Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post spoke to MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, who said he feels that front offices have too much of an impact on the game of baseball. Clark said, “You hear players saying it’s even hard to recognize how the game is being played. If those on the field see it and experience it, then those who are watching it will notice, too. It’s not to suggest I don’t like home runs or strikeouts or walks. I like all those things. But I also like more of the strategy and the dynamics that have always determined the outcomes in our games.”
Clark continued, “The decisions that are being made are changing the game. When you’re in a climate where the decisions about how the game is being played are being made less by the players who are playing and the coaches and managers who are coaching and managing it, we find ourselves in a climate that seems to be focused in on what everybody’s calling the three true outcomes: the home run, the strikeout and the walk. I would argue that there are two true outcomes: whether you win or you lose. … I’m not saying data is a bad thing. I’m saying it’s morphed our game and its focus quite a bit.”
Clark also discussed tanking, saying, “This isn’t a player problem. It’s reflective, I believe, of very deliberate business decisions. Players as a whole compete on every pitch and every at-bat. Our industry is predicated on competition from the top down. … What it appears that we are seeing in that regard is teams withdrawing from that competition for seasons at a time. It becomes challenging when it’s more than a couple of teams that are going that route, whereby you have a considerable chasm between those that are competing at one level and those that are competing at another.”
The current collective bargaining agreement expires on December 1, 2021, so the union and the owners will have three more years of talking about these issues before they are concretely addressed. The tanking issue seems like it will almost certainly be addressed.
Clark’s concern over the impact of front offices may not be misplaced, but it’s difficult to envision any kind of rule making a difference. Limit what data teams can access? Centralize the data? The “scienceification” of baseball, if you will, was an inevitability, an evolution. In order to go in a different direction, the game will need to evolve again. Trying to tamp down data usage in baseball is akin to playing whack-a-mole with various ways with which teams will find advantages over other teams.
Major League Baseball could try to cut into the ever-increasing three true outcomes rate by changing certain things about the game without touching the data. Back in 1969, the pitcher’s mound was lowered to encourage more offense. In a similar vein, to encourage more doubles and triples and fewer home runs, stadiums could be adjusted to have the fences back to a certain distance (e.g. at least 340 feet down the lines, 410 in center). The pitcher’s mound could be moved back a few inches, lessening the impact of higher velocity, which has been a big factor in the ever-increasing strikeout rate. There are surely other ideas that smart people can come up with to bring the game towards a more active, enjoyable experience. We still have three years to go so we’ll certainly be seeing some interesting suggestions.