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If you want to fix baseball, let’s start with the real problems

John Romano | MLB wants to outlaw defensive shifts, enlarge bases and limit pickoff attempts. How about we focus more on payroll disparities and three-hour games instead?
There may not be a greater invention in sports than the dimensions of a baseball field, and MLB officials may want to think twice about messing with that.
There may not be a greater invention in sports than the dimensions of a baseball field, and MLB officials may want to think twice about messing with that. [ SETH WENIG | Associated Press (2019) ]
Published Mar. 12
Updated Mar. 13

ST. PETERSBURG — The ballfield, much as it was a century ago, is nearly perfect.

The distance between bases remains the same, and plays at first base are still bang-bang. The pitcher is precisely 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate and curveballs still break just achingly out of a hitter’s reach.

In 1939, the average Major League Baseball team scored 4.82 runs a game with 9.49 hits and 3.44 walks. In 2019, the average team scored 4.83 runs a game with 8.65 hits and 3.27 walks. Eighty years gone by, and hardly a wisp of change.

More than anything, this is what sets baseball apart from other sports. Football is barely the same game it was in the 1970s, let alone the 1930s. Basketball players from generations ago wouldn’t recognize the NBA today.

And maybe that’s part of baseball’s problem. It hasn’t evolved as the world changed around it. Or maybe — just maybe — baseball’s originators got it right when they first envisioned the game in the 19th century.

So why is any of this noteworthy this morning?

Because change is coming in baseball. The commissioner’s office announced a series of experiments in the minor leagues this season, and there’s no pretending they aren’t being considered for future MLB seasons.

Minor league teams in Florida, for instance, will use electronic strike zones to assist umpires. In other leagues, the bases will be enlarged by three inches and pitchers will be limited to two pickoff throws per at-bat in a move to increase base-stealing. Infielders will no longer be allowed to shift into the outfield grass and, later, may be confined to their natural side of the field.

I’m not sure I would call these radical changes, but they are significant. Certainly more than the three-batter-minimum rule for pitchers and the mound-visit restrictions introduced in recent years.

The question is whether these changes will address what really ails baseball.

While runs, hits, walks, stolen bases, errors and other stats have remained relatively static over the years, there are three ways that the game has changed dramatically.

No. 1, home runs are double what they were in 1950. No. 2, strikeouts have basically tripled since 1930. No. 3, and by far the most important, baseball has somehow evolved from a two-hour game to a three-hour-plus game.

And I don’t see how defensive shifts, pickoffs, larger bases or robot umpires fix any of those problems.

“This game has lived as long as it’s lived because it’s exciting and fans enjoy it,” said Rays minor-league infielder Taylor Walls. “Small adjustments out of the game to make the game quicker, faster, more interesting — that stuff I agree with. But as far as trying to control … what’s between the lines … it might be going a little too far.”

One other experiment that is being expanded in the minor leagues this season is absolutely worth pursuing. In a Class A league on the West coast, timers in the outfield and between the dugouts will be used to enforce the amount of time taken between pitches, between innings and during pitching changes.

If you’ve ever watched videos of postseason games from the 1970s, the first thing you notice is how quickly pitchers worked. There’s no walking around the mound, no interminable sign sequences, no hitters stepping out every pitch to adjust their batting gloves. If it takes timers in the minors to get players accustomed to a quicker pace, then so be it. And if it takes a fifth umpire to monitor the timers, that’s fine too.

“The fans should tell us if we have a pace problem. If they feel we do, then we do,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I know they do a lot of polls, surveys, ask a lot of questions, and if that’s the response they’re getting, then we as an industry should start trying to find ways to make changes, because it’s about (the fans).”

If clocks help with the problem of pace, that just leaves the issue of the preponderance of home runs and strikeouts. And, while MLB has been loathe to admit using juiced balls in the past, a slight tweak to deaden the baseball doesn’t seem like a reach. If more fly balls are reaching the warning track instead of the second row of the bleachers, hitters will eventually adjust their swing path.

There’s nothing wrong with MLB officials being open to the idea of innovation and change. In fact, they should spend a little more time looking at what the NBA and NFL have done with revenue sharing to rid the game of its gross economic disparities.

But fundamentally changing a 90-foot basepath by a handful of inches by introducing larger bases? Penalizing a smart manager by dictating where he can position his infielders?

Well, allow me to be the old man shouting about getting off my (outfield) grass.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.