Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball’s new commissioner, sat down for an interview with ESPN on Sunday.
Without any prompting from interviewer Karl Ravech, Manfred shifted from talking about the pace of the game issue and using pitch clocks in the Arizona Fall League to a drastically different topic.
“The second set of changes that I would look at is related and that relates to injecting additional offense into the game,” Manfred said. “For example, things like eliminating shifts. I would be open to those sorts of ideas.”
Scoring is significantly down in baseball over the last 15 years. MLB teams combined to score 19,761 regular season runs in 2014, a major drop from the 24,971 runs scored in 2000.
If we go back to 1968, the final season of a 15-inch mound, the 20 teams combined to score 11,109 times. The mound was lowered to 12 inches for the 1969 season, where its been ever since.
When the balance between hitting and pitching shifts too far to one side, baseball has changed the rules to reset that equation. There is a precedent. Banning or limiting defenses from shifting, however, is the wrong way to add more offense to the game.
What’s causing the drop of run-scoring in baseball?
Taking performance enhancing drugs out of the game, or at least limiting their role, could be one culprit. Still, pitchers were using steroids as well, so that doesn’t explain the lack of runs entirely.
Increasing use of video and scouting and advanced PITCHF/x data has made players and coaches more aware of trends. It betters prepares them for what to expect when they’re on the field. Again, the benefits of this extra data affects both hitters and pitchers, so it’s not the only reason offense has declined either.
Managers, of course, are using this wealth of information to their advantage. They have a better chance of calling for the right man out of the bullpen than ever before. With starting pitchers held to increasingly tighter pitch counts and clubs pouring resources into developing top-notch bullpens, it’s no surprise that offenses are finding it harder to score runs in the late innings.
The reason why runs are harder to come by in modern baseball might be the crop of excellent young pitchers in the game today. Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Felix Hernandez and Matt Harvey. Jose Fernandez, Chris Sale, Cole Hamels and Matt Moore. The list goes on and on.
Perhaps it’s just a cyclical thing. Maybe the next generation of great sluggers is currently working its way up through the minor leagues.
Front offices are also making defense a priority, figuring that the value of a run saved is worth as much as a run scored. And that leads us to the shift, which has exploded in recent years. Fangraphs, a statistics blog, says that there were 564 percent more shifts in 2014 than there were in 2011.
Why pick on the teams that have decided to implement defensive shifts?
First, it’ll be nearly impossible to regulate. What constitutes an illegal defense in baseball and how would it be enforced?
Second, do we really want to crack down on innovation in the game? No one cries foul when an NFL defensive coordinator comes up with a new blitz scheme or when a college basketball coach shifts from zone to man-to-man.
“We have really smart people working in the game and they’re going to figure out ways to get a competitive advantage,” Manfred said in response to a Ravech follow-up question. “I think it’s incumbent on us in the commissioner’s office to look at the advantages that are produced and say, “Is this what we want to happen in the game?”
I think Manfred answered his own question. The really smart people in baseball will figure out a competitive advantage in response to the shift by finding ways to beat it, whether it’s through bunting, teaching hitters to go the other way or aggressive baserunning.
Scoring is down in baseball, no question about it. But that doesn’t necessary mean there’s a problem. We haven’t given the game the time it needs to react and evolve naturally.
Yet what Manfred wants to happen in the game might be vastly different from what die-hard baseball fans want to happen in the game. Maybe he sees home runs and bloated ERAs as a means to attracting casual fans and keeping the money flowing. Remember those old Nike commercials, “Chicks dig the long ball?” Apparently so do MLB’s accountants.
For those of us who don’t see a correlation between run-scoring and the quality of baseball being played, Manfred has set up a dilemma on his first day of work. The new commissioner is willing to consider changing the rules to draw in casual fans.
And that just ain’t right.