Driving to work recently, I was listening to MLB radio on XM. The topic was Kris Bryant’s recent comments about the current Collective Bargaining Agreement and how this current offseason has hurt the brand of baseball. This got me thinking (it happens!), and I wanted to offer a couple of amateur opinions.
A lot has been made of the sluggish pace of moves this winter. In recent days, we’ve finally seen some of the bigger names sign with teams. There haven’t been a lot of trades, and several big names still remained unsigned (Jake Arrieta being the most prominent now, probably). This is what Bryant was talking about and he is one of many, many baseball pundits worried that the 2017-2018 offseason. After two straight wonderfully entertaining World Series, is our national past time missing out on an opportunity to grow the brand?
First, let’s look at why this is happening. I believe much of this can be traced back to one major trend in our game: advanced analytics. The infiltration of sabermetrics — a deeper statistical field of study favoring more complex mathematical analysis over traditional stats like hits, average, or RBI to gauge a player’s worth — has made Major League teams more efficient with their spending. Add that to a less recent trend of teams overpaying veterans some pretty healthy contracts that extend for sometimes 8, 9, or even 10 seasons, and the keepers of the coffers are much less willing to open up those check books and commit such large sums of money.
But as we know, Major League players are stubborn. They know their worth, using other players who bring similar skill sets and production to the table as a basis of comparison. They are also represented by crafty, intelligent, and very powerful agents like Scott Boras, who is efficient at getting players what they want.
So, players hold out as free agents, and teams wait around for a better bang for their baseball buck. Result: an offseason as action packed as a Nicholas Sparks flick.
Truth? I don’t care.
As a passionate baseball fan, a slow offseason does nothing to sour my love for it. In fact, I find myself fascinated by the DNA of this entire thing. The business is changing, and it’s mostly off-the-field maneuvering (we’ll get to the on-the-field, shortly). Other fans as passionate as I are not going anywhere, either.
But it’s clear that there’s an uptick in worry about the health of the baseball fandom. This is also evident in the “pace of play” rules that the baseball heads of state have been mulling for years.
So now that we’ve identified what is happening and why, I’d like to offer some angles on it.
Bryant’s comments have two main points. The CBA is outdated and players need to unify to start talking about what they want when it expires in 2021. Mostly, this surrounds arbitration rules and opt outs and things of that nature that I won’t bore you with. Instead, here’s a real example of what the players union thinks is unfair.
Aaron Judge makes $544,500 in 2018. He’ll make the same in 2019 as well. He’s under total team control and cannot go to arbitration until 2020. He might hit 100 more home runs by then in just two seasons. But his salary will remain among the lowest in the league because of current arbitration rules. Bryant, and others, want this changed. I see their point.
However, the other part of the dialogue that’s out there is this myth that baseball is struggling, and a slow offseason will continue to hurt the brand and drive fans away from the game. I find this silly. Passionate baseball fans like me are not going to run. And casual baseball fans have ZERO interest in baseball dialogue during the months of November, December, January, and February.
Do you know why?
The NFL is America’s sporting obsession between Labor Day and the Super Bowl. There are tens of millions of fans out there that love both sports, and that’s great. But, for the most part, the average baseball fan cares nothing about Eric Hosmer digging in his heels to try to get six or seven years in a new contract instead of five. They don’t need to worry about Shohei Otani’s landing position. They might acknowledge a large signing like Stanton to the Yankees, but the rest of it doesn’t melt the snow on the ball field for them. It’s football season! And that’s fine.
We can see more of this in fantasy sports. Last year, Yahoo opened up their Fantasy Football season on April 27! That’s over four months before the season. This is mostly so the fantasy aspect can be hyped in sync with the NFL draft. Drafted NFL players will be seen in pro action in the next season. Fantasy sites like Yahoo waste no time doing mock NFL fantasy drafts even when baseball is still in its first month.
Baseball just doesn’t get the same love. Yahoo opened its fantasy baseball leagues this year on February 15, just a six weeks before the first pitch of the 2018 season is thrown. Meanwhile, AFTER the Super Bowl, Yahoo was still posting articles about 2018 Running Back rankings.
Isn’t it clear that, generally speaking, baseball doesn’t have much offseason fan interest anyway? Most casual fans just want to be woken out of hibernation in April, when the Super Bowl and Spring Training are both over. For now, let the business of baseball evolve how it is, and we’ll all look forward to more exciting postseasons. That’s where the fans will be.
Finally, I’d like to touch upon the recent “pace of play” rules. If you haven’t been keeping up, baseball’s new commissioner Rob Manfred has this crazy obsession with shortening baseball games by a few minutes. Baseball has been experimenting with pitch clocks in the minor leagues, and toyed with the idea of putting them in the majors. Many fans, myself included, hate this idea. I don’t want a clock in baseball. It’s the one game where a ticking clock doesn’t exist, and that fact adds to its timelessness.
Last year, they got rid of intentional walks, instead allowing pitchers to just tell the ump that the batter may take his base. Woohoo, we’ve saved 60 seconds a game!
This year, a more drastic rule is in effect: Teams are now limited to six mound visits (without a pitching change) per nine innings. This includes managers, coaches, catchers, infielders, anyone going to the mound to speak with the pitcher for any amount of time. Teams will get one extra visit per extra innings.
There are exceptions: Spike-cleaning visits on rainy days, visits between at-bats, meetings to see if a pitcher is injured, and anytime an offensive substitution is made.
I know why baseball is doing this. And they will definitely save more time than eliminating the four pitches of an intentional walk. I’m not yet sure what to think of it. I have, on occasion, gotten impatient watching a catcher visit the mound four times in one at-bat. I heard Joe Kelly, the Red Sox pitcher, saying that there will be more injuries because of this rule when catchers and pitchers cross up signs. Also, he suggested, with technology being what it is, and teams always looking for that edge, it’s hard to guarantee that signs are even effective. Late in the game, especially in September and October, these mound visits can help pitchers and catchers remain on the same page. This alone can make or break a team’s season. I see Kelly’s points. Am I sold? I’m not really sure.
Personally, I think Major League Baseball missed the real problem.
Over the past five years or so, there have been an incredible amount of thrilling baseball postseason finales. Many of these games go four hours or longer because of the drama, of the mound visits, of the pick-off throws to first, etc.
For example, game seven between the Cubs and the Indians in 2016 is considered one of the greatest World Series games in history. The Cubs had it well in hand, but the Indians fought back twice. Chicago finally sealed the deal in an absolutely heart-pounding 10th inning, winning 8-7, and securing their first title since 1908. This was a big deal for Major League Baseball, and had fans buzzing for weeks after.
This instant classic lasted 4 hours and 28 minutes.
And when the game starts at 8 p.m. for east coasters, you can see the problem. How many fans had to turn the game off because it was almost one in the morning? How many parents made their kids go to bed at 11? You want to talk about losing fans, there are millions of kids who missed out on a wonderful moment that would’ve otherwise signed them up as a fan for life.
Sure, the mound visit rules might help this by 10, 15 minutes even.
But can’t we start the games earlier?
I get it. The status quo says that World Series games should start at 8 p.m. Eastern so EVERYONE can watch the WHOLE game. But clearly, when games become classics and last long into the October (in the example above, November) night, not everyone can watch.
I say postseason games, especially World Series games, should be started at 7 p.m. Eastern no matter the location. What if games are in Los Angeles, you say? So be it. Fans with World Series tickets will get there. People have radios. They have computers on which they can stream live updates or audio.
I don’t want to miss any part of a World Series game, but if I have to miss the first three innings so everyone can see the finish, then baseball has done well for its fans. It makes no sense to ensure everyone can see the beginning. I would argue that it is a much greater investment in the game’s future to ensure we all see the end.
Don’t get me wrong, there can be lots to enjoy about the first frames of a ballgame. However, they don’t hold a candle to the drama that unfolds in the seventh, eighth, ninth, and beyond.
What I’m suggesting will likely never happen. But I think, if baseball is serious about trying to keep fans interested, why not ensure every fan, even the casual one, gets to watch baseball’s most historic moments? Why not ensure we all watch together as unforgettable — even magical — moments play out before our eyes? The ones we talk about for decades and will live in the minds the next generation of fans for the rest of their lives?
That’s how you win, and keep, fans.
Spring Training has officially started, and I thought it would be a good time to take a break from the history of the game and talk about the future. Regardless of any differences of opinions between baseball executives, players, and fans, we can all agree on one thing.
Let’s Play Ball!
By: Steve B.