April 22, 2019

Calling the Commissioner’s Office

Two realistic suggestions to improve Major League Baseball.

It’s no secret that baseball is struggling to take hold of a very competitive sports market. Compared to the other major sports leagues, the age of the average MLB fan is approaching retirement. Unlike the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League, Major League Baseball still hasn’t found a way to captivate Millennials and Gen Z’ers. Despite the commissioner’s office enacting a long list of proposals, it doesn’t seem like there is an easy way to address the aging of the fanbase, despite more people playing baseball than ever before.

 As discussed in a previous article, the NBA has done a superb job implanting itself at the centre of popular culture; the ‘ball is life’ motto in now culturally ingrained in our society’s sports, music, fashion, and entertainment. So, what can the MLB do to rejuvenate its fanbase, and is the pace of play the only problem?

 Let’s start with the reason people watch their team: they want them to win. It’s not an industry secret that fans are more likely to cheer on their team if they’re fighting for the playoffs. Of the Big 4 leagues in North America, Major League Baseball provides the fewest playoff spots. Up until 2012, there were only 8 combined spots among the American League and the National League; 1 for each division (East, Central, West) and 1 Wildcard. In the 2012 season, the commissioner’s office adopted a 2nd Wildcard, upping the total playoff teams to 10. This means only a third of the teams make it to the playoffs. Strictly probabilistically, your favourite baseball team has a worse chance to make it into the playoffs than your favourite hockey, basketball, and football teams. Currently, 16 of 31 (51.6%) teams reach the playoffs in the NHL; 16/30 (53.3%) in the NBA; and 12/32 (37.5%) in the NFL. 

Being a baseball fan is hard as it is but knowing that your team can be in the middle of the pack and still not make it into the playoffs is heartbreaking. And yes, I know that the final few weeks of baseball are exciting as teams fight for the last remaining Wildcard spots, but that would still exist with a format expansion. Even though baseball added the 2nd Wildcard, the MLB playoffs also need adjusting. Instead of restructuring the format to give the best teams a bye, baseball decided to create a winner-takes-all game between the 2 Wildcard teams. In other words, a glorified 163rd regular season game. This means that a team can play non-stop from April to September, qualify for the postseason and still be eliminated in one game. Now, this works for the NFL due to their 16-game schedule, but baseball uses a 5-game series for divisional rounds and best-of-7s for championship rounds. The current iteration of the 2nd Wildcard doesn’t do much for fanbases, instead, it might cause more dissatisfaction (see: Orioles Wildcard loss 2016). So, giving more teams the opportunity to compete in the postseason, and ensuring playoff consistency are sure-fire ways to regain popularity in baseball.

Yes, the 1998 Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine Nike commercial was right, “Chicks dig the long ball. The emphatic love for home runs has been an allure for baseball fans for years. But just as power hitting has remained a cornerstone of the sport, baserunning has slowly declined over the last several seasons. 

In the two decades between 1980 and 1999, there was an average of 3,132 stolen bases per season in the MLB. Alternatively, between 2000 and 2017 there were only 2,803 stolen bases per year. While it’s true that history’s stolen base leader, Rickey Henderson, was a menace in the 80s and 90s, it’s also true that there were 4 fewer teams until the middle of the 1990s. The 200 more steals in the late 20th century barely included the Miami Marlins and Colorado Rockies who joined in 1993, and the Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks who didn’t join until 1998. 

Speed is exciting and keeps the game interesting between key plays. The less steals the league has, the less time the ball is in play. Without no base running threat, the pitcher and catcher repeatedly work in a repetitive, monotonous routine subject to the exclusion of a hitter barreling a pitch (which is also at risk as the strikeout rate continues to climb to record rates). Stolen bases challenge the pitcher-catcher consistency causing the catcher to make a sporadic throw in the attempt to get the runner out. This would also open up the opportunity for more errors, more men on base, and more runs. 

An SB on the stat sheet isn’t the only reason more base running would benefit the league. With more acceptance to running the bases, managers have more options to manufacture runs using double steals, hit-and-runs, and safety squeezes. More stealing may also decrease the number of dreaded shifts while simultaneously increasing hitters’ averages. Infielders would be forced to play traditional defences allowing pull hitters to hit the holes on the diamond. 

But how would the league promote stealing? The answer is simple: protect base runners. Pickoff attempts are a great way for the pitcher to keep a runner honest and close to the bag, but when there’s a belief that the runner is thinking of stealing, the pitcher might throw over multiple times during an inning. Not only are multiple pickoff attempts boring for fans, but they are also largely time-consuming. Setting a limit on the amount of times a pitcher can throw over in a row can help promote base running while speeding up the game. 

For example, if no more than 2 pickoffs are allowed in a row, runners can gain a larger lead off the bag knowing they won’t have to dive back in for the third time. Not only would this rule increase the pressure on pitchers and catchers, but it would also force the defence to play closer to the bases creating larger holes for the hitter. 

While the MLB continues to toy with ideas of ‘fixing’ the game, changing the playoff format and promoting more base stealing can provide positive results for the sport. Without radically changing the game of baseball, adopting some form of these two amendments would accomplish many of the MLB’s desired goals.

New Playoff Format:

  • Get a larger fan following (√) 
  • Tighter playoff races (√)
  • More fans at the ballpark (√)

Protecting Base Runners:

  • Speed up the game (√)
  • Increase runs, averages (√)
  • Decrease shifts (√)

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