The next MLB game you watch will be different. The question is how … and when
In a lot of ways, baseball feels timeless — or, less generously, oblivious to the passage of time. The fields have quirky, city-specific dimensions inspired by the days when a ballpark did not have the cache to overtake whatever was across Lansdowne Street. The managers still wear full uniforms, even though there hasn’t been a player-manager since 1986. The calls are made not into the waiting eye of a TV camera, but emphatically enough that onlookers can pick them up for their scorecards, if they wish. The games, unrestrained by clocks or TV windows, sprawl out across three or sometimes four hours.
But baseball is also a meticulous record-keeper. It senses every tremor — the sticky stuff season, the juiced ball saga, the Year of the Balk. And it documents lasting shifts.
This is why, if you visit the sport’s unofficial contemporary Hall of Records — Baseball-Reference — you’ll find MLB history sliced up into defined eras. Among them, there’s the Live-Ball Era (precipitated by the advent of a more modern ball in 1920) and the Integration Era (which saw Black players, starting with Jackie Robinson in 1947, join MLB and raise the talent level after decades of unjust segregation). The most recent swath of baseball history is categorized as the Wild-Card Era. It began in 1995 — after the strike punctuated a rapid-fire onslaught of labor skirmishes and spurred a money-printing generation that modernized the sport through technological and statistical revolutions — and in all likelihood, it ended Tuesday night when the Atlanta Braves won the World Series.
After two-and-a-half decades of relative labor peace and laissez-faire regulation, the American baseball syndicate controlled and animated by MLB has burrowed itself into a wonky and often off-putting cultural niche more akin to the shady world of high finance than that of a fan-courting entertainment industry.
Just about everyone agrees that the game needs some changes. There’s just no consensus on what those changes are or how to enact them.
Long circled on the calendar, this winter’s collective-bargaining agreement negotiations will force that conversation. The CBA is a fundamental document agreed upon between MLB and the players union that guides everything from salaries to roster rules to how many seats a player gets on the bus. The current version expires on Dec. 1, and it’s widely expected that MLB will enter its first work stoppage since 1995 on Dec. 2.
Baseball will almost certainly emerge on the other side as an altered product — a history-obsessed sport racing to understand its new form, to define its newest era. The question is how different it will look, and when we will get to see it.
The most likely changes
Fans were introduced to two changes that will likely be made permanent in 2022 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
The first involves knocking down the final wall between the American League and the National League. The only differentiator between the leagues since 1999 — when the business operations and umpiring staffs were consolidated — has been the designated hitter. The AL has it, the NL doesn’t.
In 2020, that temporarily changed. The universal DH was used because of … well, there were a number of explanations for why it was needed for the pandemic season, but it was basically an appetizer for what will soon become reality.
Pitchers, on the whole, can’t hit. They haven’t been able to for a long time.
Adding a universal DH will eliminate unnecessary injury risk, inject another contested at-bat into NL lineups and possibly increase the pay ceiling for 15 hitters who will have more opportunities to wield their bats without needing to field. With apologies to devotees of pinch-hitting, double-switching and bunting — practices in steep decline even with pitchers hitting — this is happening.
The other 2020 test case that appears likely to return as a staple is an expanded postseason. Currently, five teams from each league advance to the playoffs, with division winners automatically advancing to the best-of-five Division Series, while the two teams with the next-best records square off in one-game matchups to join the fun. After the 60-game pandemic season, a whopping eight teams from each league made the playoffs, mirroring the NBA and NHL, and everyone began on even footing with a best-of-three round.
If you’re thinking, doesn’t that diminish the importance of baseball’s statistically significant, 162-game proving ground of a regular season? The answer is yes. But if you’re commissioner Rob Manfred and the team owners, and you’re wondering wouldn’t more of our most lucrative product, playoff baseball, mean more money? Well, that answer is also yes. Take a wild guess which one is going to win out.
While an expanded postseason does seem likely — the owners want it a lot, and the players union seems happy to use it as a bargaining chip — the eight-team-per-league format may not wind up being the solution. Manfred has hinted that a smaller iteration that still rewards the league’s very best teams is his preference. However the plan is drawn up, expect more teams to have a chance at October glory going forward.
A third potential change that hasn't been tested in the majors, but has long been viewed as inevitable, is the automatic strike zone — aka robot umps. MLB has tested the system in an independent league and now in the minors. Any move in this direction would come with significant issues likely to replicate or even dwarf the competitive integrity questions raised by the league's struggle to produce a consistent baseball. The question is simply whether they would rather have fan ire directed at a machine instead of the human umpires.
Correcting for the entertainment factor
Perhaps the most interesting changes will be the ones intended to restrain teams’ pursuit of efficiency. Front offices, judged as they are on team success, have mostly spent the past decade sprinting in lockstep toward a less physically dynamic, more character-fungible style of play that, to most observers’ eyes, diminishes the game’s entertainment value. MLB seems ready to begin imposing structural barriers that impede or at least redirect that march toward total efficiency (and possibly total obsolescence).
