Pace of play has been one of the chief initiatives for MLB commissioner Rob Manfred since he succeeded Bud Selig, with a pitch clock among the potential rules changes most frequently discussed in recent months. Today, both Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription required/recommended) and Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com are reporting that the Major League Baseball Players Association is expected to reject Manfred’s latest pace-of-play proposal, but that Manfred will likely exercise his power to unilaterally implement the new measure despite a failure to reach agreement with the union.
In a follow-up (Twitter links), Rosenthal says the union has in fact “formally rejected” the league’s proposal, but that Manfred will meet with MLBPA chief Tony Clark next week to negotiate further. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports has obtained the memorandum on the subject issued by the commissioner’s office. He details the league’s intentions — including timing rules for pitchers and hitters along with limitations on mound visits — as well as the compromise provisions that had been floated (and could, perhaps, still be discussed).
The reports indicate that a variety of pacing measures will go into effect in 2018, with a 20-second pitch clock perhaps the most visible and notable among them. Pitch clocks aren’t exactly new, as MLB has been experimenting with their use in the minor leagues by way of a 22-second pitch clock. If it does go into effect as the reports suggest, the rule would charge pitchers with a ball if they take more than 20 seconds between pitches (after one warning per game). Hitters, meanwhile, would be required to adhere to a 30-second timer between batters; after a warning (one per game), they would presumably be charged with a strike. Another set of rules would provide that a second mound visit to a given pitcher in the same inning must result in his removal from the game. In addition, future efforts would control the amount of time between innings and the number and length of pitching warm-ups, though that does not appear to be on the docket for the upcoming season.
Understandably, players aren’t particularly excited by the notion of feeling rushed or of rules impacting the count and, perhaps, the outcome of a given plate appearance. Indeed, one player involved in the negotiations tells Rosenthal that he’s never seen players so unified against an issue. Both Rosenthal and Crasnick suggest that the players feel pace of play can be enhanced by making improvements to the instant replay system and more closely monitoring down time between innings — neither of which would require a clock that would limit them on the field. The sentiment appears to be the exact opposite among MLB owners, as Rosenthal reports that they’re “strongly in favor” of the pace-of-play initiatives that the commissioner’s office is pursuing.
Disagreement over pace-of-play efforts won’t do any favors for labor relations. Though the league and union only recently struck a new, five-year collective bargaining agreement, there already appears to be a growing sense of unrest as players and agents alike look for explanations for an unfathomably slow free-agent market (at least for players other than relievers).
Of course, just what has led to the plodding (a perhaps generous choice of adjective) pace of the free-agent market isn’t entirely clear. Theories abound, ranging from the extent of penalization under the luxury tax, to a plethora of Scott Boras clients holding up the market, to a more general sense of groupthink among like-minded general managers that all value players in similar fashion. Some have speculated about the possibility of collusion, though the league has, to no surprise, steadfastly denied and dismissed the very notion — even going so far as to obliquely, and somewhat bizarrely, place the blame on Boras in a statement to Yahoo’s Jeff Passan. (We discussed the situation at length here.)
The proposed pace-of-play changes would hardly be the first significant alterations to the fabric of the game in recent years. The implementation of instant replay itself was and still is a rather polarizing topic, while MLB has also instituted rules to protect middle infielders from injury when turning double plays and to protect catchers at home plate in situations that would previously have resulted in violent collisions. More recently, MLB has eliminated the process of lobbing four pitches outside the strike zone on intentional walks, instead allowing managers to grant a free pass by making a signal to the umpires, and mandated that batters remain in the batter’s box between pitches.
Changes to the game are often met with resistance from fans and players alike. Rosenthal, however, notes that Manfred cites focus groups and surveys in emphasizing that younger fans are “alienated” by the game’s slow pace. That notion may well be true, though there are some counterpoints to his argument. It’s fair to wonder whether trimming a few seconds off the time between pitches and/or a few minutes off the average game would really impact interest levels enough to matter. Moreover, the implementation of additional change creates the risk of turning away dedicated fans who worry that alterations may unduly alter the nature of the game.
Clearly, Manfred and his charges feel that the possibility of converting younger patrons is worth the effort despite backlash from current fans and MLB players. As Rosenthal notes, however, the players’ decision to reject the proposal would grant them absolution in the event that the new rules flop or are received even more poorly among fans than expected — which could put them in a stronger position when negotiating rule changes in future offseasons.