Rob Manfred talks pace of play, expansion, gambling, realignment and a reduced schedule

Rob Manfred
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Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic sat down for an exclusive interview with Commissioner Rob Manfred. They talked on most of the hot-button issues of the day. As it’s an Athletic story it is behind a paywall, but as we’ve noted around here many times lately, there’s a lot of good baseball content over there, so if you’re going to pay for a subscription to anything, that’s a petty good choice.

Anyway, Rosenthal asked Manfred about all kinds of things and, as is his wont, Manfred didn’t really commit himself to much of anything. He’s happy with what the pace-of-play changes have done — game times are about 4-5 minutes shorter — but characterizes those changes as “low-hanging fruit” that never could have reasonably made massive differences. I think that jibes with everyone involved said at the time, even if the changes have often been overplayed or oversold by others. Asked about the possibility of a pitch clock, Manfred seems like he wants it, and cited the union’s resistance to it, which is again, much of what he’s said in the past. I suspect he implements a pitch clock unilaterally next year.

Asked about the lack of action in the game — too many strikeouts, too many homers, shifts taking away hits, etc. — Manfred talks about how while the league had hoped that such things would even out over time, as they usually have, they don’t seem to be taking care of themselves now. He talked broadly about having to do something to deal with the lockstep “innovation” of analytical front offices which have led us here, but doesn’t say what. I think he’s being realistic: he knows there is not much that can be done without radically altering the game, which no one wants, but he knows people want baseball to be concerned. Sort of a Clinton-esque “I feel your pain” response, which is probably as good as he can do.

Manfred does not appear concerned about competitive balance. A lot of teams are on pace to lose 100 games this year, but Manfred notes, not incorrectly, that there are still division races and having one or two extra teams lose 100 games is not some seismic shift. Again, correct, though something that we can’t really have happen every year for, like, a decade I don’t think.

Manfred talks about an automated strike zone. He seems more amenable to it now than ever before, talking up the advances in technology about it. He worries that, even if you can take balls and strikes away from umpires on a technical basis, does that not undercut the ump’s authority and ability to manage the game? Eh, hard to say. If anything I tend to think that many umpires’ sense of “control” of the game is too great and is based on some mini God complex stemming from their handling of balls and strikes. Tennis umpires don’t seem to have lost control of that which is still in their bailiwick even if technology has taken responsibilities from them.

Rosenthal asked Manfred about the recent finding that the spike in homers since 2015 is due to a changing baseball. Here is the first place where Manfred’s answers kind of ticked me off. Manfred:

The report says something happened that reduced drag. Whatever it was, there was no purposeful or known alteration of the baseball. (People wanted to test) whether the specifications were too wide (in range) or not. The report says they’re within a much narrower range than the actual specifications.

They don’t know what the drag change is. Maybe it’s global warming, who knows? (The committee determined weather is not a factor). We’re going to continue to test and hopefully we will get to the bottom of that.

For the past year, whenever someone brought up the possibility that the ball hand changed, Manfred reacted sharply and defensively, citing the fact that the ball was “within parameters” and ignoring the fact that the specifications were so wide as to be meaningless. Now he’s crowing about how the alteration in the ball was within the limits the specifications allowed but still led to a massive increase in homers. Maybe just say “our specifications are meaningless when it comes to this issue” and, perhaps, acknowledge that you were snippy and petulant every time someone outside of the game brought up the possibility that the ball was the culprit?

He’s similarly eyeroll-worthy when it comes to legalized gambling, continuing to talk about all of the “integrity” challenges the game will face now that gambling has been legalized. As we have discussed on many occasions, however, the references to “integrity” are code for “we’re going to try to take as big a cut of the action as we can. Here’s Manfred’s response to Rosenthal saying, perhaps, state gambling commissions can monitor integrity just fine:

” . . . people who say you can leave it to state regulators — no thank you. Nice offer, but we will take care of our own integrity.”

But with the state’s money, of course. No word on whether baseball also can take care of its own stadium financing.

Finally, Manfred talks about realignment, expansion, reducing the length of the season. Seems that he’s open to anything as long as the money is right and it makes logical sense in terms of travel and scheduling, which is a pretty sensible attitude to have about it. The only definitive thing he said was that he’s in favor of a single season instead of any split season kind of scenarios which (a) good; but (b) uh, who has suggested split season scenarios? Probably someone.

Anyway, it’s pretty good as a state-of-the-game speech. Worth a read if you have a subscription, worth a subscription if you don’t have one.