Rob Manfred: we must “manage change” as baseball evolves

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Commissioner Rob Manfred wrote a guest column at ESPN today. It can be seen as something of a followup to his recent comments in response to Buster Olney’s recent column about potential ways to “fix” baseball, complete with some radical rules changes, most of which were pretty dumb.

Manfred speaks broadly and contextualizes all of that, noting the difficult balance he and the rest of baseball has in making sure that one of baseball’s biggest attractions — its devotion to history and tradition — does not cause it to fail to address potential problems or fail to innovate when innovation is a good idea. I’d agree that’s the biggest and toughest job any commissioner has and likely always has been. On that score, I don’t have any disagreement with him.

Nor do I have any disagreement on the more specific matters he brings up regarding pace of play, pitcher usage and the lack of contact and action in today’s game. He’s right that it’s frustrating to see the best pitchers less, to see more strikeouts and fewer balls in play and for games to be longer now than they used to be. He’s also right that this is not the result of some “problem” with baseball as opposed to the choices front offices and managers have made which have led to this state of affairs. That the winning strategies these folks have identified don’t necessarily coincide with the most entertaining product on the field possible is a cause for concern, even if it’s understandable. Manfred says that it’s his job to “manage change” as baseball evolves. I don’t disagree.

The devil, of course, is in the details of how that change is managed. Sometimes baseball gets that right and sometimes baseball gets that wrong. The wild card, interleague play and many of baseball’s media and technological innovations have been excellent. The implementation of instant replay, on the other hand, has been clunky and ill-conceived, even if the idea of replay is a good one. Every situation is different and every decision baseball makes as it manages change could be a good one or a bad one. It’s our job as fans and the job of my counterparts in the media and myself to critique the way baseball manages change. We should be fair and we should keep an open mind as we do so, but we should not hesitate to be loud and, if need be, sharp in our criticisms when they’re warranted.

Which hasn’t always been easy when baseball has “managed change” in the past. Mostly because Major League Baseball hasn’t always been transparent or publicly accountable when changes are made. Obviously the game is a private business, not the government, and isn’t required to hold public hearings, but its method of announcing rules changes in the past has been annoying to say the least. Baseball has a habit of acting as if there is 100% consensus on any given change and acting as if addressing criticisms of the new rules is an unnecessary bother. I’m put in mind of a Joe Torre press conference when the replay challenge system was announced. There were lots of questions about why it, and not some fifth umpire scenario was chosen. Torre’s answer repeatedly asserted, erroneously, that “everyone agreed” it was the best, though he couldn’t or would’t, exactly, say why that was. We still don’t know what that was, actually. Sorry, if you’re going to “manage change” you have to do better than that. Especially when it comes to major change.

If you’re not going to do that you had, at the very least, best get used to baseball fans and a baseball media that sharply questions and sharply criticizes the change you manage. Baseball hasn’t always been great at that either, probably because baseball fans and most baseball media pull their punches and no one holds baseball’s feet to the fire. We should be better about that. Especially if the change Manfred intends to manage is significant.