Modern baseball: How to fix the game, and how MLB’s already spoiled it

For decades, baseball has struggled to modernize. But rule changes now may not fix what ails MLB.

San Francisco Giants’ Hunter Pence (8), Gorkys Hernandez (7) and Mac Williamson (51) runs towards the mound to celebrate with teammates their 6-5 win against the Miami Marlins at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, June 20, 2018. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
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Major League Baseball has rightfully approached this season in a panic over its product – and that was before Kyler Murray’s I’m-Off-For-The-NFL scud dropped.

That was a beaning Commissioner Rob Manfred and Co. didn’t need as they were frantically rifling through ideas about pitch clocks, mound heights, the shift epidemic, to DH or not to DH, and teams suddenly using a chorus line of pitchers every game, including starters for no more than an inning or two.

The Grand Old Game is in trouble, despite what purists say, to the point that MLB’s powers-that-be are considering taking a wild whack at any quick-fix notion that’s thrown down the middle at them. Three-batter minimums for pitchers? Good lord. Maybe they should be bringing back Charlie Finley’s old orange baseball idea, too. And the mechanical rabbit. And the jackass.

Baseball may not be dying, but for a sport that seems to be addicted to ridiculous dissection of numbers, put this in your analytics pipe and smoke it: Regular-season attendance dropped a whopping 3 million in 2018 from the previous season.

Perhaps more disturbing, 10 million fewer people showed up at ballparks than they did 10 years ago, reflecting a slow but steady decline that can’t be blamed on bad weather, which was one of the official excuses offered by league offices for last season’s alarming drop-off.

And how does MLB explain October? Baseball got what it supposedly always craves in the postseason – a matchup of traditional big-market powers from opposite coasts in the World Series.

The Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers should have killed it ratings-wise. Instead, they got slaughtered. Average per-game ratings were down 23 percent from the 2017 match of the Dodgers and Astros, and an astonishing 38 percent from two years ago when the Cubs beat the Indians.

Why are people so turned off to baseball, whether in-person or from their couch?

The way the game is being played at its highest level today is a lot less compelling than it used to be, and it’s somehow taking a whole lot longer. That’s a 6-4-3 double-negative cue for sports fans of the 21st century to look elsewhere for faster, more action-packed options.

It’s even turning prospective stars like Murray away. Once upon a time, baseball was always the No. 1 pursuit of the best young athletes. Those days are long gone. So is Murray.

So where do we start fixing baseball for the betterment of all? We have a few changeups in our ball bag …

Speed up the game at all costs

Face it, we no longer live in a pastoral age. But even if men were still wearing straw hats and applying mustache wax and women were carrying parasols, they’d be railing at the pace of today’s games. For all the talk of change aimed at speeding things up, 2018 represented the seventh straight year games averaged more than three hours: 3:04, to be exact.

Pitch clocks and limiting mound visits hasn’t been enough. All those pitching changes are gumming up good intentions, not to mention those damned replay decisions from New York. It remains baseball’s No. 1 bugaboo.

It’s even worse when people watch most  — in the playoffs. There were 33 postseason games played in 2018, and care to guess how many were played under three hours? Answer: One. Somehow, the Braves and Dodgers played a division series game in 2:35. But that was by far the anomaly in a postseason in which 23 of the 33 games slow-roasted for more than 3 hours and 30 minutes.

Eight of those 23 exceeded four hours (and four of those were mere nine-inning games). The Dodgers and Brewers played a 13-inning championship series game that lasted 5:15. And of course, Game 3 of the World Series was a 7-hour, 20-minute PBS miniseries all by itself. Played at Dodger Stadium, it ended at roughly 3:30 a.m. in Boston. Even the Cheers bar was closed.

What’s an ideal game time, understanding that realistically, we’re never going back to the sub-two hour era when players left their mitts on the field? Here’s our working slogan: Strive For 2:35. That’s not unreasonable. The average NBA game lasts 2:15 counting its halftime, timeouts, replays and other pauses such as Draymond Green technicals.

Did someone say seven-inning games? It’s been thrown out there, and while it would be a lamentable turn of events, baseball can’t keep rolling out these nightly wagon-train excursions and survive in our instant-thrill culture. The kids (not to mention the grand-dads) are falling asleep, and if you lose them, Mr. Commissioner, you’ve probably lost for good.

Fight for the best athletes

So how can baseball start keeping fleet-footed studs like Murray? Frankly, he just may have been a special case. The best way to have kept him would have been to insist he couldn’t play any more football when he accepted the A’s signing bonus money. Alas, the A’s and MLB weren’t counting on him winning the Heisman, getting to the College Football Playoff, and at 5-foot-10, improving his stock into the mid-first round of the NFL Draft. They should have been more selfish and said, “You’re ours now, kid.”

