Today, Rob Manfred revealed that in his never-ending goal to make MLB games as short as humanly possible, he was looking into limiting the use of relief pitchers. On ESPN’s Mike & Mike today, he said the following:
“You know the problem with relief pitchers is that they’re so good. I’ve got nothing against relief pitchers, but they do two things to the game: The pitching changes themselves slow the game down, and our relief pitchers have become so dominant at the back end that they actually rob action out of the end of the game, the last few innings of the game. So relief pitchers is a topic that is under active consideration. We’re talking about that a lot internally.”
In the past, I’ve called Rob Manfred’s ideas to “improve” baseball “dangerous and willfully dense.” This one is as dangerous and unnecessary as his day one proposal to eliminate the shift in order to promote offense. It’s also as pointless as Joe Torre’s proposal to eliminate managers being able to argue with umpires. I won’t even get into the issue that Manfred’s self-imposed charge is to shorten games. If there is more offense, there are more baserunners, and more baserunners mean more plate appearances, and more plate appearances mean the games last longer.
Rob Manfred is obsessed with pace of play, though he frames it as the length of MLB games. While some proposals are good (pitch clocks and keeping hitters in the batter’s box), other proposals are falling flat. Proposals that actively interfere with the strategy of the game are falling flat because they are stifling the natural progression of the hitter-pitcher arms race that defines the baseball environment. He wants more runs, more scoring, and less pitching. This is fine if this is the direction he wants to take baseball, but he is doing it in profoundly obtuse ways. Rob Manfred is starting to wade dangerously close to “doesn’t understand what makes baseball tick” territory.
Also, he’s ignoring the universal maxim: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Major League Baseball ain’t broken, and the size and dollar figure of television contracts being on the steep incline is a clear sign of this. The last six local TV deals are in the billions, with all that money going towards one team. The lowest of these six deals, to the Cardinals, has them raking in $33 million on television contracts alone. The average MLB team rakes in about $53.4 million per team. Each team deal is negotiated locally, and about 1/5 of the league is set to expire before 2020. Given the precedent set by the most recent deals, MLB will catch up to the megadeals for the NFL and the NBA.
Manfred’s latest assault is on the lefty one-out guy (LOOGY). These are pitchers who, as the name suggests, are brought in to get a lefty-lefty matchup and draw one out. They are then removed from the game. Sometimes this pitcher throws exactly one pitch. This ends up taking about five minutes of real-life action to get one out. They are also brought in in high-leverage situations, when the team really needs to get an out. Their inclusion into the fabric of that particular game adds a wrinkle of tension as viewers are faced with a high-leverage situation (say, runners on second and third with two outs) and they are forced to marinate in it as the LOOGY gets ready.
For this, they are worth it to the overall baseball experience, but Manfred wants runs. He doesn’t want the pitching-hitting arms race to escalate. He wants to take a page out of the NFL’s handbook and disarm pitching like defense has been neutered in the NFL. He wants to limit the ability of the defense to defend themselves. He wants to remove shifts and strategic pitching usage in order to “speed up the game.” What he wants is a one-sided arms de-escalation.
The problem is Manfred is trying to NFLize Major League Baseball. He is trying to prop up run scoring when that really isn’t what baseball is about. Baseball is about the tension and release of each pitch, the battle between hitter and pitcher. If you want non-stop dingers and offense, go watch softball. Shifts and LOOGYs are the natural evolution of the game, the response to the massive run output of the steroids era. By putting his thumb on the scale towards hitting, he is disrupting the natural evolution. He is tinkering with evolution and trying to create an intelligently designed sport.
Baseball is not intelligently designed; that’s not what baseball is, that’s not what baseball is about. Baseball is about the brightest minds out-thinking and out-dueling each other. By limiting the usage of relievers, he is effectively throwing the pitchers in there with their left arms tied behind their back. His ideas to tinker with the natural progression of baseball are impeding the evolution of the game and holding back progress. If this was a one-off idea, it would not be as alarming, but Manfred’s obsession with tinkering with baseball’s progress is proving he may be too regressive to run Major League Baseball.