Here’s a question for you. Who has the more difficult job, the President of the United States or the Commissioner of Major League Baseball? I say the ‘Commish’ does.
About 50 percent of the people happy with the decisions he makes and about one half who are unhappy. He has a relatively large percentage of the electorate that are disinterested in the whole political process and quite a high percentage that doesn’t even vote. His base of support shifts with the wind.
The commissioner also might have a similar approval rating, somewhere close to 50-50 in many of his decisions. However, he has a totally different constituency which includes owners, players, umpires, advertisers and most importantly, baseball fans. Everyone connected to the game actually cares, including the 73,000,000 fans who attended major league baseball games in 2016 and the 41,000,000 minor league fans who flooded into minor league parks. That does not even include the countless millions who view the game at home. The difference for the commissioner is that everyone in the realm of baseball that he is attempting to please – or pacify – is involved and passionate about the game, although no doubt in varying degrees.
Rob Manfred became commissioner of MLB in August of 2014 and first sat in the commissioner’s chair in January, 2015. He became the 10th commissioner for MLB succeeding 80-year-old Bud Selig, who had served as commissioner since 1992.
Manfred’s resume included his work as MLB’s executive vice-president for labor relations and human resources beginning in 1998 and an expanded role as executive vice-president of economics and league affairs in 2012. In September, 2013 he was promoted to chief operating officer. Perhaps most importantly, he helped lead negotiations for baseball’s last three labor contracts with players and also the joint drug agreement that was instituted in 2002.
He has become a relatively high profile commissioner, although not in a self-aggrandizing way. He is very accessible and friendly with the media and seems to have a good relationship with baseball owners and also a good working relationship with Tony Clark, the Executive Director of the MLBPA. He definitely projects as a baseball enthusiast who sees his mandate as one of helping the game grow, both in depth and width. As a fledgling commissioner, he quickly began to mark out his territory and start leaving his footprints in the sand. His two priorities appear to be expanding the fan base and concerns with the pace of the game on the field.
Commissioner Manfred favors an international draft although it did not materialize in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement. He believes such a draft would benefit small market teams that are unable to compete with their richer cousins. The thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba in particular has put more pressure on to, in his words, “Level the playing field.”
“With the relaxation that’s taken place with respect of Cuban players it has put a stress test on that international system,” said Manfred. “Frankly, it’s proved wanting. I am of the view that at some point, for the good of the game, for the good of competitive balance, we are going to have an international draft.”
Manfred’s vision for MLB includes expansion and he sees 32 as an attractive number making room for two expansion teams, perhaps one north of the United States border and one south of the United States. His interest is not just to expand for the sake of expanding but to include presently untapped markets in Canada and especially in a potential hotbed of baseball in Mexico. Montreal and Mexico City would be suitable locations for expansion teams.
“There has not been a lot of talk about expansion,” Manfred said. “In terms of internationalizing the game, North America, in terms of sustained international activity, is someplace we need to focus. Canada, Mexico, if we were going to think about it, those would be the kinds of places that I would be interested in.”
In January, MLB opened a new academy in Culiacan, Mexico as a collaborative project with the Sinoloan State Government. The partnership between MLB and the state government was conceived in September, 2015 when Commissioner Manfred was in Culiacan for the grand opening of Estadio Tomateros, the site of the Caribbean Series. Initial discussions led to an alliance and the construction of the academy. To cement the deal, MLB is also opening an office in Mexico City.
In early January, 45 youngster ages 13-17 became part of the inaugural class at the academy. Fourteen-year old Carlitos Urias, younger brother of budding Dodger phenom Julio Urias, is among that class.
“This is a great opportunity for players like me,” said the younger Urias brother through an interpreter. “It’s very unique, the only one in the country, and we are happy to be here. We just have to keep working hard.”
“The academy is important to us because it combines two of the Commissioner’s most important objectives, and that’s growth on the international level and youth participation,” said Joel Araujo, MLB’s senior manager of international baseball operations. “Our goal with this academy, as with any development academy that we have done in the past and are currently operating, is to provide opportunity for players and young kids to develop their baseball skills and help them become professional men and good citizens.”
Instant replay somewhat belatedly crept into the game in 2008 and has continued to exert a greater influence on the on-field play of the game. For those of us who are already concerned about this intrusion into the game, we may have temporarily found an ally in Commissioner Manfred. He is not in favor of any further wholesale changes but is open to having foul tips reviewed. Calling balls and strikes electronically, at this time, is not on his radar. Or is it?
