What baseball needed most was to change

Last week, as Major League Baseball’s rules committee finished discussing, voted on, and ultimately approved a series of rules changes for implementation in 2023, one sentiment that I kept returning to in conversations was: Spring training is going to be so interesting.

I mean that earnestly! This week is interesting, too, of course. As smart people who cover the sport explicate the details and extrapolate the ramifications. These explorations serve, in part, as a justification to traditionalists. As with all conversations about rule changes, a certain segment of the baseball-viewing population opposes any new impositions — the pitch timer adulterates baseball’s status as the sport without a clock — as evidence of insufficient fidelity to the game. If you love baseball, that logic goes, why try to change it?

In response to these knee-jerk reactions, proponents of the rule changes — or really just, people who understand the underlying logic — have argued some version of how it’s not about going forward, it’s about going back to a better baseball.

Baseball’s existential crisis has crystallized around a pervasive belief that the current game is worse — or less “aesthetically pleasing,” to use the high-minded parlance — than it used to be. Strikeouts and home runs have come at the cost of balls in play; great pitching has edged out great pitchers, at least in the later innings; the game is longer than it used to be, with less action and more dead time. Often with a harkening back to how things were when you were a kid, rule changes are sold to the public as a means of restoration, not evolution.

None of that is wrong, per se. The problems, or at least the symptoms of those problems, are evident to the point of obvious. And comparisons to earlier eras are helpful in underscoring just how out of hand some of the issues have become. But baseball needs to change more than it needs to be like it once was. Change just for change’s sake.

“The victory to me today is the fact that we have a game that's going to be played a little bit different,” said Harold Reynolds, who moderated the televised news conference at the MLB offices in which the rule changes were announced.

It’s a bold proclamation — especially on behalf of a commissioner who can’t seem to escape the criticism that he doesn’t even like the sport — and an unwitting testament to just how resistant the fanbase is to change.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media during the MLB Rules Press Conference at MLB Headquarters on Friday, September 9, 2022 in New York. (Photo by Eve Kilsheimer/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media during the MLB Rules Press Conference at MLB Headquarters on Friday, September 9, 2022 in New York. (Photo by Eve Kilsheimer/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

On the field, baseball is an athletic endeavor. But in the front offices that loom increasingly large, baseball is a puzzle. And since current players make Babe Ruth look like a beer-league softball star, the modern problems in the game come from the front offices. This is not a value judgment, they’re not trying to make the game bad, they’re just trying to make their team good.

Analytics avatar Theo Epstein basically said as much when he announced his departure from atop the Chicago Cubs’ baseball operations department along with an almost apology for the revolution he helped wrought. He drew a direct causal connection between optimization in front offices and negative entertainment value. To take it a step further, it’s not just that teams know empirically how to win, it’s that they all know the same way to win. Homogenization by optimization. The puzzle created by baseball’s current rules has been solved. So it’s time to change the parameter of the puzzle.

“I think disruption in general is good because it creates more diversity in the responses that organizations will have to the new set of rules,” said Epstein, who has been serving as a consultant to MLB.

“Anytime you have a status quo that lasts for a long period of time, it allows 30 organizations to hone in on where the competitive advantages are, where the loopholes are in the rules, where are the greatest efficiencies and optimize their entire operation, scouting, player development, major leagues, coaching staffs, etc. to really get the most bang for the buck in those areas.”

He couldn’t resist the nostalgia ploy, referencing how baseball was more diverse 20 or 30 years ago, and noted that there have been no significant rule changes in that time.

“So I think some fundamental changes — like you're seeing here today, and as will continue to happen as needed — are good in that the most resourceful, most strategic, smartest organizations are probably already thinking about how to react to a new landscape and lots of organizations will have different types of responses.”

That’ll last for as long as it takes to quantify a new best way to win. Thirty teams of brilliant baseball minds with high-stakes incentives and a whole cottage industry of professional armchair analysts are on it. I sometimes think that what baseball really needs is more drastic overhaul to force scattershot adaptations rather than the precision remedies targeting specific flaws in the current game. That’ll never happen — although the success of Twenty20 cricket provides a compelling case in theory — and for all that the players may feel this process was rushed, MLB prefers extensive testing and at least a gesture of collaboration before enacting any change. That process is necessarily slow, but it can be less static. And to its credit, that’s the stated plan.

The competition committee that approved these changes needs only to discuss new rules for 45 days before voting on implementation. Morgan Sword, the executive vice president of baseball operations, said Friday that they would “continue meeting and may discuss additional smaller changes for ‘23.”

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred echoed that sentiment with broader application. MLB is like a massive ocean liner that requires a wide berth, but perhaps that can change just a little, for the better. “We hope over time that the competition committee becomes an ongoing review process of the way we're playing, [and] a more nimble process for making adjustments,” he said.

The fiction of perfect continuity is an important part of baseball’s appeal, how it’s timeless and in that way connects fans across generations. But it is just that: a fiction. The circumstances of the league and the style of play are always shifting, even without a hand on the scale. That the changes have been subtle and slow is part of the problem. Regardless of how you feel about the specific rule changes themselves, watching teams adjust next season is going to be really exciting.