Like it or not, MLB is evolving in many ways. A hardcore group of baseball fans wants baseball to remain just the way it has for the last 130 years or more. They say that changes and analytics are ruining the game they grew up with. Therein lies the problem that MLB faces. The fan base is getting older and older and dying off, shrinking America’s summer pastime viewership. Over the last twenty-some years, baseball has gone from the most-watched sport to last behind football and basketball.
The simple answer to why this has happened is that the younger population finds baseball boring, slow, with too much dead time. Society has changed to a culture that wants immediate satisfaction, and they want it right now. Baseball is not satisfying those needs. This brings us to why baseball viewership and thus revenues are shrinking. The average TV baseball viewer is now 55 years old. Football and basketball viewers are at least ten years younger on average.
MLB wants to change this. Now that MLB has taken over control of the minor leagues, they have a new playground to experiment with what changes in the game can make it more engaging to younger viewers. In the past few years, they have implemented some rules to shorten game length with is one of the complaints most expressed by viewers. For the most part, those changes have had little effect on shortening games.
New and even more dramatic changes are on the way if MLB and the MLBPA (players union) have anything to say about it, and they do. MLB released some big rule changes for the minors this past Thursday. Some of the most dramatic experiments will be tried at different levels of affiliated clubs. Here is just a few: No more Andy Pettitte; the Pettitte move is now a balk. No more multiple pickoff attempts. No more tiny bases; we are going to make them huge. No more umpire; the strike zone is now computerized, umpires will be reduced to referees. I wonder if robots will throw out a player if he kicks dust in its face? No more infielders in the outfield. These are just a few of the changes that will be implemented in the minors this season.
We have to be reminded that these at just experiments, but if many or any are permanently put in place at the Major League level; it could dramatically change the game. A group of MLB executives, team owners, the players, and even ex-Cubs GM Theo Epstein have put their heads together to come with plans to make the game more viewable. Here is the goal:
• A game with more action, more balls in play, and less dead time.
• A game with better pace and rhythm.
• A game with more base stealing and more chances for world-class athletes to show off their athleticism in the field and on the bases.
• A game with less swinging and missing, fewer pitching changes, and less time between balls in play.
Let’s take a look at each one of these changes and how it could affect the game of baseball as we know it.
The Andy Pettitte move is dead in the water.
Andy Pettitte was one of the most successful pick off pitchers of his or any other time. Many felt that it bordered on a balk. Under the new rules, it will be a balk. It won’t be allowed in the High-A leagues, at least. This rule will require all pitchers to step off the rubber before throwing to first (or any) base. The penalty is (what else?) a balk, and runners get to advance a base.
No, no, no, you have already tried to pick off twice!
Nothing is any more annoying and interrupts the game’s rhythm than a pitcher throwing 8 consecutive pick-off attempts. It usually incites loud boos from fans in the stands. Well, no more, pitchers will be limited to two pick-off attempts. That is not to say the pitcher can’t try again, but he must get the player out if he does. If he doesn’t, it’s an automatic balk, and the player advances.
We are going to make the bases big, really big!
That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but even the small changes in base size could significantly impact how the game is played. Presently the bases are 15″x15″; the new size to be experimented with is 18″x18″. You may say that’s not that big a deal, but yes, it is. How many base stealers have you seen called out just inches from the plate. The base’s size will shorten the path by 4 1/2 inches, encouraging more base stealing and a more exciting game. For the New York Yankees Brett Gardner and Tyler Wade, this is a dream come true.
Move over, Ump; the robots are here!
Okay, they won’t look like a Roomba or the tin man from the Wizard of Oz, but they are coming in the form of a computerized strike zone. The biggest challenge will be making that strike zone look like what pitchers, players, and fans can agree it should look like. This change will not be in all minor league parks, but Baseball has experimented with the electronic strike zone in the Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League. But now, it will move to the minors and maybe later to the majors.
The low A Southeast League will employ the ABS (Automated Ball-Strike System) at most of its parks as baseball continues to explore the future feasibility of sending in the big leagues’ robots. When the Atlantic League used the rulebook strike zone in 2019, the robots called strikes on pitches that no single human in the park thought was a strike. That has to change for this system to work in the big leagues.
There are several problems to get ironed out before you will ever see a robot calling strike and balls at Yankee Stadium or any other MLB park. Robots read strikes differently than those nasty human umpires. It is presently questionable if an ump considers the player’s size as to where the strike zone is. There is a huge difference in the size of Jose Altuve and the Yankees Aaron Judge. How will a robot handle this?
Also, in the test, the previous version of the ABS was sweeping breaking balls called strikes but didn’t look like strikes to anyone but the robots; players were furious with truly unhittable balls. Some would say a robot can not replace the human eye, and they might be correct; only time will tell. As much as umpires are mostly held in low esteem, how do you take your aggression out on a computer program?
None of these experiments may make it to the majors, or maybe all of them over time will become part of the game. MLB is in a race to make the game shorter and more exciting to increase the fan base as basketball and football try to do the same. Huge stars like Mike Trout and the Yankee’s Aaron Judge bring out the fans, but a better game is even more important.
Besides these changes, sources say other changes are on the way as well.
• A 15-second pitch clock, down from 20 seconds at the upper levels of the minors. Pitchers have 15 seconds to begin their windup or come to a set position from the stretch. Otherwise, the umpire can call an automatic ball.
• The batter will be required to be “attentive” to the pitcher with 8 seconds left on the clock. Otherwise, it’s an automatic strike.
• There will now be a 30-second clock between batters in mid-inning, and the time between innings will shrink from 2 minutes, 15 seconds to exactly 2 minutes.
And these may not be the only changes being experimented with. the independent Atlantic League doesn’t start their season until May 27th, so there is still plenty of time to try out additional changes. You won’t see any of these changes in the majors, but if you visit your local minor league park to take in a game, you may see many of these changes first hand. But make no mistake, the successful ones will be showing up at Yankee Stadium and other MLB parks before you know it.