As for those draft-able athletes who may not be as rare as Murray, baseball must consider relaxing its draft pool bonus restrictions dramatically and better support teams who risk pursuing dual-sport stars as the A’s did.

Oakland Athletics’ Kyler Murray, 20, takes batting practice before a MLB game against the Los Angeles Angels at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, June 15, 2018. Murray, a 2018 first-round draft pick, just signed with the Oakland Athletics but will continue to play quarterback at the University of Oklahoma. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

In Murray’s case, injury risks aside, he made the obvious choice once he established his football cred. His free agency clock will start immediately when he joins his NFL team next fall, and aside from franchise tagging, he can be an unrestricted free agent after four seasons. In baseball, it might take him three seasons just to make the big leagues, three more seasons to be eligible for arbitration and yet another three to become a free agent.

Nine years as opposed to four? Easy call for Murray. Besides, if he flops in the NFL, he can always return to baseball. Tougher the other way around. Maybe he’ll be back around the time baseball’s collective bargaining agreement comes up for renewal at the end of 2021, and he can take advantage of wholesale changes, which by that time probably will be essential.

Get the damn rules right

Lowering the mound (as opposed to the ludicrous thought of moving it back) isn’t a bad idea. Major-league hitters batted a composite .248 in 2018 (lowest since 1969), hit 520 fewer home runs and recorded more strikeouts than hits for the first time in recorded history.

One suggestion, offered recently by former MVP slugger Dale Murphy, would be to lower it three inches this year and three next year, see how it goes. Sure. Just do it. It might just save some arms from Tommy John surgery in the process as pitchers are much less likely to hump it up to 100 mph throwing on flatter ground.

Pitchers deserve some sort of bone, though. How about acknowledging the real strike zone, and bringing back the high strike? When he was lord of umpires, longtime executive Sandy Alderson fought for that obsessively, and made progress. But now we’re back to the shoebox strike zone, with hitters gearing their launch-angle swing to hit the low strike … because there is no other strike.

The DH? It appears destined for the National League at some point, but who cares? Nobody plays real “NL ball” anymore. Nobody steals. Nobody strategically bunts. Nobody hits the other way on a hit-and-run. Make the DH uniform in both leagues or don’t have it all.

For all the folks who abhor the DH but also hate seeing pitchers hit, how about this idea: No DH, and pitchers don’t hit, either. Your batting order is 1-8. Sacrilegious? Come on. Not nearly as cuckoo as deciding extra-inning games by starting a guy at second base.

And you’re not lifting pitchers for pinch-hitters, either. Maybe they stick around a little longer, and we don’t get the reliever parade so often.

Shifts? Hate ‘em. Ditch ‘em. But only the really extreme ones, where you can get thrown out by the third baseman from short right field. That’s not baseball, that’s bogusball, and one of the truly awful byproducts of too much analytics. Whether shifting left or right, infielders should not be allowed to move beyond second base from their natural position. Give left-handed hitters a chance.

Enough with “openers” or short-inning starters (SIS-sies, as we call them). God bless Madison Bumgarner for standing up to the inanity of it. It’ll be a sad day in Mudville when a starter who goes five innings is called “Hoss,” but that’s where it’s going right now.

There were 42 complete games in baseball in 2018. Over the past four decades, we’ve gone from 1,032 complete games in 1978 to 622 to 302 to 136 to 42 in 10-year increments. By 2028, there may be no such thing as a complete game. Or maybe by 2020. Nine teams didn’t have one last year. Seven more only had one.

Maybe we can live without complete games. But is it too much to ask anymore for a solid six or seven innings from one pitcher? Let’s hope not.

Finally, a general wish, not necessarily a rule: Just play the game right, as Tony La Russa always used to say. For instance, let managers manage. Don’t have analytics guys calling them mid-game or plotting out the whole pitching spreadsheet beforehand. This isn’t a Strat-O-Matic tournament.

We’re not rolling dice here, or flipping cards or probability charts. It’s a sport, a good one if the geeks leave it alone. It was all too obvious in the Series that Dave Roberts was just a puppet in the L.A. dugout, taking orders from a box of nerds somewhere above. Thankfully, the Dodgers deserved what they got – an analytical butt-whupping.

Now it is baseball fans’ turn to get what they deserve. Give them back the real game, and maybe baseball has a chance. The key will be deciding what the real game is, though. Whatever that turns out to be, can we please get it done in less than 3½ hours?

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