This weekend it became known that the Major League Baseball competition committee has agreed to new rules that would change the strike zone and intentional walks. The moves are said to address the pace of play, a pace which MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said he's unhappy with.
I love baseball. I love the way it's played, it's little intricacies, the strategy, the statistics... pretty much everything about it. There isn't a baseball game that's too long for me. I hate leaving games early and I watch each one, on TV or in person, in detail. It's a hobby and a great interest and passion (even though I was awful as a player). With that said, I certainly am happy to acknowledge the need to speed the game up to try and bring in more fans and younger players. I feel there are definitely specific, productive, simple ways to make that happen, but the areas that the competition committee is currently focusing on are not the right ones.
Let's start with the strike zone. Raising the lower part of the strike zone is another way of saying "shrinking" the strike zone. The thought here is that more balls will be put in play, increasing the action in the game. I agree that it's fun to see action, hits, and guys running around the bases, but raising the bottom of the strike zone will also create more balls. Patient teams will benefit greatly from this change in that they'll be able to draw more walks, in theory. Many hitters will lay off borderline pitches at the bottom of the zone now, especially early in the count. Batters are looking for higher pitches that they can drive somewhere, so shrinking the zone has the potential to have an adverse effect if the goal is to shorten games.
Yes, there may be more action, which is obviously the goal, but time of game keeps getting thrown around, comparing how long games took then to how long they take now. If you're using that stat, I don't see this making that much of a difference. Consider this: yes, a smaller strike zone will probably mean more balls in play and more action, which is great. But also look for hits, runs, batting average, on-base percentage, and walks to increase after this change. These are professional hitters and this is increasing the likelihood of pitches being in their hot zones. Have you ever seen a baseball game with the final score of 10-8? It's not usually that quick. If the goal is more action, fine, but stop talking about games being a whole 6-8 minutes longer now than they used to be, because this change isn't going to help that, in my opinion.
Now let's address the intentional walk. The proposed change would allow a team to indicate it wants to intentionally walk a batter, at which point the batter would be awarded first base without any pitches being thrown. I HATE this. Why? Because it totally erases an element from the game. What if there's a runner on base and the pitcher uncorks a wild pitch, allowing him to move from second base to third base? What if he gets too careless with the intentional ball, leaves it too close to the plate, and a heads-up batter swings and laces it into the outfield (Miguel Cabrera did this several years ago)? Do these events happen often? No, but the possibility is there, which is enough to make them throw the pitches. Have you ever seen how a pitcher's body language and mannerisms can change when there's a runner on third base? There's more pressure because he knows that a wild pitch will probably lead to a run, and you can bet that's in the back of his mind during an intentional walk and a guy on third. Why take that away?
So how can the game be sped up? Simple. Have enforced pitch clocks and limit the amount of times batters can step out of the box. Don't grant as many timeouts when the pitcher appears to be starting his motion. Managers and pitching coaches are timed this year for visits to the mound, which is also a good start. Shorten the time between innings to two minutes.
Also of note, a lot of people still like baseball and a lot of people still go to games. According to Forbes Magazine, 2015 attendance at Major League Baseball games reached nearly 73.8 million people for the season, good enough for the seventh-highest all-time rank in terms of MLB total attendance. TV ratings also saw a positive swing last season, both nationally and locally, according to Sports Business Daily. FOX, ESPN, and MLB Network each saw increases from 2014 last season, while 17 of the 30 teams saw increases in ratings on their regional sports networks from the previous year. MLB Network had its most-watched regular season ever in 2015, though FOX and ESPN still fell short of their high numbers from the middle to late part of last decade.
Small changes can help, but let's be careful not to mess too much with a good thing. There's nothing like an intense battle late in a game between a pitcher and hitter. Trying to get a pitcher or a batter out of his rhythm is part of the game. When the committee and commissioner decide to make adjustments, I hope it won't take away from the greatness of the game.