Rob Manfred has been the commissioner of Major League Baseball for less than a month and already he is making me very nervous. It is apparent that he is not happy about the current state of offense in the game. In an interview with Karl Ravech, Manfred said he wanted to "inject some offense into the game." Interesting choice of words there, Mr. Commissioner.
There have been five historic ways to "inject" offense. There is expansion where teams are added and the talent pool of good pitching gets floated with pitchers who would not ordinarily make the cut. It is not a coincidence that Roger Maris hit 61 homers the year of an expansion. Although Bud Selig did mention expansion on his way out, anything imminent is not in sight.
The second historic way to increase offense is to lower the mound. This was famously done after 1968's historic "Year of the Pitcher." With the constant threat to pitcher's arms, this one sounds dangerous to consider.
The third way to increase offense is to fudge the baseballs. Many theorize that the flood of home run balls after the last baseball stoppage had less to do with steroids and more to do with the baseball.
The fourth way is to mess around with the strike zone. Calling it tighter helps offense. Calling it looser helps the pitchers (hello Tom Glavine).
And finally, there are performance enhancing drugs. And that is why I got such a kick out of Manfred's choice of words. Injecting is something baseball has tried very hard to eliminate from the game.
While all five of these scenarios change the game to a degree, they do not, of themselves, change how the game is played. The rules of play stay the same except for measuring the mound. What Rob Manfred is talking about is to change the rules of play. And that does not make me a happy camper.
I do not like less offense as an observer of the sport. Lord knows, I have ranted over the current state of strikeouts in the game. I have hated the sight of player after player refusing to try and stop the infield shift. But I also have followed the sport long enough to know that offense and pitching are cyclical to a degree and the conditions of this era will not be the same as the next.
As someone who would rather not see a bunch of .230 hitters with .290 on-base percentage who strike out 150 times a year, I do not want to fiddle with the rules of play just to make more runs happen. I don't like artificially changing the rules to change the game. Pitch clocks make me squirm in the same way.
But, William, you might ask, haven't they already changed rules like the Buster Posey rule at home plate and the take out side at second? Well, yes. But in the case of the former, you are protecting players (which worked by the way) and a player still has to try to score while the other team tries to prevent it. In the latter, you are simply enforcing base line running rules already in place.
But eliminating shifts is a totally another ballgame. You are limiting teams from placing their fielders where they desire to place them. This is a huge and fundamental rule shift that limits what a team can do defensively. Are infielders going to have boxes like coaching boxes where they have to stay? That would be ugly.
As others have already pointed out (Dave Cameron for example), BABIP hasn't changed all that much with the exponential growth in the use of shifts. The biggest problem in baseball is that there are less balls in play than ever before. Strikeouts have never been higher in the history of baseball. So what's next then? If you want to inject offense, change a strikeout to four strikes. No thank you.
How far can you take this once you start this kind of tinkering? Are you going to force teams with big ballparks to bring in their outfield walls? Are you going to eliminate how many relief pitchers a team can use?
The interview brought up the subject of there being a lot of smart people in the game. Those smarts have figured out how to use data to place fielders where batters tend to hit most of their balls in play. Those same people have figured out how to exploit batters for more strikes and swings and misses.
Just as smart people have brought the shifts to baseball, the same smart people can find ways for offenses to beat those shifts. Players with big swing and miss potential will not always be in vogue. Like I said, these things are cyclical. Let the game progress naturally. Baseball will always be about the intrigue of how one team tries to get an edge to beat its opponent. Just leave it alone.
The interview linked above was the first time we got a real chance to hear from Rob Manfred. And frankly, it was a little chilling to hear his mindset of artificially adding offense to the game. It is a terrible idea to change the way baseball is played on the field and doing so should always be done with extreme caution and care.
Performance Enhancing Drugs were such a problem because in many people's minds, it altered the outcomes of statistics in what has always been a traditional game. It was the artificial enhancement that people objected to. "Injecting offense" has the same artificial feel and to me puts such artificial means in the same category as PEDs. Please don't go there, Mr. Manfred. Just don't.