More Steals, No Shifts and Robot Umps: ‘Our Fans Want the Action’

More Steals, No Shifts and Robot Umps: ‘Our Fans Want the Action’

March 20, 2021

Major League Baseball, it must be said, remains wildly popular. It has by far the longest schedule of any major sport — 162 games per season — yet averaged more than 28,000 fans per game in 2019, more than every other season between 1876 and 1993.

But attendance dropped in each of the four seasons before the pandemic, and in teams’ quest for power and efficiency, the game may have lost some of its soul. Even Francisco Lindor, the Mets’ effervescent 27-year-old shortstop, yearns for a more complete version of the sport he loves.

“Back in the day, guys were stealing bases, hitting home runs, making good plays,” he said one day this spring training. “Pitchers were going eight, nine innings, and the relievers were closing like Mariano Rivera. It was just, over all, a better-played game, more rounded. I still think this generation is really good, but right now it seems like it’s a home run, a strikeout or maybe a double.”

The league office has noticed. Before 2016, major league teams had never averaged eight strikeouts per game. Now they’ve done it five seasons in a row. The two highest home run rates in history have come in the last two years. Stolen bases haven’t been as rare in almost five decades, and in 2019 — the last full season — games averaged a record 3 hours 10 minutes.

Yet the best brand of baseball might still be within reach. The league cannot impose new rules in the majors without consent from the players’ union, but the revamped minor leagues (now under M.L.B.’s control) offer a laboratory for experimentation. This season, each level will feature a new rule designed to encourage action and limit dead time:

In Class AAA, the size of first, second and third base will increase to 18 inches square, from 15.

In Class AA, at least four defensive players must be positioned on the infield, each with both feet completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt. In the second half, M.L.B. may require two infielders to be positioned entirely on each side of second base.

In high-Class A, pitchers must step off the rubber before attempting a pickoff throw, and in both low-Class A leagues, pitchers will be limited to two step-offs, with a third resulting in an out or a balk.

In the low-Class A Southeast League, umpires will use an automated ball-strike system (A.B.S.) to call pitches.

In the low-Class A Southwest League, on-field timers will enforce the time between pitches, innings and during pitching changes.

The men behind the changes are Morgan Sword, M.L.B.’s executive vice president for baseball operations; the former All-Star outfielder Raul Ibanez; and the former general managers Michael Hill and Theo Epstein. Ibanez and Hill are senior vice presidents for M.L.B., and Epstein is a consultant.

Sword, Ibanez and Hill recently discussed the rationale for the experiments in a roundtable-style Zoom interview with The New York Times.

You spoke with executives, players and fans about what they view as the most exciting and engaging form of baseball. How did that feedback inform these changes?

Sword: There was actually a surprising amount of consensus in answer to that question: people in all parts of this game want more action, they want games to be shorter, they want more defense, base running, stolen base attempts and generally a quicker pace. We have, in part due to the minor league restructuring, much broader rights to test this stuff this year. We hope we’re not being too disruptive to clubs’ goal of preparing players for the major leagues, but in aggregate at the end of the year we’re going to have an enormous set of data and experiences with a whole bunch of new things that push us in that direction.

Raul, from the players’ standpoint, what are the biggest concerns you hear, and what’s important to them as you go down this path?

Ibanez: Early on, there’s always a little bit of reluctance to accept change, for a moment. But I feel like this generation of players, the guys I talk to now, are really much more open to a lot of the rule changes and the ideas behind them. Ultimately, the players want the game to move faster, too. I can tell you, as a player, that when Cliff Lee was on the mound and you’re facing Jarrod Washburn in a day game and it’s an hour and 53 minutes, a 2-1 game where you get three at-bats, everyone goes home happy.

There are a lot of new ideas and theories at work here. What do you think will be the most noticeable difference in practice?

Hill: If you look at the defensive positioning and how big a part of our game it has become, with all the analytics, I think that’s going to be an adjustment. But offensively, speaking as a former hitter — although I wasn’t very good and they didn’t have the shift when I played — you’re just trying to create more action and put more balls in play. You’re opening up the field; without that guy in short right field anymore, you can hit a line drive there and know that you’ve got a hit. I think that’s something that will definitely be positively embraced.

