That baseball is in serious need of change isn’t really in dispute. Even the most rabid fans grumble that the game is stagnant and one dimensional, sorely missing the strategies and nuances that in days past made it America’s favorite pastime.
That Major League Baseball is finally trying to do something about it underscores the threat now being posed to the sport. People may still be going to the ballpark for an occasional night out — albeit in declining numbers — but plunging television ratings indicate they’re voting with their remote when faced with the prospect of having to invest more than three hours into a game that offers little in return.
Still, I’ve got to admit having bigger bases wasn’t on my list of things to do to make baseball relevant once again.
That’s not to say the extra 3 inches being added onto bases at the Triple A level this year is a bad thing. A few more runners might reach first base safely and a few more might attempt to occasionally steal a base — which will both bring some more action to games, at least in theory.
There are other changes being tried out at the minor league level this year that are promising, too, even if they are not quite ready for prime time. Automated ball and strike calling in the low minors, restrictions on a pitcher throwing to first base and pitch timers will all be in play at various minor league levels.
And, at the top of the list, a requirement in Double A that infielders keep both feet on the dirt — with an option that at least two infielders must be on either side of second base.
The object isn’t so much to get fans to care once again. It’s to get them to watch once again, something even Miami manager Don Mattingly said is becoming increasingly difficult to do.
“I watched a lot of the playoff games after we were eliminated and quite honestly it was a little hard to watch,” Mattingly said a few months ago. “There was nothing going on. Strikeout, strikeout, home run. It was hard to watch. It tells me we have to find a way to make our game move.”
It’s not just that games are too long, though they surely are. The average time for a nine-inning MLB game in 2019 was a record 3:07, up 17 minutes from just 10 years earlier, despite a few half-hearted attempts by MLB to get things moving along a little faster.
Just as big an issue is that so little happens during that time.
Nearly four of 10 plate appearances end without a ball being put into play. Analytics discourage ground balls and stolen bases, and the hit-and-run is a relic of the past.
Meanwhile, pitchers constantly dally on the mound, and batters can never seem to get set at the plate without adjusting batting gloves or stepping out of the box to contemplate the origin of the universe.
It’s no longer a question of whether the game needs to change. It’s a question of whether baseball can change quickly enough to avoid becoming a niche sport.
Losing fans with every game by putting a bad product on the field isn’t a recipe for long-term success, something commissioner Rob Manfred seems to realize even if he has trouble articulating it. Manfred changed the rules during the pandemic with, among other things, a radical idea of putting a runner on second base to begin each extra inning — and got a surprisingly positive reaction even from baseball purists.
He also named former Cubs executive Theo Epstein to be a consultant on rules changes. Surprisingly enough, Epstein said he and other baseball executives bear partial responsibility for the game’s changes because of their reliance on analytics in building and fielding teams.
“I take some responsibility for that because the executives, like me, who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game,” Epstein said.
The problem is, even the new rules in place in the minor leagues this year don’t go far enough. Radical changes in both game length and game aesthetics are needed to make baseball more watchable, and it’s not clear whether management or players have the stomach for it.
Meanwhile, the games continue to revolve around strikeouts and home runs. They last way too long and have become way too boring.
As Opening Day approaches, change can’t come soon enough.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg