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The State of Baseball is Strong. But it could be better. How do we make that happen?

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Tom Verducci has a very long but very well thought-out analysis of the State of Baseball as we enter the 2014 season. In a lot of ways it’s the intelligent person’s take on the “Is Baseball Dying?” thing. Being a creature of baseball he understands the current strengths and weaknesses of the game from a competitive, demographic and financial perspective so he isn’t trafficking in the alarmism and broad-brush paining of the non-baseball writers who make a sport of declaring the game dead each fall. As such, it’s an important read.

The facts:

  • While financially flush, the game is dependent on TV money to a huge degree and what happens if something radical happens in the structure of the TV business?
  • A lot of that flushness is based on increasingly local fandom, not national, and while that’s OK for most of the season, it really does bollocks-up the national showcases like the World Series and the All-Star Game and stuff;
  • While still extremely popular on its own merits, baseball’s fan demographics are somewhat worrisome compared to other sports. Yes, people “come back” to baseball when they’re older, but if fewer are with it as kids in the first place, there are fewer to “come back” later;
  • While baseball will never be a kinetic thing on the level of basketball and football, it is slowing down even by its own standards with fewer balls in play, longer games and more down time/farting around time during games;
  • Less quantitatively, there is something culturally anachronistic about the overall vibe of baseball. The fascination among those inside the game and many fans with a conservative culture and a disdain of youthful exuberance, style and attitude. There are structural reasons for baseball not appealing to the young like football and basketball do and we can’t do much about a lot of that stuff, but baseball is really making it harder on itself by insisting on a code of orthodoxy that punishes and shames the Yasiel Puigs and Bryce Harpers of the world while elevating and venerating old farts with 19th century moral codes.

How severe a problem any of these things are is debatable. How severe all of them taken together are is as well. And while it’s possible to acknowledge all of these as problems, even potentially serious ones, and to still think the game is healthy, it is also the case that anyone who cares about an institution should care about improving it and addressing its faults, even if everything is going well in general.  This is where Verducci is coming from here, and I agree with a great deal of what he says in the part of his essay in which he critiques the state of the game.

The second part is a bit more fun and is likely to be the focus of more talk. In it Verducci proposes some changes to the game to address the problems he identifies. Some are great ideas. For example, he talks about instituting The Summer Game. Sort of baseball’s answer to The Winter Classic in hockey, and I think it’d be terrific:

It makes no sense that in one of the few windows when baseball has the sports calendar to itself — the All-Star break in July — it goes dark for two nights after the All-Star Game. It needs an “event.” It should schedule one game for the Thursday after the All-Star Game, bill it as The Summer Game, and play it at an iconic American venue, such as the foothills near Mount Rushmore, the mall in Washington D.C., the Field of Dreams field in Iowa, Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y. . . . one regular season game out of 2,430 that is visually stunning, brings Major League Baseball to a place it never has been before, appeals to the “event” appetite of demanding sports viewers, and underscores baseball’s unique place in Americana.

This is fantastic.

Other ideas are not so good. Neutral-site World Series. Allowing managers to mess around with the batting order to send whoever he wants up to bat without losing players once a game. Starting hitters off with 1-1 counts. To be fair, Verducci knows some of these are never going to happen and acknowledges their flaws. He’s merely trying to get a conversation started about such things, and that’s a great idea.

I think one of the bigger things baseball needs to figure out — and how they do it I have no idea — is how to change its conservative culture, how to do better at promoting the game’s young stars and how to do better at promoting the game in general to younger fans. And how to do all of that without being gimmicky or lame.

I feel like this is hard because so much of the dynamic is dictated by baseball’s very structure. Almost everyone in baseball comes through a hierarchy. Even the big names. You do your time in the minors, where conformity and humility is drilled into you. The very socialization of a player into the game is dependent upon them learning to talk, walk and carry themselves like all those who came before. This goes for the coaches too. No one is given special treatment. In the rare cases they are, it’s head-turning. Between their education in the minors and their pre-free agency residency in the majors, it can be a decade or more before a unique personality or a true showman is able to shine through. And even then the showman is roundly criticized and given a way shorter leash if his performance falters than is someone who Plays The Game The Right Way.

Given all of that, how does a young star make the kind of splash a young basketball player or football player does? How does baseball market a cog who has every incentive to eschew a claim to uniqueness given the almost militaristic structure that produced him?

I don’t know how you crack that nut. I don’t know how one can come up through the system required to learn the skills of the game without necessarily losing that flair and that style. The rare cases that are able to bypass a long conformity-instillation process because of their talent — like Puig and Harper — had better be the absolute best right out of the chute. And even if they are, the scrutiny by their peers and the media is still pretty high. How do you sell these guys to young fans if they’re being punished for what’s so marketable about them in the first place?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. Most people don’t. But I like that Verducci has started this conversation publicly. I also like that those inside Major League Baseball — people you don’t hear from or see much of on a day-to-day basis but with whom I have some contact — are wrestling with these issues too.

Baseball is a great game. The greatest game. But so much of what makes it great is holding it up from a wider and deeper audience and could, possibly anyway, present problems for it in the future. I want baseball to always be the greatest, so I want to think about these things too. I hope you do as well. And that, as a community, perhaps we can come up with some small ideas of our own. Because, whether you believe it or not, those people in the game who are wrestling with these ideas are paying attention to folks like us.

Rob Manfred on robot umps: “In general, I would be a keep-the-human-element-in-the-game guy.”

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 5:  Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred talks with media prior to a game between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 5, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Craig covered the bulk of Rob Manfred’s quotes from earlier. The commissioner was asked about robot umpires and he’s not a fan. Via Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

Manfred was wrong to blame the player’s union’s “lack of cooperation” on proposed rule changes, but he’s right about robot umps and the strike zone. The obvious point is that robot umps cannot yet call balls and strikes with greater accuracy than umpires. Those strike zone Twitter accounts, such as this, are sometimes hilariously wrong. Even the strike zone graphics used on television are incorrect and unfortunate percentage of the time.

The first issue to consider about robot umps is taking jobs away from people. There are 99 umps and more in the minors. If robot umpiring was adopted in collegiate baseball, as well as the independent leagues, that’s even more umpires out of work. Is it worth it for an extra one or two percent improvement in accuracy?

Personally, the fallibility of the umpires adds more intrigue to baseball games. There’s strategy involved, as each umpire has tendencies which teams can strategize against. For instance, an umpire with a more generous-than-average strike zone on the outer portion of the plate might entice a pitcher to pepper that area with more sliders than he would otherwise throw. Hitters, knowing an umpire with a smaller strike zone is behind the dish, may take more pitches in an attempt to draw a walk. Or, knowing that information, a hitter may swing for the fences on a 3-0 pitch knowing the pitcher has to throw in a very specific area to guarantee a strike call or else give up a walk.

The umpires make their mistakes in random fashion, so it adds a chaotic, unpredictable element to the game as well. It feels bad when one of those calls goes against your team, but fans often forget the myriad calls that previously went in their teams’ favor. The mistakes will mostly even out in the end.

I haven’t had the opportunity to say this often, but Rob Manfred is right in this instance.

Report: MLB approves new rule allowing a dugout signal for an intentional walk

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 29:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred laughs during a ceremony naming the 2016 winners of the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award and the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award before Game Four of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images
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ESPN’s Howard Bryant is reporting that Major League Baseball has approved a rule allowing for a dugout signal for an intentional walk. In other words, baseball is allowing automatic intentional walks. Bryant adds that this rule will be effective for the 2017 season.

MLB has been trying, particularly this month, to improve the pace of play. Getting rid of the formality of throwing four pitches wide of the strike zone will save a minute or two for each intentional walk. There were 932 of them across 2,428 games last season, an average of one intentional walk every 2.6 games. It’s not the biggest improvement, but it’s something at least.

Earlier, Commissioner Rob Manfred was upset with the players’ union’s “lack of cooperation.” Perhaps his public criticism was the catalyst for getting this rule passed.

Unfortunately, getting rid of the intentional walk formality will eradicate the chance of seeing any more moments like this: