Manfred offers no relief for baseball’s time problem


Alan TruexSometimes I get the sense Rob Manfred has not been a baseball fan for most of his 57 years. He tosses out his ideas of what baseball should be, and it’s like Donald Trump speaking about Hispanic culture. It’s as if Manfred has limited interest in baseball, no sense of its rhythm and drama, or what the whole thing is all about.

I’m not saying he should write poems about baseball, as a previous commissioner, Bart Giamatti, did. But I would like to see something less inane than his latest proposal to shorten games to under three hours.

On ESPN’s Mike and Mike, Manfred said he and his staff are considering limiting the number of pitching changes a team can make. He doesn’t like the way relief pitching is turning the game upside-down. MLB starters this season have a composite 4.36 ERA, relievers 3.93.

“The pitching changes themselves slow the game down,” Manfred said, “and our relief pitchers have become so dominant at the back end that they actually rob action out of the end of the game . . .”

But his idea, to reduce the number of pitching changes, would make the problem worse. There’s nothing more boring than a relief pitcher who’s reached his point of fatigue, can’t throw quality strikes, can’t get batters out.

So we need the Manfred Rule to keep him in the game? Isn’t this more like medieval torture than baseball?

For the seamhead who’s pondering the bullpen maneuvering the same as the manager is, Manfred is threatening a beloved dramatic element of the sport. The unique beauty of baseball is its transparency, the strategy being out there, fairly complex but easy to see and second-guess, the left-right matchups, playing for the strikeout or the double-play or the forceout.

I doubt Manfred gets caught up in the chess game; he’s looking at his watch trying to project when the last out will be recorded.

Manfred entered the CEO’s office sort of by the back door. He was a labor lawyer, and when MLB was desperately searching for some during its poorly advised 1994-95 labor war, Manfred stepped up. Those of us who covered that ill-fated war against the union were impressed with his candor, diplomacy and energy. He more than anyone was the architect of the labor peace that’s the best part of Bud Selig’s legacy.

But Manfred needs to be careful about changing the dynamics of the sport before he’s thought out the consequences. I see the rising bullpens giving us more competitive games, a more entertaining product than we’ve ever had before. I’m still seeing lots of home runs, many of the walkoff variety, which happen when games are close in the late innings, both teams pitching well.

Thanks to the abundance of capable relievers, along with improving analytics that facilitate favorable matchups, the sport has more competitive balance than ever before. The small-market, small-budget Kansas City Royals showed you can win the World Series with mediocre starting pitching and shutdown relief that doesn’t cost too much.

It used to be that batters obsessed over extending the pitch count to tire out starting pitchers so they could “get into their bullpen.”   Not so true anymore.

The Commish is right, however, to lament the trend of pitching over hitting, which is the natural evolution of this otherwise wonderful game. Pitchers improvise, endlessly reinventing their craft with new pitches and windups and deliveries or variations of them.

There aren’t that many ways to hit a baseball.

To be National Pastime in America, as baseball once was and football is now, you need frequent scoring. Hockey with its procession of 2-1, 3-2 games and soccer with all its nils will never be the rage here that these sports are in other countries.

But baseball’s rules are flexible enough to increase scoring without compromising the principles and traditions that are valuable to many of its fans.

After the ridiculous Year of the Zero in 1968, when mediocre pitchers were barely hittable and the sleazebag Denny McLain won 31 games, Major League Baseball lowered the mounds, and everything went back to normal.

Of course, if you drop the mounds a couple of inches there will be more scoring but also more minutes in the game. Here again, there are ways to correct the problem without tampering with the essentials of the product.

You want a faster game?

Use a golf cart to bring the pitcher from the bullpen.

Enforce the rules you already have pertaining to batters stepping out of the box and pitchers stepping off the rubber slab or taking too many seconds between pitches.

Speed up the television replay process.

Reduce the barrage of commercials between innings.

But don’t blow up the bullpens. They’re doing their job, and the game is better for it.

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