There are two overarching challenges to solve: Create eye-catching, drama-building action with a greater percentage of each game’s pitches and plate appearances, and cut down on the snooze-worthy dead time in between.
We’ll tackle that last part first. A pitch clock is probably coming in some form. After its hostile takeover of the minor leagues, MLB has experimented with rule changes at several levels. In the Low-A West league, it implemented a 15-second pitch clock for 2021 and shaved 21 minutes off games. Now, it won’t be that simple in the majors. The time limit would likely be tightened gradually, with exceptions or extensions when runners are on base, but a ticking clock in any form would be a start.
The pitch clock may also feed into the search for action. Research has shown that pitchers who take longer between pitches throw those pitches harder. It’s intuitive once you think about it, and velocity remains a key factor in rising strikeout totals. Taking down pitchers’ fastballs by even a fraction of a notch could create more contact, which means more action in the field and on the basepaths.
One of the more extreme potential changes is predicated on the same concept. At MLB’s behest, an independent league tested moving the mound back this season to turn back the clock on pitchers’ velocity gains and inject more offense. Significant backlash to the adjustment probably means this idea, however, is not likely to come to the majors any time soon.
Instead, look for the new CBA to inject drama and offense a different way: By pushing teams to use starting pitchers more. That could take the form of the double-hook rule that would tie the designated hitter to the starting pitcher — take out your starter, lose your DH. But more likely, it will involve a series of rules that cap the number of pitchers a team can have on the roster and the number of transactions it can make to summon fresh arms from the minors.
The goal is a greater number of games where the traditional protagonists, the starting pitchers, go mano a mano for five, six, seven innings instead of giving way to faceless relievers to avoid seeing the lineup a second or (heaven forbid) third time.
It’s a small way for the sport to puts its finger on the scale to address a maddening problem. Star players don’t seem to make a difference, and it’s increasingly impossible to decipher what makes your team better or worse than another. It has always been true, to some extent, that baseball’s best teams win on the margins, over the long haul, in the depth that carries them through the dog days.
But the past few seasons have presented that truth too nakedly for comfort. “What do you care about the machinations of how we got here?” teams seem to be defiantly asking fans as key moments slip further out of sight and offseason moves dwindle to head-scratching minor transactions that require expert advice to parse. “We won 60% of our games, raised the future value of our organization by three grades and increased our profit margin by 12%.”
Aces commanding the stage offer a respite from that feeling, or at least tug us into the story and convince us to suspend our disbelief. A starting pitcher gutting out a big strikeout to end the seventh inning equals drama and action. A reliever just up from Triple-A trotting out to throw 98 past a befuddled hitter in the same situation just doesn’t.
Will a lockout delay the 2022 season?
The quandaries that will determine whether MLB returns on time for spring training in February, and eventually for the regular season in late March, are financial. The rampant innovation and prosperity of the Wild-Card Era has come off the swivel for players in recent years.
They are no longer getting the same share of the spoils, and the team owners are gobbling up more and more money for themselves. An AP study found that the average MLB salary dropped 4.8% in 2021 compared to the last previous full season in 2019, and has fallen by 6.4% since the start of 2017. The median salary has taken an even more precipitous drop.
Most of that emanates from a massive shift in the sources of production on the field. Younger players are better than ever, teams are recognizing and exploiting that, and the league’s pay system hasn’t adjusted. Under that current system, players are tied to teams for six years of major-league service time — often manipulated into seven seasons for the best players — and limited to the arbitration system or team-friendly extensions to make money during their peak years of productivity. When they finally reach free agency, teams turn up their noses at the prospect of paying for the future performance of a 30-something. They have instead devoted resources to producing more young, minimally expensive contributors.
While many of the superstars at the pinnacle of the sport — Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts, Fernando Tatis Jr., etc. — have still achieved record-breaking contracts, free agency and the sport’s middle class have largely been decimated by the availability of ever more advanced player development tactics.
Adjustments are vitally necessary to more fairly compensate players based on their current level of productivity and at least partially realign the process of building a team with common sense. Any changes in that ilk will encounter massive resistance from team owners represented by MLB who have been reaping huge profits by fielding winning combinations of stars and soon-to-be-stars with tamped-down earnings.
It would behoove both sides to recalibrate the sport’s public-facing product into something more easily grasped by casual and prospective fans. But MLB and the players union are not on good terms. There is an outstanding grievance over the length of the 2020 season, which the union contends MLB did not negotiate in good faith. Animosity between the two sides has been roiling ever since, and despite some quotes gesturing in the direction of optimism, the industry is bracing for a lockout that at the very least interrupts the usual flow of the offseason.
If the stoppage — which would be initiated in this case by owners when the current CBA expires — only disrupts the free agent market and trade season, that would be considered a win. If it only pushes back spring training, that unfortunately might be a win, too.
Still, you’ll likely get to dive into this new era of baseball either on time or very close to it come spring for the same reasons any of these issues are being dealt with. Both sides understand that season-interrupting work stoppages turn off fans. Turned off fans are bad for business.
And in the end, money talks.