With games slogging along at three hours apiece, strikeouts soaring and batting averages tumbling to a 46-year low, the slow-to-change sport is ripe for some subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks.
“I’ve got people — you know, guys I play golf with and have lunch with — that are all avid fans,” former Twins pitcher Jim Kaat said. “They just say, ‘We might watch a few innings, but we can’t watch a whole game.’ ”
Kaat, an Emmy Award nominee as an analyst for MLB Network, is among the chorus of longtime baseball people who love the game but are concerned with the current version, especially the slow-moving pace.
Kaat is one of more than 30 people the Star Tribune recently interviewed across baseball, including Commissioner Rob Manfred, for insight into what changes could be coming over the next decade.
They had myriad ideas, and some disagreed, but based on their predictions, three controversial changes that could be coming before 2028 are a pitch clock, a ban on infield shifts and, yes, an electronic strike zone.
“Eventually [the electronic zone is] going to happen,” MLB Network analyst Eric Byrnes said. “Whether that’s within the next two years, five years or 10 years, I look forward to it being implemented.”
Electronic umpiring behind plate?
Last fall, Manfred said the technology wasn’t ready to hand ball-strike calls over to computers. At the time, the system MLB used to evaluate umpires had a reported two-inch margin of error.
But this month, Manfred said the “accuracy and speed” of tracking pitches “has improved dramatically” this season.
“I’ve always said,” Manfred added, “that when those two areas — accuracy and speed — improve to the point where you can say this is better than a human being would do, there’s an important policy question that is going to have to be discussed.”
MLB already uses TrackMan’s 3D-radar system to record pitch type, location, velocity and spin rate. Once refined, that technology could determine balls and strikes, with the decision instantly relayed to the home plate umpire, who would still have authority over the game and call foul tips, catcher’s interference and make other rulings.
“The umpires are the best in the world at what they do,” Byrnes said. “But because we have this technology and information available to us, it’s irresponsible if we don’t use it.”
Former Twins first baseman Justin Morneau agrees, saying the electronic strike zone is the first change he’d make to MLB.
“It drove me crazy,” said the 2006 American League MVP. “You’d go to places like Yankee Stadium, ninth inning and it either hasn’t been a strike the entire game, or it gets expanded, depending on who you’re facing.”
With an electronic zone, “there would be no arguing,” Morneau said. “People say the game would take longer. No, pitchers wouldn’t nibble at the edge of the strike zone to see how much that umpire was giving them. The zone would be the same every single time.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon and third baseman Kris Bryant are among those who have said they’re open to trying it. Hall of Fame pitcher Jack Morris would like to see an electronic zone tested in the minor leagues first.
Twins right fielder Max Kepler seems torn. He has been “rung up on calls that have been completely wrong, but everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “If you keep changing the game, there’s not going to be magic to baseball anymore. It’s just going to be robotic and predictable.”
Jeff Nelson is in his 20th season as an MLB umpire and takes pride in his work calling balls and strikes. He’s not ready to hand those duties over to a computer.
“I think the devil’s in the details,” he said. “I’m partial to us [calling balls and strikes], but there’s definitely momentum for doing something like that within certain parts of the game.”
Pitch clock opinions differ
The average nine-inning MLB game lasted a record 3 hours, 5 minutes last season. Owners contemplated a pitch clock, but after pushback from the players’ union, Manfred made other changes, limiting each team to six mound visits and shortening between-inning breaks.
So far, the average time of a nine-inning game this season is 2:59. Throw in extra innings, and the Twins have the longest average time of game in the majors at 3:13.
“There was a lot of resistance [to limiting mound visits],” Manfred said. “The fact is there was not one single game that anybody can point to, where the limit on the number of mound visits played a significant role in what happened in the game.”
Tony Clark, executive director of the players union, cautioned against a pattern of “see a trend, change the rules.” But Clark said players remain willing to talk about how to move the sport forward.
The current collective bargaining agreement, which expires in December 2021, gives Manfred authority to unilaterally impose a pitch clock.
Baseball adopted a 20-second pitch clock for the minor leagues at Class AA and AAA three years ago. In the Class AAA International League, for example, this chopped off 16 minutes per game the first season, though it increased by eight minutes over the following two seasons.
This season, Class AA and AAA pitchers have only 15 seconds to begin their windups with no runners on base, 20 seconds with a runner on base. If not, an automatic ball is called. The batter must be ready before the pitch clock reaches seven, or an automatic strike is called.
Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven watches Class A Florida State League games when he is not broadcasting for the Twins. This is the third year that league has had a 15-second pitch clock.
“It’s a quick game, a crisp game,” Blyleven said. “Guys are in the box and they’re ready to hit.”
Each year, waves of new players reach the majors who are used to the clock from the minors.
“It’s kind of one of those things where you notice it, but I don’t feel like it really has that big of an impact,” said White Sox outfielder Ryan LaMarre, who has bounced back and forth from the majors and minors in recent seasons.
But MLB has long prided itself on being the sport without a clock. In her recent book, “Why Baseball Matters,” Susan Jacoby draws comparisons to Coca-Cola’s infamous “New Coke” experiment from the 1980s.
“The guessing game between the hitter and pitcher — the essence of that confrontation defines baseball,” she said. “You put a pitch clock in, and you’re selling a completely different product.”
Effects of defensive shifts
Long a pitch clock proponent, Manfred now hints that owners are considering other big changes.
“We have, in our internal discussions, started to focus more on managing things that have changed in the game — increased shifts, increased strikeouts, those sorts of issues,” the fourth-year commissioner said. “But I don’t want to get into any specific rule change like limiting shifts because we’re just not there yet.”
According to the website FanGraphs, there were 26,705 defensive shifts in MLB last season, up from 2,350 seven years earlier, with a shift defined as having at least three infielders to one side of second base.
That number will grow again this season, as teams are shifting on 17.4 percent of all plate appearances, up from 12.1 percent last year, according to the website BaseballSavant.
Morneau said he would insert a line behind second base, dictating that two infielders stay on each side of the line. Others have suggested forcing four fielders to keep their feet in the infield dirt.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh well, hitters need to hit better,’ ” Morneau said. “Well, when you’re pounded in with 95- or 97-mile-per-hour fastballs, you cannot inside-out it the other way. It just doesn’t work.”
Hitters are batting .247 this season, the lowest mark since 1972. For the first time in MLB history, the leagues are on pace to finish with more strikeouts than hits.
Credit the pitching — increased fastball velocity, more offspeed pitches — but defensive positioning is a factor, too. The league’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play), is .295, down from .300 each of the past two seasons.
“Every game, you see at least one, if not a handful of balls that for years and years were hits,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “Whether it’s good for baseball? I just think some of the things that we’re doing, we’re kind of reinventing how we’re going to have to teach the game at the younger levels.
“The put-the-ball-in-play, hit-the-ball-up-the-middle and level-swings — things that were just pounded into you as a youngster — they’re not going to produce a lot with the way we’re playing up here.”
Twins first baseman Joe Mauer, Red Sox manager Alex Cora and former players such as Morris, Blyleven and Roy Smalley said they would be opposed to a rule regulating shifts.
But among the current or former managers who have voiced support for the idea are Ned Yost, Mike Matheny and Joe Girardi.
“You can’t just ram down [rule changes] and say, ‘OK, we’re doing this right now,’ without thinking of the ramifications of decisions,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who is on MLB’s 16-member Competition Committee. “Believe me, there’s a lot of discussions.”
These and other conversations will continue until rules change or baseball organically rights itself.