I don’t envy the task that MLB has. I also don’t trust that anyone in charge of it has any sense of the challenge, but that’s another topic for another time. Baseball’s charm will always be rooted in its history and simply the amount of time it has been part of American culture. While pro football may have been around for a century, it’s really only been part of the consciousness for 50-60 years. The NBA…maybe only 40. Fifty at most. But baseball has been twice that. There quite simply isn’t a modern American era without baseball.
So for MLB to ignore that would be silly. It’s what makes it unique. In that sense, baseball may never be “cool,” no matter how hard it tries. I don’t think it needs to be to remain popular, but threading the needle of not being cool and yet remaining popular is tricky. Certainly beyond me.
But there’s a difference between embracing your history and longevity and trying to fistfuck your game back into looking like its history. That’s putting it heavily, too much so, but that’s what it feels like MLB’s rules changes are meant to do instead of addressing the problems for the game.
That doesn’t mean some of these changes won’t be welcomed or can’t improve the game. The bigger bases don’t seemingly have any downsides and could help, improving the chances of stolen bases or taking an extra base on a hit, or preventing injury. No worries there.
The pitch clock will have benefits, too. Pitchers and hitters taking 40 seconds to basically stand there or adjust batting gloves doesn’t really serve anyone, except the amount of action anyone running for a beer or a piss might miss. Cutting that in more than half will almost certainly be a benefit to fans. And it might have the side effect of lowering velocity and spin, which are the real problems for baseball’s action deficiency.
Still, it follows as yet another offensive in Rob Manfred’s war on the length of the game, which has seemingly been his only quest other than monetizing every aspect and making sure everyone thinks of him as “Asshole Smurf.” The rule of relievers having to face three hitters except if they end an inning is rendered merely for aesthetics because of the second part of that rule. If it were truly about changing strategy or players’ skills, they would always have to face three batters no matter what, or they’d always have to end an inning. It was just about removing pitching changes mid-inning to speed games up.
Which is fine, because baseball games are probably too long (three-plus hours). But you know what really makes games long, especially in the playoffs? The ad breaks between innings. There’s no logical reason that between innings breaks couldn’t be completed in 90 seconds or less if we so wanted, except there’s ad space there that can be sold.
There’s been this urge to get games back to lengths of the 70s or 80s, but that’s not coming back because A) of said ad breaks and B) the way at-bats are constructed now. Even with a pitch clock, it’s not likely most ABs are going to be just one or two or three pitches again (though perhaps a drop in velocity in spin could make that happen). Strikeouts may drop, but they’ll never get to those levels again.
The changing of shifts (it’s not really a ban because teams will still have a shortstop or second baseman right up against the base instead of on the other side of it) is almost certainly about aesthetics at the top. There isn’t much evidence that restricting shifts actually causes more hits and certainly won’t affect the number of balls in play. And even if it did, it would only reward the type of approach that got us into this action vacuum the game finds itself in currently, i.e. the lift and pull leanings of most hitters that lead to more Ks and walks.
But what seems to gall those who run the game, at least to the point that they changed the rules, is that the natural reaction to the part of the game they’ve watched for 30, 40, or 50 years no longer applies. It’s seeing a left-handed hitter smack a line drive to the right side of the field that clearly is going over the second baseman’s head. Or the sharp grounder up the middle. In our minds, as soon as we see that contact, our brain reacts “hit!” Or, it did, and with that the elation of seeing your team succeed or the deflation of your opponent doing so.
Except it doesn’t end that way all the time anymore. Sometimes, there’s someone standing there to catch/field that ball that for so long we just knew meant “base hit.” And possibly “run” and “win.” Even now, you can feel the gears stop or the wires spark as something in our natural baseball-watching instincts still can’t quite compute. Or maybe you’ve gotten used to it, and you know how it ends now and your viewing experience has adjusted. That took time, and it seems like the time that those who run the game don’t want to take or don’t think any fan is capable of.
And that’s what this restriction or limiting of shifts is meant to address. To make things that looked like a hit for so long look like a hit again, not to actually produce more of them. But any sport’s aesthetics, its playing aesthetics, change over time. A slapshot from above the circle in hockey used to mean a prime scoring chance. Now you might see a shooter beat a goalie clean with no screen from more than 40 feet a handful of times per season. A three-pointer on the break in basketball used to mean running circuits next practice until you puked. Not so much anymore. That’s just a natural evolution, and through strategy and improvement in the athleticism of the actual athletes.
Baseball still has plenty that harkens back to its history and roots. The parks still look unique to any other sport. The uniforms are still an homage, and hell, the Tigers, Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Pirates, and Reds basically still wear home uniforms that look like they always have. The general play still looks the same, it’s just the nuances within.
It’s a tough balance to know what in the game will always look the same and what’s never going back. But baseball will never get the whole thing back to a previous time, nor should it. The players are too good and those running those players know too much. Fans will always adjust, and no one’s turned off baseball because a grounder up the middle isn’t always a hit now. And fuck, the fans who can’t adjust to that fact are going to be dead soon enough (I’m tryin’!). In the macro view, baseball will always kind of look like it always has. The micro can’t go back.