“The players are so much more focused on what’s always been the crown jewel of our union, which is free agency, and the way that’s kind of been taken away,” said a veteran player who is a free agent and who was granted anonymity because he did not want to hurt his chances in the market. “It’s something you once fought and strove for — you wanted to become a free agent desperately.”
A prominent agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, came close to accusing the owners of collusion on Friday, saying in a Twitter post that their inactivity in free agency “feels coordinated, rightly or wrongly.”
Van Wagenen also mentioned a “rising tide among players for radical change” and threatened a boycott of spring training.
With the current collective bargaining agreement stretching through the 2021 season, that seems highly unlikely. But in this environment, players see little need to cooperate with Manfred, despite clear evidence that games are getting slower.
The average time of a nine-inning game last season was 3 hours 5 minutes, the highest on record and nine minutes longer than in 2015. That was Manfred’s first year as commissioner, when he made pace-of-play a priority. But the players quickly learned that the league and the umpires were not really forcing them to stay in the box or deliver pitches at a brisker pace. The pace reverted to a crawl.
The biggest factor, though, is that players are increasingly incentivized to take more time. In the age of analytics, teams cultivate power hitters and power pitchers, and the amateur ranks churn out plenty every year. Strikeouts and homers reached record highs last season, and walks are rising again, too. That means more pitches, which means more relievers, which means more time.
The 2017 season included 1,196 more home runs, 1,756 more walks and 2,658 more strikeouts than the 2015 season. The number of pitches per nine-inning game rose from 283 to 292 in the same period. No wonder games were nine minutes longer.
“Guys are working the count; nobody’s trying to just put the ball in play. Everybody wants to lift and launch and hit home runs,” said Jim Kaat, the MLB Network analyst and former pitcher. “So home runs, walks and strikeouts kind of dominate the game, and that’s going to make for a more boring game in terms of action on the bases. It’s really a three-hour home run derby, in a lot of cases.”
Kaat pitched 25 seasons in the majors, through 1983, when teams averaged 2 hours 36 minutes to play nine innings. It was a different game in many ways. Kaat was among his generation’s best pitchers but averaged only 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings for his career. Last year, only one pitcher who made at least 25 starts, Andrew Cashner, averaged fewer. (Naturally, Cashner is an unsigned free agent.)
Between 1973 and 1980, Kaat started 11 nine-inning games that took no more than 1 hour 40 minutes. He had 31 strikeouts and 7 walks — total — in those 11 games.
“Our objective was to trust your stuff and make them put the ball in play,” Kaat said. “Now, you see fear of contact, deep counts, more pitches, and hitters diving into the ball and swinging at will.”
As a broadcaster, Kaat said, the best games don’t have to be the shortest. Last August, he called a 3-hour-36-minute thriller between Cleveland and Boston at Fenway Park. That game, a 12-10 Red Sox victory, featured 88 plate appearances and only 23 walks or strikeouts.
“That was packed with action,” Kaat said. “To me, it’s not so much time of game as it is the boredom of hitters stepping out of the box, which forces pitchers to take more time.”
To Kaat, though, the place to impose change is the minors, not the majors. Minor league games have featured pitch clocks since 2015, and those leagues can better enforce rules about staying in the batter’s box.
Manfred’s most recent proposal includes no changes in 2018 but mandatory pitch clocks for 2019 (18 seconds, with nobody on base) unless the average game time falls to 2 hours 55 minutes this season. He also wants to limit mound visits to six per game. Mound visits have increased significantly lately, partly because of fears of sign stealing; to counter that, calls from the video room to the dugout will be monitored and recorded this season to keep teams from electronically delivering opponents’ signs.
All along, Manfred has said he would rather not exercise his right to unilaterally impose on-field changes. But his hopes of having an ongoing dialogue with players never materialized beyond one meeting last summer, and now players have little interest in moving along the conversation.
For Manfred, the wisest course of action would be to let this all go, for now, rather than provoke further animosity from the players or their union. Yes, the players agreed to the current economic rules, which discourage some teams from fielding competitive rosters. But the players’ trust in the owners erodes with each day — each tedious, boring day — that passes without a free-agent signing.
And Kaat is right: The best way to do all this is to raise minor leaguers to pick up the pace and hope change comes in time. None of Manfred’s ideas will shake baseball from its current fixation on homers, strikeouts and walks, and that is why games drag.
Part of baseball’s charm is the way the style of play can shift, over time, on its own. It’s not a boring game, and it won’t be this way forever.