer of the two got to remove a hurdle for every 100 Billion more they had.

Sure Canada could still win, maybe that runner is just that good they can overcome having 2 or 3 hurdles that the US runner doesn’t have to contend with. Maybe the US runner sees that path with less hurdles and throttles back a bit not unlike the tortoise and the hare.

Not fair right? Kinda hard to argue. Now imagine it’s just always been that way, your entire life, and you sit down to watch, suddenly the US has no advantage anymore. You’d be an LA or NY fan hearing Cap chatter.

Cap or No, you’re lying to yourself, or minimally defining Competitive Balance differently than I to see this as a non issue. League needs to do something here. Doesn’t have to be a cap, but admitting there is a problem would be at least intellectually honest.

Length of Games

Baseball doesn’t have a clock, it’s unique, it’s part of the charm, it’s also something that makes it just as likely you sit down for 2:30 or 5:00.

1987 is the first time MLB exceeded 2:50 for average length of a nine inning game. It’s risen just about every year since peaking in 2021 with 3:11. The average game time in this World Series was 3:41.

Now, the games started at 8:00 EST, so this time of year that’s 5:00 on the West Coast. Initially as a lifelong East Coaster who travels regularly to the West, this is a problem. I can sit here and tell you the games should start earlier because kids can’t stay up that late, but that’s not true on the West coast is it? The NFL seems to have found a sweet spot for the Super Bowl, but let’s face it, that’s akin to a National Holiday. I know right now the Super Bowl is on February 13th at 6, I can plan it, I can move my schedule around to make it fit. I can’t even tell you what month next year’s World Series will end.

Regardless of that issue, asking people to sometimes sit down to watch 4 hours of anything in this day and age isn’t as easy to do as it might have been a couple decades ago. There are far more options at people’s fingertips and making the game more digestible simply has to be addressed.

So, how do you shorten the games?

The most popular targets are pitch clocks and a general “stop pissing around hitters and stay in the box” which might be a hard rule to target. Pitch clocks have been tried. In 2015 MLB instituted a 20-second clock in AA and AAA and game time was decreased by 12 minutes. When removed games increased in length for 2016 and 2017 but still were faster than 2014 before the experiment. So this teaches us a couple things, one, it works, a little and possibly more importantly, it stuck even without a rule in place to a degree, I take that as proof it wasn’t too heavy of a lift for the players to accommodate. The clock would have to cause batters to stay in the box too, can’t put all the onus on the guy throwing if the batter is preventing the pitch from being thrown.

I’d also like to see no more than one timeout per at bat and to simply make it a rule batters have to stay in the box. This doesn’t need to be as complicated as people will make it, I’m not talking about a penalty for swinging out of your shoes and falling, or taking a foul off your ankle, just in the course of a normal at bat, stand and swing big guy.

I don’t think the technology is ready quite yet, but automated strike zones would in my mind create less nibbling and more hitters ready to swing, that could help right? Might help another issue too, more on that later.

They’ve tried to limit mound visits but they need to do more. From the 7th on even with a restriction in place it’s rare to see 2 batters in a row without at least a catcher walking out.

I should also throw in here, it’s not all on the pitchers taking so long, these teams are shifting in between almost every pitch. This is so much more apparent in stadium as opposed to TV. When Jim Stamm and I were at Oneil Cruz’ debut at PNC, we noticed in one at bat the defense shifted 6 times facing friggin’ Ben Gamel. I mean if Ben Gamel requires that kind of silliness, imagine Juan Soto. The pitcher often stands there on TV appearing to be watching signs for 25 seconds, but what you don’t see is the position coaches moving and adjusting every player on the field sometimes. And that’s even with their silly little analytics cards in their back pocket. Add in a “slow” pitcher and you have sometimes a full minute between pitches, which let’s face it is simply not what this game was intended to look like. Much like the success of the New Jersey Devils in the 90’s NHL, it may work, but it’s killing the game.

More Action!

Homeruns are cool as hell, so are strikeouts. Nobody wants to eliminate either from the game, hey toss walks in here, might as well address all three of the true outcomes right?

Baseball has evolved to a point where not only are teams shifting to make it a reasonable play to try for dingers rather than a single, pitchers are more apt to hunt strikeouts based on that knowledge. Chicken or the egg here? Point is they fit hand in glove. Pitchers are pitching to the approach, defenders are playing to force the approach, the approach sucks for the game.

As I referenced earlier, I think eventually automated strike zones could help with this issue to a degree. Hitters will adjust to a rigid strike zone, they’ll practice it, they’ll hone in on it, they’ll not have to waste a couple at bats learning it every game and I think it’ll lead to more swings. If they make the zone 3D which they’d almost have to, some really talented pitchers will figure out how to throw a ball that looks like it’s going to hit your knee and cuts over the very back of the inside corner so it’s not like this is a completely one sided effect.

I don’t think you can ban shifting, after all it’s been part of the game forever, we used to call it shading. I’d like to think hitters will take care of this one by taking what’s given to them with more regularity, but it’s been years, and honestly, it’s not a skill set everyone possesses.

Some do, Bryan Reynolds gets shifted but not like some do. He’s shown he can and will hit the ball to all fields and for the most part he gets played straight up but that’s ok, they’d primarily prefer walking him anyhow.

Again, this isn’t and shouldn’t be illegal, but it’s pretty clear it’s overused. It’s also impossible to deny it works more than it doesn’t. As I referenced earlier, so did the New Jersey Trap.

Hockey fundamentally changed their game to combat it, by removing the 2 line offside pass, meaning the entire neutral zone was now ok to pass to. This brought on the era of “cherry picking” (Mario was so good at this) which also wasn’t great for your goalie at times, but the point is the league fundamentally changed the actual rink and meanings of the lines to beat it.

The NFL had to create Mel Blount rules to combat the way he defended the pass. The Hines Ward rule eliminating blind side blocks initiated with the helmet were a direct response to something one player (and eventually offenses everywhere) were doing to create an advantage.

It’s not unprecedented in sports to rule out things that are hurting the game, even if it’s just for the fans or unfairly skews to the benefit of one side of the game.

I’m Sure There Are More

I could go on, and it wouldn’t be that hard. Starting Pitchers going deeper into games, The running game being all but eliminated from the game, Interleague play may have run it’s course, and so on and so on. This is where I’d like to hear from you, what are your top changes baseball needs to make? Focus on fan engagement and what the game needs to do to be more of appointment TV rather than quickly finding a highlight package 10 minutes after the game ends.

This is our game, and we shouldn’t be afraid to tell MLB how they should make it better.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

One thought on “MLB Needs to Take an Honest Look at the Product They’re Selling

  1. Also, limit batters’ adjustment of the velcro on their batting gloves to once per at bat or face a three game suspension.

    Like

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