Ibanez: I agree with you, Mike. There’s nothing more frustrating, as a left-handed hitter, than hitting a 200-foot one-hopper to shallow right field and getting thrown out by two steps. And it actually causes you to change your behavior. I can tell you that toward the end of my career I started hitting into the shift, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to pull the ball in the air then and try to hit the ball in the seats.’ My swing-and-miss rate probably went up, but my home runs per at-bat also went up. So taking the depth out of it, forcing guys to play on the dirt, I’m really excited to see what that is like.

(Ibanez pivoted to the issue of new bases, citing a play in the 2018 National League Championship Series in which Milwaukee first baseman Jesus Aguilar was clipped in the heel as the Dodgers’ Manny Machado crossed the bag. The Class AAA bases will have a different texture to reduce the chances of a player’s foot slipping, and Ibanez mentioned another possible safety benefit.)

Ibanez: Historically, guys who were first basemen put their foot on the side of the bag; they extend their range and work to their backhand side. Now, if you go back and look at the Aguilar play — you see a lot more of this today than ever before, guys with their back heel up instead of getting on the side of the bag. And I strongly believe it’s because of the way lineups are structured today: you’ve got to get your best bats in the lineup for that matchup, so you see a lot of guys playing first base that didn’t come up as first basemen.

Hill: We used to always say that anybody can play first base. (laughs) But that’s a great point — you try to cycle guys through first base, and a lot of times you’re teaching it to them in early work and running them right out there for the game. The bigger base definitely gives them more room to work and prevent injury. The other part is the increased stolen bases. The pickoff attempts, as well as the larger bases, will be very interesting to track. Because as a G.M., I loved athletes — I loved trading for them, drafting them, developing them, because I felt like they could do more on the field. I think a lot of these measures should reward those types of players.

In high-Class A, not only will pitchers have to step off the rubber before making a pickoff throw, they will also be limited to two pickoff attempts per plate appearance. What’s the idea behind that?

Sword: This is really brand new. We’ve never tested it at any level. But the idea is to encourage aggressiveness on the bases. So if you’re a runner and you draw a throw over or a step-off, you’ve actually accomplished something. You’ve gotten the pitcher to use one of his bullets. So maybe you’re an extra step out and that makes you more likely to steal and more likely to get picked off — it makes an exciting play more likely. It also takes away what fans tell us is one of the things they like least about baseball, which is pickoff attempts. It’s one of the only things in sports where the home fans boo when it’s going on.

Can’t a runner just take a huge lead after two pickoff tries?

Sword: Well, you can still attempt to pick him off the third time, so if he’s too far off and you get him, he’s out. (If not, it’s a balk.) But an important point is now, as a pitcher, your approach to the hitter changes a little bit, right? You don’t want to get into that territory where you’ve used two pickoffs, so you’re more likely to try to get contact early in the plate appearance, make something happen — the way I understand they used to teach pitching — to kind of keep the game moving. And the other thing, just as a statistical matter: three pickoff attempts in a plate appearance is pretty rare. It really is reserved for the very small handful of players who are a stolen-base threat every time they’re on base, or it’s a time-wasting tactic to warm up another pitcher.

There seem to be many more pitchers with nasty stuff than there were a generation ago; they’re trained to keep hitters from making contact. Pitching is not going to get worse, so how do you counteract that?

Ibanez: It used to be, ‘Let’s get the starter out and get into their pen,’ and I don’t hear people saying that anymore, because the power arms coming out of the pen are great arms. But I think if you incentivize the batter and incentivize the base runner, which we’re attempting to do, it’ll influence player behavior. So if more contact equals better results — from a player standpoint, there is no benefit to hitting a ground ball in today’s game. Now, if you put everybody back on the dirt, let’s see what happens. You can hit a 95- or 100-mile-an-hour ground ball, and there’s an opportunity to get a base hit out of it. So while I do think the arms are better than ever, I also think big-league hitters are better than ever, and there’s an opportunity to influence behavior based off of the rule changes. Major league hitters are really good at adjusting and adapting.

