The pitch clock has slashed game times around the Minor Leagues this season, but Commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday that implementation of such a timer – and a number of other potential rules changes – in Major League games will be part of a process with the league’s new Joint Competition Committee.
Manfred met with reporters at the conclusion of this week’s “upbeat and productive” owners meetings in New York, noting that the pitch clock and any potential shift-banning rules would be part of the committee’s meetings, which are slated to commence next week.
“We want to hear what the players have to say,” Manfred said. “We negotiated that process to make sure we got player input and I don't want to prejudge the outcome until we get that input.”
As part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, a Joint Competition Committee comprised of four active players, six members appointed by MLB and one umpire will be tasked with adopting changes to playing rules such as a pitch clock, base size, defensive positioning and automatic ball/strike zone.
Game times in the Minors have been reduced by 29 minutes on average to 2:35 in the early months of the 2022 season, a promising development. Although the pitch clock will be a topic of conversation for 2023, Manfred said he didn’t see the Automated Ball-Strike system (ABS) becoming an issue during this year’s meetings.
The pitch clock in the Minors gives pitchers 14 seconds between pitches with nobody on base, increasing to 18 seconds (19 in Triple-A) with runners on. Those numbers would be subject to discussion with the committee, Manfred said.
“We are encouraged by the results in the Minor Leagues,” Manfred said. “We've said for years that the Minor Leagues provide us with a really important opportunity to experiment, learn and make sure we understand how something's going to work if we deploy it on the field.”
Another experimental rule at Single-A is a new challenge system which allows a pitcher, catcher or batter to challenge a ball or strike call. Each team receives three such appeals per game, though a successful challenge is retained by the team.
“I went down and saw the challenge system and I have to say, I saw three challenges in the game and the first one was so darn fast, I missed it,” Manfred said. “I was like, ‘What happened?’ It was like four seconds, literally. There are difficult issues surrounding the strike zone that affect outcomes on the field and we need to make sure we understand those before we jump off that bridge.”
There is no firm timetable on instituting any changes for 2023.
Manfred hit on a number of other topics Thursday:
• Manfred said there is “urgency” with respect to the Rays’ situation in Tampa Bay, as the club continues to search for a new ballpark deal to remain in the area. The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field runs through the end of the 2027 season.
“I've said this before and I'm going to say it again: There needs to be a resolution in the Tampa Bay region for the Rays,” Manfred said. “Obviously the end of that lease is a hard deadline, but you need to take into account that stadiums take a little bit of time to build. We are getting to the point where wherever it is in the region that has an interest in having 162 baseball games, they need to get to it, get with the club. I know the Rays are anxious to get something done, and see if a deal can be made.”
Manfred said he remains focused “right now” on keeping the Rays in the Tampa Bay area.
• There has been “significant activity” surrounding the Athletics’ search for a new ballpark, Manfred said, though he admitted that California political processes “are their own sort of animal.” Manfred recently met with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, praising her for doing “a really good job at moving the process forward.”
The Athletics “have prudently continued to pursue the Las Vegas alternative,” said Manfred, who also noted that MLB likes Las Vegas as a market. He put the Oakland situation in the “same category” as Tampa Bay, saying “we need a solution in both those markets and the time has come for that solution.”
• As part of the CBA, the MLBPA must agree to implement an International Draft by July 25, which would eliminate the qualifying offer system for future free agents. Manfred reiterated the league’s desire for such a draft, which he believes will curb the corruption that has been a problem with players in Latin America, specifically the Dominican Republic.
“Our concern – and this has been well-documented over time – is situations where clubs make commitments to players before they're technically age-eligible to sign,” Manfred said. “That there are individuals involved in those negotiations that take a really significant piece of the compensation that really should be going to the player off the top. You have two ways to deal with rules violations. You can investigate and try to find out what happened in each individual situation; we've tried that for a number of years and it hasn't worked very well. It's a lot of dealings that you have to chase down.
“The other way is through transparency, and that's why we like the draft idea. If you don't know which club is going to get the rights to the player, there's no point making an early deal. Why would you? You don't know if you're even going to be able to draft a guy. We think it's time for a systemic change in the DR.”
• Streaming was a hot topic at the meetings, as the owners received an update on this season’s new deals with Apple and Peacock.
“We are concerned about our reach; we think that we have fans who want to watch baseball, who don't feel that they have an adequate opportunity to do that,” Manfred said. “There is a strong sense among ownership that an undertaking we're referring to as MLB Media should step into the digital space in particular to provide fans with greater and more flexible opportunities to watch games.
“We believe that Major League Baseball is uniquely situated to be successful in that undertaking. Unlike any other entity, we have access to all of the digital rights. And let's not forget we do have the technology chops to stream 2,430 games given that we've been doing it since 2000. A really interesting discussion and a fan-focused discussion; it's about giving fans that may be outside the traditional cable bundle adequate opportunity to see our games.”
Manfred said the deals with Apple and Peacock were “really important” aspects of the league’s effort to respond to what he called “a rapidly changing media environment.”
“Having a relationship with Peacock and more broadly with NBC is important for us over the long haul,” Manfred said. “Apple's an innovator, and we need to be innovative in our efforts to deliver games to fans on platforms that they use and visit frequently.”
Some fans have expressed their frustration over the new deals, which have forced some to alter their standard viewing habits on traditional cable. Manfred said he and the league are well aware of this, though he views it as more of an immediate concern than something long-term.
“We are always sensitive to fan concerns; I understand the idea that, ‘I’m used to finding a game here and now it's moved somewhere else,’” Manfred said. “We would not have done either the Apple deal or the Peacock deal if we did not believe that experimentation with partners like that on the digital side of the business were crucial to our long-term efforts to make games more available, more widely available, more widely available on a flexible basis the way that consumers want to buy them. It is a short-term issue that is designed to put us in a position to provide more access over the long haul.”