[Note: This was originally posted on my site Crashburn Alley on Sunday afternoon.]
Rob Manfred has been commissioner of Major League Baseball for all of a day and he already has the Internet up in arms over one of his suggestions. The heir to Bud Selig’s throne wants to eliminate the widespread use of the defensive shift.
Though I aim to defend Manfred here, let me say right now that banning the use of the shift is a terrible idea for many reasons. Just as a matter of principle, limiting the ways in which a defense may stop an offense takes away the creativity and spontaneity that makes the sport great. Imagine if an NFL defense could only use a 3-4 defense. Scoring would rise, but many games would start to look the same and they would be less interesting as a result. Second, the shift overall has a tiny effect on league-wide BABIP and scoring, as John Dewan illustrated here. Third, the implementation of a shift ban would be difficult to strictly enforce, not unlike the strike zone. Fourth, more scoring increases the length of games, so banning the shift would not make games any quicker – and we know MLB is interested in shortening game times based on some of their latest ideas, such as the pitch clock.
As the commissioner of baseball, Manfred is tasked with not only keeping the sport as successful as it is, but making it bigger and better. Maury Brown of Forbes reported in December that Major League Baseball saw approximately $9 billion in revenues in 2014 – a record. $9 billion is certainly a lot of money, but as an organization that employs thousands and is responsible to not only shareholders, but representatives of state and local governments as well, Manfred must keep his eyes on the horizon.
MLB’s TV ratings are much lower when compared to that of the NFL. There are many reasons for that, including the fact that baseball is a near-daily event while football is only a weekly event. Generally speaking, though, a lot of people find baseball to be boring and too slow-paced. Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon, a man who ostensibly loves the game and grew up breathing baseball, said as much last July: “I don’t watch baseball [on TV] — it’s too long and boring.” Even in isolation, though, MLB’s ratings aren’t doing very well lately.
If you’re Manfred (or former commissioner Selig) and you’re trying to make baseball less boring, eliminating the shift could certainly be one idea. How exciting could it possibly be for a casual fan to constantly see his favorite slugger grounding out to shallow right field? As mentioned above, banning the shift is a bad idea for myriad reasons, but I would much prefer a commissioner who tosses out too many ideas – some of which are bad ideas – as opposed to a commissioner who offers no new ideas.
So what can Manfred do to make baseball more appealing to a casual audience? The urge to increase offense isn’t mistaken, but it can be achieved better by tightening the ever-expanding strike zone, as Jon Roegele explained at The Hardball Times in October. Per Roegele, the strike zone expanded by 16 square inches from 2013 to ’14, almost entirely in the lower-third. As a result, strikeouts have skyrocketed. According to Baseball Reference, the average game saw 5.67 strikeouts in 1990 as compared to 7.70 in 2014. By decreasing the frequency of strikes, we also decrease the frequency of bad swings, which not only cuts down strikeouts but boring pop-ups and ground outs as well. With a higher rate of balls, we increase the rate of pitchers having to pitch within the strike zone, which leads to better swings, including more exciting doubles, triples, and home runs. And, of course, offense would expand league-wide.
Another issue for Manfred is arguably much bigger, which is getting younger people to watch. As compared to 30 years ago, when entertainment options at home were much more limited, younger people today have a plethora of entertainment options at their fingertips. Sadly, one of those options is rarely baseball, as MLB has enforced a blackout policy on behalf of broadcasters. For instance, as someone who lives near Philadelphia, I cannot subscribe to MLB.tv to watch Phillies games; instead, I’m forced to watch on TV, which forces me to subscribe to cable (or go to a bar, which subscribes to cable). And when I’m forced to watch a Phillies game on TV, I’m also subjected to advertisements. If I’m watching on MLB.tv and not via cable, then I’m not making the broadcaster any money. One can understand MLB’s reluctance to end blackouts, but to its credit, it has considered the idea.
There is one problem with that, however: while MLB may make that lucrative short-term money with blackouts, it will continue to fail to bring in youthful viewers, who can become lifelong consumers of the product. Those who grew up watching baseball on one of a handful of channels in the 1980’s will eventually die and they need to be replaced or the sport will start an unrecoverable slide.
Consider this (warning: nerd tangent): the most popular video game, in terms of viewership, is League of Legends. At the time of this writing, it has about 209,000 viewers in total (twice the capacity of a large football stadium) on Twitch.tv, the largest broadcaster for video game streams on the Internet. The second-most popular game is Hearthstone with 53,000 (about the capacity of a typical baseball stadium) and Dota 2 with 47,000. What do all three games have in common? They’re free to download and play. It’s not just viewership, either: League of Legends had 27 million active daily players in January 2014.
Because Riot Games, the producer of League, made the entry point so achievable to the average person, the game has exploded into the most popular game to play and to watch. The same has held true for Hearthstone, Dota, Smite, Counter-Strike, and so on. Conversely, Starcraft II (my favorite) requires players to not only purchase the $60 vanilla game (Wings of Liberty) but also the $60 expansion (Heart of the Swarm). While the game enjoyed great early success as the successor to the immensely popular Starcraft: Brood War, interest waned as time went on. The game no longer registers among the top-ten most popular games on Twitch, ranking 12th with 12,000 viewers as of this writing. The free-to-play trend is even reflected in tournament prize pools, as free-to-play games own the top-eight spots, according to esportsearnings.com. Free-to-play video gaming is where the younger people are, and they could just as easily be watching baseball over League of Legends. You just have to give them the option.
Let’s not also forget that younger people are overwhelmingly the victims of a broken economy, as they are mired in student loan debt while working long hours for reduced pay and little to no benefits. A college graduate today, much less a college student who can’t work full-time, is unlikely to be able to afford $130 per year for MLB.tv. Younger people have eschewed cable from their budgets as well.
MLB should make baseball both accessible by ending blackouts, and by making games free to watch (or, at least, significantly cheaper) on any type of device through MLB.tv. By doing this, the odds of creating a lifelong baseball fan are increased exponentially (especially when MLB has done so poorly with TV ratings), as are the odds of creating a casual consumer. These are the people who buy tickets to games, who buy hot dogs and beer at those games, and who buy hats and jerseys at the team stores. They’re the people who share their passion for the game with their friends and family, spreading baseball love like a virus.
Yes, Commissioner Manfred’s suggestion to ban defensive shifts is wrong on many levels, but it’s certainly better than sitting on one’s hands and being happy with certain indicators of success. Baseball really does have a long-term problem and making the sport less boring is the precipice of the issue. That Manfred has been proactive on day one gives me optimism for the rest of his tenure.