Baseball considers changes
Twins shortstop Royce Lewis digs in, and we’re ready for the 2028 season. The crowd is buzzing.
First pitch – fastball. Just missed the outside corner of the electronic strike zone. Ball one.
The Yankees are playing Lewis to pull. There was a time, years ago, when they could have shifted three infielders to the left of second base. That was before the rule change.
We’ll finish that story in a minute, as veteran Luis Severino works quickly. The pitch clock barely starts, and here’s the 1-0 pitch. Lewis smashes it up the middle, leadoff single …
Close your eyes, listen to the winds of change and imagine the difference between Major League Baseball now and how it could look in 10 years.
With games slogging along at three hours apiece, strikeouts soaring and batting averages tumbling to a 46-year low, the slow-to-change sport is ripe for some subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks.
“I’ve got people – you know, guys I play golf with and have lunch with – that are all avid fans,” former Twins pitcher Jim Kaat said. “They just say, ‘We might watch a few innings, but we can’t watch a whole game.’ ”
Kaat, an Emmy Award nominee as an analyst for MLB Network, is among the chorus of longtime baseball people who love the game but are concerned with the current version, especially the slow-moving pace.
Kaat is one of more than 30 people the Star Tribune recently interviewed across baseball, including Commissioner Rob Manfred, for insight into what changes could be coming over the next decade.
ELECTRONIC STRIKE ZONES
Last fall, Manfred said the technology wasn’t ready to hand ball-strike calls over to computers. At the time, the system MLB used to evaluate umpires had a reported 2-inch mar- gin of error. But this month, Manfred said the “accuracy and speed” of tracking pitches “has improved dramatically” this season.
“I’ve always said,” Manfred added, “that when those two areas – accuracy and speed – improve to the point where you can say this is better than a human being would do, there’s an important policy question that is going to have to be discussed.”
MLB already uses TrackMan’s 3D-radar system to record pitch type, location, velocity and spin rate. Once refined, that technology could determine balls and strikes, with the decision instantly relayed to the home plate umpire, who would still have authority over the game and call foul tips, catcher’s interference and make other rulings.
“The umpires are the best in the world at what they do,” Byrnes said. “But because we have this technology and information available to us, it’s irresponsible if we don’t use it.”
Jeff Nelson is in his 20th season as an MLB umpire and takes pride in his work calling balls and strikes. He’s not ready to hand those duties over to a computer.
The average nine-inning MLB game lasted a record 3 hours, 5 minutes last season. Owners contemplated a pitch clock, but after pushback from the players’ union, Manfred made other changes, limiting each team to six mound visits and shortening between-inning breaks.
So far, the average time of a nine-inning game this season is 2:59.
“There was a lot of resistance to limiting mound visits,” Manfred said. “The fact is there was not one single game that anybody can point to, where the limit on the number of mound visits played a significant role in what happened in the game.”
Tony Clark, executive director of the players union, cautioned against a pattern of “see a trend, change the rules.” But Clark said players remain willing to talk about how to move the sport forward.
The current collective bargaining agreement, which expires in December 2021, gives Manfred authority to unilaterally impose a pitch clock.
Baseball adopted a 20second pitch clock for the minor leagues at Class AA and AAA three years ago.
According to the website FanGraphs, there were 26,705 defensive shifts in MLB last season, up from 2,350 seven years earlier, with a shift defined as having at least three infielders to one side of second base.
That number will grow again this season, as teams are shifting on 17.4 percent of all plate appearances, up from 12.1 percent last year, according to the website BaseballSavant.
Morneau said he would insert a line behind second base, dictating that two infielders stay on each side of the line.
Arguing over balls and strikes would be a thing of the past if baseball implemented electronic strike zone.