“Foul tips are a different issue from the broader question of calling balls and strikes,” Manfred said. “The broader one is easier to answer, so I’ll answer that one: I think we are a ways away from using technology to call balls and strikes.”
Pace of Game
In practically every interview and press release, the commissioner speaks to the issue of pace of game.
“Pace of play is an issue that ‘we’ need to be focused on,” Manfred said. “The ‘we’ there is players, owners, umpires, everyone who is invested in this game.
“I don’t think there’s a magic bullet that is going to come one year to be the solution to pace of play. It’s going to be an ongoing effort to make sure our game moves along in a way that is most attractive to our fans,” he added.
Commissioner Manfred strongly believes that the present time frame for games is too long. Among his top priorities is finding ways to speed up the pace of play, including the following suggestions:
20-second time clocks are already in use in the minor leagues where the approval of the MLBPA is not required.
Consideration is being given to eliminating the four pitches in an intentional base on ball and sending the hitter directly to first base.
As a means of shortening games the idea has been floated that at the start of each half of extra inning play begins with a runner on second base.
Manfred is also concerned about the delay and dead game time as a result of challenges. He is not opposed to implementing a short time frame within which the replay process must be completed.
“If we do reach the conclusion that we have a time problem, I am open to that idea,” Manfred said, after Major League Baseball completed its quarterly owners’ meetings at its Manhattan headquarters. “It’s a cost-benefit [analysis]. At some point, everyone focuses on the four-minute replay, or whatever the heck it is. At some point, I recognize the fact that that one additional call correct comes at the cost of a four-minute delay. You’ve got to ask yourself whether it’s worth it or not.”
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said on Thursday July 21, 2016 that the league is looking at limiting the use of relief pitchers in games. The game as it is now played means that teams are using several pitches each game, often for just a batter or two, and pitching changes do take time.
“I am in favor of something like that,” Manfred said. “We’ve spent a ton of time on this issue in the last few months.
“You know the problem with relief pitchers is that they’re so good,” Manfred added. “I’ve got nothing against relief pitchers, but they do two things to the game: The pitching changes themselves slow the game down, and our relief pitchers have become so dominant at the back end that they actually rob action out of the end of the game, the last few innings of the game. So, relief pitchers is a topic that is under active consideration. We’re talking about that a lot internally.”
Perhaps his statement on the use of relief pitchers helps explain the suggestion that MLB is looking at starting a runner on second base at the beginning of extra innings.
New baseball commissioner Rob Manfred had been in office just a little more than 12 hours when he already was making some interesting waves. In an interview that aired on ESPN, Manfred made it clear that examining the pace of the game is first on his list of priorities, but not far behind will be finding ways to “inject additional offense into the game.”
Without being prompted for an example, Manfred specifically mentioned he’d be open to pursuing the elimination of defensive shifts, which he says give the defensive team a competitive advantage.
“Statistics have shown that there were 2,400 infield shifts employed by teams just five years ago,” Manfred said, “and now baseball is on pace for 28,000 shifts, killing batting averages for everyone not named Jose Altuve. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing,’’ Manfred said, “but it has ramifications for what people see when they buy that ticket to go to the ballpark. We just wanted to point out this whole series of changes that has occurred over time, very naturally, in the game and pose the question of whether or not we should be managing that change more aggressively.”
“Things like eliminating shifts, I would be open to those sorts of ideas,” Manfred told ESPN’s Karl Ravech.
Manfred’s office recently floated the idea of raising the strike zone upward to the top of the knee to produce more hard hit balls in play, including home runs and doubles. The strikeout rate in MLB has continued to spiral almost out of control over the years. For instance, the 1955 Dodgers struck out 719 times in 6037 plate appearance while the 2016 Dodgers struck out 1321 times in 6164 plate appearances. The objective of raising the strike zone is to convert some of those strikeouts into hits.
The strike zone extended to the top of the kneecap through the 1995 season, then was dropped to its current level. Raising the strike zone is not a quick fix but might be an easy one on which to gain approval from the MLBPA, and is most likely preferable to lowering the mound again.
Like him or not, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is not just filling a chair in his office. He is going all out to fill seats in baseball stadiums across the United States, looking to attract a new generation of fans, and to continue to grow the game internationally.