Manfred: Banning defensive shifts would be restoring MLB
Banning or limiting defensive shifts would be an effort to restore Major League Baseball to how it was played before offense was suffocated by analytics, according to baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred.
Speaking before Tuesday’s All-Star Game to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, Manfred said seven-inning doubleheaders and starting extra innings with runners on second base likely will be dropped after this season.
He said extending the designated hitter to the National League could be possible, but not definite.
“I think it would be a non-radical change, but I’m not going to speculate on whether we’re going to propose it or get it,” he said.
Manfred said MLB was considering having umpires explain video review decisions to fans at ballparks over the public-address system, similar to the procedure in the NFL.
MLB’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association expires Dec. 1.
“Let’s just say you regulated the shift by requiring two infielders each side of second base. What does that do? It makes the game look like what it looked like when I was 12 years old,” he said. “It’s not change. It’s kind of restoration, right? That’s why people are in favor of it. And they do believe, I think front offices in general believe it would have a positive effect on the play of the game.
“So I’m hopeful without going into the specifics of rule by rule, that we will have productive conversations with the MLBPA about — I want to use my words — non-radical changes to the game that will restore it to being played in a way that is closer to I think what many of us enjoy historically.
“Remember, the game evolves, right? What we play today don’t look all that much like 1971. And the question is, which version would you like to get to?”
MLB is trying an experiment this year at Double-A requiring infielders to keep both feet within the outer boundary of the infield dirt at the start of every play, but not preventing three or more defenders to either side of second base. Triple-A is using 18-by-18-inch bases rather than the traditional 15-by-15-inch.
Management has the right to change major league playing rules with an agreement with the union, or MLB can implement changes unilaterally with one year of advance notice. Manfred has been reluctant to change playing rules absent an agreement.
“We’re hopeful that in the context of the CBA negotiations, we will find more receptivity than we have found to date,” Manfred said.
Seven-inning doubleheaders and the extra-inning runners were adopted for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and kept for 2021.
“I see the extra-inning rule and the seven-inning doubleheader as rules that were adopted based on medical advice to deal with COVID,” Manfred said. “I think they are much less likely to become part of our permanent landscape than some of the other rules that we’ve talked about over time that relate to sort of how the game’s being played.”
Some fans have felt short-changed when they paid full price for tickets for separate-admission games as part of seven-inning doubleheaders.
“At the point in time we adopted seven-inning doubleheaders for this year, we didn’t know that the country was going to look like it looks right now,” Manfred said. “As a matter of fact, we were really scared that it was going to look very, very differently. If I knew it was going to be like this, might we have done different rules? Maybe.
“And again, last year when we used them because there were no fans, they were traditional doubleheaders. Given that the rule’s in place, it’s hard to change it midstream because of the competitive impacts. And given the demand we have for the tickets that are available, we kind of think splits are making the best out of a bad situation. But believe me, I understand it’s not perfect from the fans’ perspective and we’re worried about that.”
Manfred said the crackdown on the use of foreign substances on balls had been a success since umpires started checking all pitchers on June 21.
“I think the substance checks have been an important step forward for the game,” he said. “I think that enforcing our rules is really important. They’re on the books. They should be enforced. Equally important, I think that the process has already shown very promising effects in terms of the play of the game on the field: batting average, slugging percentage, all those offensive categories have improved. Strikeouts are down. Base on balls are down. We have not seen any material increase in players being hit by pitches. Those are all huge positives for us.”
He said the crackdown “is a step along the road to a return to a more entertaining form of baseball.”