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Major League Baseball shouldn’t change the game

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Some of the proposed pace-of-play initiatives threaten the very game they’re trying to save.

MLB: New York Mets at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball’s new labor agreement changes a few elements of the game, from the luxury cap to the disabled list to the All-Star Game. It does not, however, fundamentally change the game itself, especially regarding pace of play. This is a good thing.

As many have pointed out, the length of game has increased substantially over the last few decades. In 2016, the average length jumped to three hours after it had fallen below the three-hour mark in the previous year. This could pose a long-term problem to a game that, unlike football and basketball, is played virtually every day over the course of its season, and whose fans may not view three hours per day as a worthwhile commitment of their time.

There are a few ways that MLB can mitigate this problem without changing the nature of the game itself. For example, keeping batters in the batter’s box, limiting the number of mound visits, and limiting the amount of time that managers have to challenge a call—and that umpires have to review it—all seem to make sense. While, individually, they might amount to tinkering around the edges, these reforms could lop off a decent chunk of game time if implemented as a package.

Unfortunately, many who cover and work in the game—including Commissioner Rob Manfred—have endorsed changes that go far beyond tinkering. Such changes include adding a pitch clock and imposing a minimum number of batters that relievers must face after entering a game. Unlike the reforms mentioned earlier, these changes would fundamentally alter the viewing experience and the actual manner in which the game is played on the field. That should concern any baseball fan.

A pitch clock, for example, would undermine one of baseball’s best and most charming qualities: the fact that its game play isn’t timed. This distinguishes baseball from most other sports, including football, basketball, hockey, and boxing, whose viewers’ eyes must constantly drift to the clock in the corner of the screen. When watching a baseball game, the viewer can focus all of his or her attention on the action on the field, which arises organically and at its own pace. It would be a shame if that aspect of baseball were to disappear.

Regulating the use of relievers would be an equally drastic overreaction. The game’s increasing number of pitching changes has no doubt contributed to longer game times. However, micromanaging how managers use their rosters opens up a Pandora’s box that baseball should probably avoid opening. Should MLB also limit the number of pinch hitters a manager can use, or the number of defensive substitutions he can make?

The game would be better served by allowing managers to use their rosters as they see fit and by allowing baseball to organically adjust to bullpen specialization. For example, perhaps switch-hitting will be valued and utilized more as a way to combat relievers’ increasingly specialized usage. It’s important to consider the possibility that some of these problems can resolve themselves naturally, if only we allow them to.

This is reminiscent of the complaint that managers were using “too many” defensive shifts when they started becoming widespread. Some prominent writers—again with the support of Commissioner Manfred—actually proposed banning the shift altogether. Such knee-jerk reactions failed to consider that baseball could adjust to the increasing use of shifts by rewarding hitters who spray the ball to all fields or learn how to bunt. Now that run-scoring in baseball has increased, the appetite for banning the shift seems to have already disappeared just a couple of years after that proposal started gaining traction.

Allowing the game to naturally and organically evolve is always preferable to heavy-handed and reactionary rule changes. This should ring especially true to those who (correctly!) despise the designated hitter’s impact on baseball and game play in the American League.

It’s also important to consider that many of these rule changes may not have their desired effect because of the unintentional consequences that they create. For example, forcing relievers to face more opposite-handed hitters would result in more run scoring. Therefore, while the length of game might decrease marginally, it would not decline by nearly the amount that many proponents of the rule change would have you believe.

This is the paradox in which baseball finds itself. For marketing purposes, MLB wants more run scoring and shorter games. In other words, it wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Sometimes, these two goals are incompatible.

Before the commissioner pushes for radical rule changes, he should consider, first, that those changes may not be necessary as the game evolves on its own; second, that those changes may not even have their desired effect; and, third, that if they do have their desired effect, they can threaten some of the unique aspects of the game that turned baseball into America’s pastime.