Rules a topic for Commissioner at Grapefruit League Media Day
By Anthony Castrovince
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Major League Baseball has made proposals to the players' and umpires' associations for rules changes aimed at improving the game's pace of play for the 2017 season, but don't look for automatic baserunners in extra innings at the big league level anytime soon.
Raising the strike zone, limiting the amount of time a manager has to decide whether to make a replay-review challenge and allowing batters to proceed direct to first base in lieu of standing in the box for four balls during an intentional walk are all changes that have been discussed. But at his news conference at the Grapefruit League's Spring Training media day here Thursday, Commissioner Rob Manfred could not characterize how likely or unlikely those changes are to occur in time for the exhibition season or Opening Day.
"I just don't know at this point," Manfred said. "It has been a long winter for both sides on labor, and fatigue can play a role in how many agreements you can reach. But at this point, I just don't feel comfortable making a prediction."
Manfred does feel comfortable asserting that while baseball does not, in his words, "need to be fixed," he is strongly in favor of cutting down on the dead time between points of action.
"What we want," Manfred said, "is a well-paced game with action, regardless of the actual time of the game."
Using fan focus groups as a guidepost, MLB has identified dead time (batters stepping out of the box, pitchers working at a slow place, manager, coach and catcher visits to the mound) and a decrease in balls in play attributable to increasing strikeout rates as issues worth addressing.
The change to intentional walks and the limitation on time allotted before a manager asks for a replay review would fall into the category of reducing dead time.
"Dead-time changes, there's probably not one that you can mention that I would not be in favor of," Manfred said. "I know [the intentional walk] is a small thing, I'm painfully aware of how little it happens and how little impact it has on time of game, but it's dead time. And I like limits -- reasonable limits -- in the replay system. I think field managers should be forced to decide more quickly."
Manfred acknowledged the proposed strike-zone change, which would lift the zone from the hollow below the knee to the top of the kneecap, is, as he put it, "trickier" but ultimately worth whatever risk associated with it.
"We have data on how effective the batters handle that low strike, and that is something that has driven our thinking," Manfred said. "I think it's also important to remember the evolution on the strike zone. The strike zone was down to the hollow of the knee, because we weren't getting low strikes called. My good friend Mr. [Sandy] Alderson [then executive vice president of operations for MLB] came along and he improved dramatically the management of the umpires in two ways. We had a lot of turnover, we got a younger group there, and even more importantly, he applied technology to the strike zone. As that younger group grew up with that technology, they started calling that low strike, and the change we're suggesting from my perspective is sort of like restoring the natural order, getting back to where we were for a very long time."
As for another much-discussed idea -- beginning extra innings with a runner at second base -- Manfred put that rule, which will be experimented with in Rookie ball this season, in the category of changes that MLB "does not really expect" to apply to the Majors, or, at least, "not in the short term." The rationale is that there is merit to expediting extra-innings run-scoring at organized baseball's lowest level and no harm in seeing how it affects play.
"In Rookie ball, where crowds are small and games are really developmental, starting the 10th inning with a runner on base makes sense, because there's really no developmental reason to play 18 innings and end with the shortstop pitching," Manfred explained. "And who knows? If we remain open-minded, we may learn something from this experiment that's helpful moving forward."
Other topics addressed by Manfred included:
The World Baseball Classic's potential: "I would like to get the WBC to the point where everyone views it as a premier international event," Manfred said. "I'm going to both Korea and Japan. One of the reasons that I'm making that trip is those countries show tremendous support and interest in this event, and we need to make sure we get the same kind of interest and support in the United States. I think a key to that is having a competitive, successful team from the United States." Manfred said he sees great potential in the Team USA roster put together by Joe Torre and managed by Jim Leyland.
The Cardinals' hacking punishment: "With respect to people who say it was not severe enough, the Cardinals in the amateur Draft will have the least pool money available and their pool will be $2 million less than the club right above them," Manfred said. "There is no club in Major League Baseball that would like to find themselves in that position."
Appealing to a young audience: The rules-change discussions are an offshoot of a broader effort to grow the game among young people, involving technology and youth participation. "The reality is consumers' behavior is changing very rapidly," Manfred said. "It's an issue that faces every major enterprise that's involved in the entertainment business." He noted that MLB has come to agreements with the regional sports networks in 27 markets to have in-market live streaming this season. "I think that's a really important way for particularly younger fans to enjoy our games on an important platform," Manfred said.
Florida upgrades: Manfred's news conference took place at Joker Marchant Stadium, where a $48 million renovation project was just completed. Elsewhere in the Grapefruit League, the Nationals and Astros have opened a new facility this spring at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. "The state of Florida and Governor [Rick] Scott have been an unbelievable partner to Major League Baseball," Manfred said. "Not only does the state host the Rays and the Marlins, but obviously we have 15 teams here, and the state and the counties continue to invest in improvements in Spring Training facilities."
The Kushner family bidding for the Marlins: "Our role in controlled interest transfers is to approve those transfers once a deal has been struck," Manfred said. "Because there's no final deal that has been submitted to us, we've had limited involvement in that process."
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.