Sword: If you look at our overall strikeout rate in baseball with nobody on, then you look at our strikeout rate with a man on third and less than two out — a situation when striking out is really harmful — the strikeout rate dips pretty significantly, like two or three points. To me that’s evidence, to Raul’s point, that some of this is behavior; the hitter’s actually making a choice to trade off swing-and-miss for power. But when put in a situation when he needs to make contact, he actually does have some ability to make more contact. So putting this all together, if you create the right environment where contact is more valuable, you hopefully will see fewer strikeouts. It’s all academic until you put it in the game, but I think the theory is sound.

(It’s no coincidence that the automatic ball-strike system will be used at the low Class-A level, because that innovation is probably the furthest from being implemented in the majors. “When you’re fundamentally changing something about baseball that’s been one way for 150 years, we need to be 100 percent sure that we’re ready for it from a technological perspective and we’ve addressed all the policy issues,” Sword said.)

As a former hitter, Raul, would you have wanted the so-called robot umps?

Ibanez: I don’t know, because it wasn’t really out there — but it’s really impressive technology. The players that I’ve spoken to, mostly hitters, are really intrigued and interested in it. Getting to a true rule book strike zone is something they find exciting; that’s the feedback that we’re getting. We’re talking constantly to players and really listening to what they’re saying.

Does the rule book strike zone itself have to change, though? Because usually the official strike zone is different from the way umpires call it.

Hill: The official rule book strike zone is a rectangle, but when you look at all of the data on how strikes are called, it’s more rounded. On the club side, every game you’ve got the heat map for that umpire — ‘He’s got a hot zone high and away, so that’s what we’re going to hammer’ — and you game plan to that heat map. With A.B.S., it’s a true strike zone, it’s how we design it from the feedback that we get from our players and staff, and they’ve all been incredibly supportive of it. The catcher has to adjust a little bit because they’re accustomed to framing up and stealing strikes, and with A.B.S., it’s a ball or a strike. It’s not who’s the best framer, who can steal pitches. It’s about what’s a true strike zone. We showed it to a pretty veteran group of players in the Cardinals’ camp, and they loved it. They were like: ‘All we want is to know what the strike zone is. If we can game plan every day and know that this is the strike zone, that’s what we’ll do.’ It was really interesting to hear, especially from some really good hitters: it would be good to know that you have a true strike zone every day and it’s not changing based on who may be behind home plate.

The goal of all this is to make the game more appealing. So how does each of you want baseball to look in the future compared to how it looks today?

Ibanez: First and foremost, I want to preface what I have to say with this: I love baseball. No matter what happens in this game, I’m going to watch. But I think more balls in play, more action, more excitement, more athleticism. That would be my goal, my vision: really connecting with the younger fans, getting them to watch the game and really talking about baseball. I think it’s the greatest game in the world, and we just want to keep it that way.

Hill: We want the game to be better 50 years from now, so we want to keep moving it forward, keep growing our fans, the young people. And we need a faster game. We need more excitement, more energy, bringing in the athletes and making athletes more a part of the game. That’s what attracted me to baseball and that’s what’s so awesome about what we’re doing. This isn’t a club agenda. This is what’s best for our game for generations.

Sword: The one thing I would add is, any great game has in it the ability to employ different strategies to win — different types of players can be successful, different types of teams can be successful. Baseball used to be, and has been historically, the best example for that in sports, in my view. And I think as we, as a group, get so smart about how to play this game, we’re narrowing in a little bit on one type of way to win. We need to try to democratize the strategies a little bit and push people to create different types of teams and different types of players. That’s more interesting, more engaging and more challenging than if there’s only one way to do it.

Ibanez: Our fans want the action, and the field staff and players that we talk to, they want the action, too. So I think it’s a win-win for everybody. The last thing I want to toss in here is I think that we have some of the greatest athletes in the world. Baseball players can do so many things — field, throw, hit, run; pitchers have to deliver a perfect pitch from 60 feet, six inches away — and a lot of the rule changes and ideas are helping unleash what’s on the field. It’s already there. It’s about helping them unleash the athleticism that’s already in the game.

The conversation has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

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