Where the @#$% is Everyone? Part I: Rule Changes, a Gross Miscalculation
Can you smell it? Piss and peanuts…? Wait, I forgot the Metrodome was demolished a decade ago. I meant the glorious aroma of hotdogs, peanuts, and fresh cut grass, which will soon will fill the air and bring the 2023 MLB season with it. However, this season is unique in that it comes with a set of impactful new rules. As a quick overview for the unaware, bases are getting 3 inches larger, a pitch clock will be enforced, and defensive shifting will be limited. As I looked at the details of these game changing, era defining, fix-all rule changes, it would have been easy to sit back and say to myself, well at least they are trying to speed up the game and make it more ‘exiting.’ Instead, I will say that MLB has completely missed the mark on why people aren’t attending or watching the games, and these rule changes make it all the more obvious. This is the clearest to me in their attempt to shorten the length of games with the addition of the pitch clock and limiting of pickoff attempts.
Rhythm, timing, and mental warfare are a few of the major components that make baseball the amazing sport that it is. Limiting a pitcher to 20 seconds between pitches and only allowing two pick off attempts should be a criminal offense. Whoever thought that was a good idea should be in prison. Not only is the 20 second limit going to basically force a pitcher to give one look at the runner and then either come home or throw over, the two-pick policy will allow the runner to get an INSANE jump on the next pitch. A pitcher needs to be able to vary his timing and throw over. The bigger bases are already allowing the runner to be four and a half inches closer, which is significant if you think about how close a lot of stolen base attempts are. Combining bigger bases with the addition of the pitch clock and pick off limit is going to make it almost impossible for a pitcher to control the running game. We will see a dramatic drop off in catcher’s throw out percentages, which will have even the likes of Yadier Molina in his prime shaking his head.
Next up is the limiting of defensive shifts. Learn to hit the ball where they ain’t, that’s all I have to say about that. However, I would be more than happy to hop on one foot with the other firmly placed in my mouth if Joey Gallo and Max Kepler become .300 hitters because of this.
The fact that MLB is trying to promote offense and shorten the game through a series of absurd rule changes tells me they have grossly miscalculated why people don’t watch baseball. That, or I am completely wrong on this issue. For the sake of going down a rabbit’s hole on the latter, I will stick to the assumption that it’s the former. The reason people aren’t watching baseball is NOT because the games are too long. MLB games averaged three hours and five minutes in 2022. The NFL, America’s most popular sport, averaged three hours and twelve minutes. In addition, according to a study from the Wall Street Journal, albeit from 2013, the amount of actual game action in an NFL and MLB game was 11 and 18 minutes respectively. That data was collected a while ago, but the idea that stems from it holds true. Both sports have significant down time between action, and I would argue that the downtime is far more interesting in baseball. In football they just huddle up and call a play. In baseball that time between pitches IS action. The mind games happening between the runners, pitchers and hitters are crucial to the outcome of the next pitch. That ‘down-time’ is part of what makes the game so rich and unique when compared to other sports. Where the NFL succeeds and MLB fails, is their ability to market and highlight the sport so fans actually want to sit down for three hours for a few precious minutes of action. MLB needs to find a way to get people to understand the game, not dumb it down.
The real issues plaguing baseball’s popularity are not being addressed (see part II), and these ridiculous rule changes not only do nothing to solve the problem, but end up diluting what makes the game of baseball truly great to begin with. The more MLB doubles down on trying to speed up the game as a solution, the quicker the game will lose people’s interest, and attendance will continue to drop as it has each year since 2012. Do we want to play baseball or do we want to play dumb and fast? I believe the two to be mutually exclusive.