WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — What should happen next in Major League Baseball’s pace-of-play discussion is a delegation of power, a simple gesture that underscores MLB’s willingness to defer to the players’ unique understanding of how the game operates. Commissioner Rob Manfred should propose that the players select and build their own committee to shape initiatives that reduce the average time of games.
The composition of that committee could be determined entirely by the union. Maybe three pitchers and three hitters, or maybe five and five, or 15 and 15, if the players’ association chose to have at least one representative from every team. Manfred could leave it up to the players to decide.
Whatever its makeup, that committee could generate ideas, plug them into some simulation models provided by an MLB-funded analytics group and see how they work. There is a great scene in the movie “Apollo 13” in which a group of engineers is tasked with creating a device that scrubs the capsule air of carbon dioxide. Every item on the spaceship is replicated and dumped onto a table, and the engineers are charged with finding a solution. This is what could and should happen in the effort to reduce the average time of baseball games to 2 hours, 55 minutes.
The players would have the power to design rules acceptable for them, rather than have unwanted regulations foisted on them.
But that won’t happen because the relationship between the union and Major League Baseball is probably at its worst since the 2002 season. The spirit of cooperation that had evolved is now just about dead, to the degree that the simplest of requests are all but ignored. The players are furious about how free agency has played out, they are furious about the current economics of the game, and their solution is intransigence.
Think of Manfred as the parent who has told the players, in effect, to eat their vegetables for the sake of long-term health. MLB believes that shortening games will make the product more attractive to a younger generation of fans that does not appear to have the patience of waiting through baseball games that last 3½ to 4 hours.
Think of the players as the teenagers rebelling over various issues — and they are simply saying no to the vegetables, no to everything. Because they’re mad. It would probably make sense for the players to talk through some of the issues, to have the conversations, and to glean some benefits, but they are in no mood to sort through any of that. They are just saying no.
Manfred had the power to implement any change he wanted in the pace-of-play rules, but he didn’t, because he knows the players are mad, and he didn’t want to pick a summer-long fight. Instead, he went with a much more modest proposal: no pitch clock, and a relatively liberal limit of six mound visits per game. But while the union leadership signed a paper acknowledging an understanding of the new rules, the players were still upset, many of them expressing skepticism publicly.
Privately, a lot of players think the new regulations are a joke and doubt that the changes will have a tangible impact on the pace of action and the interest of fans — and will only serve to anger the players even more, and hinder them in their work. The players were so vocal in their discord that you have to wonder if Manfred regrets not going all-in on the changes, including a pitch clock, under the premise that if MLB is going to weather a year of public complaints from the pace-of-play stuff, they might as well go all-in.
The disconnect seems so enormous that a negotiated, collaborative solution seems completely out of the question. If MLB wants to effect serious change — if it truly wants to reduce the game to an NBA-like 2 hours, 30 minutes — it should seriously consider pushing for a reduction of games from nine to seven innings.
Even if there was a reasonable path to change for the players to consider, like a players-only committee, there seems to be little to no sentiment toward cooperation. Rather, they are spoiling for a larger fight that probably can’t take place until the months before the current collective bargaining agreement expires in December 2021.
• Teams have started planning for adjustments with the new six-visit limits. One manager wondered aloud if he would push his starting pitcher and catcher to avoid mound visits so that his team can save the mound visits for the later innings. Sean Doolittle, the Washington Nationals’ closer, anticipates more preparation — to be fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of various hitters, particularly recent call-ups — because in the past, catchers have reflexively gone to the mound with reminders, and that won’t really be possible anymore. Catchers say there will be more time spent on generating alternative sets of signs to cope with situations when the perception is that the runner at second is stealing signs.
“You’re going to have to come up with multiple systems before the game to change [the signs], so you don’t have to talk,” Houston Astros catcher Evan Gattis said. “That’s something that’s going to have to get squared away right now.” [Now, as in spring training]. “It’ll be something with touches, or dummy signs, or going back to the same set.”
Other players speculate that phantom injuries could become more common: When a pitcher is uncertain, he might be suddenly affected by a tightening lower back or hamstring and call for the athletic trainer, to buy time to get on the same time with the catcher.
“Let’s face it,” one player said, “sometimes it benefits the pitcher to try to slow the game down.”
Derrick Goold writes about the St. Louis Cardinals’ preparation to work around the new mound-visits rule.
News from around the majors
The hangover from a championship season is commonplace. The Chicago Cubs seemed to go through it in 2017, with internal questions about the players’ focus. On Opening Day in 2016, Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost said he had no sense that his team’s performance would wane, but it happened. In preparing for the 2016 season after a run through the World Series in the fall of 2015, former New York Mets manager Terry Collins asked friends about how to combat the hangover, and Jim Leyland and others told him: It’s inevitable.
The Astros will present an interesting test for this conventional wisdom, because Houston is a team loaded with young players still early in their careers. George Springer, the World Series MVP, took batting practice the other day and one evaluator said, “That guy wants to be the [regular-season] MVP.” Jose Altuve is obsessed with the collection of hits, Carlos Correa is a workaholic, Justin Verlander wants to be a Hall of Famer, Dallas Keuchel is entering his free-agent year and could benefit greatly from a big season, and Lance McCullers, Jr. and Gerrit Cole are still rounding out their respective resumes.
MLB has not seen a repeat champion since the Yankees from 1998 to 2000, but the Astros might have the necessary combination of talent and drive to make that happen (and yes, you could have written the same thing about Cubs a year ago).
• On Sunday, a memorial service for the former San Diego Padres GM Kevin Towers will be held at Petco Park, with dozens of baseball executives and evaluators expected to attend. They will be there to honor Towers, who was incredibly likable and fun, and a person of great integrity. I met Kevin when I covered the Padres 1992-95, and I’ll be there, as well.
A few months after Ken Caminiti passed away in 2004, Kevin and I talked over the phone one evening about the heartbreaking circumstances of Caminiti’s life. The third baseman had a substance-abuse history, and yet in his desire to be as great as possible on the field, he had used steroids and amphetamines. Everybody knew he was using PEDs, Kevin said, in an off-the-record conversation, and nobody did anything about it because the team was doing great and the Padres were making money. Kevin had great affection for Caminiti and felt awful about the sequence of events, and in retrospect, he said he wished he had said something.
The next day, I drove to the Padres’ spring training home to see him and asked if would relate his feelings about Caminiti on the record, for publication — and he did so, without hesitation.
We were standing on the roof of the Padres’ spring training complex, and as I turned the recorder off, I said to him that his comments would be a really big deal — and they were, more than either of us could’ve imagined. Major League Baseball was furious about his comments, and he was blistered by the folks for whom he worked — and that was before he was called to testify at the March 17, 2005, congressional hearings about steroids in baseball. The panels included Bud Selig, baseball superstars — and one general manager, Kevin Towers. This was the day Mark McGwire said he didn’t want to talk about the past, and Rafael Palmeiro said he never used steroids.
In the hours before he was sworn in, I called to wish Kevin well, somewhat unsure of how he would feel about his appearance, and my role in it. He picked up on the first ring, sounding the same as always. I told him I felt bad that he was in a position of such duress, but he dismissed that concern.
“Honestly, I feel great,” he said. “I told the truth. I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Jeff Powers writes here about Kevin’s impact on the steroid conversation in baseball.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Joe Girardi, Jean Segura have confrontation as Philadelphia Phillies lose to Toronto Blue Jays
DUNEDIN, Fla. — The injury-depleted Philadelphia Phillies lost a game, another player and their temper.
Segura committed two errors. One miscue came in the first inning when Segura misplayed a soft one-hopper by Randal Grichuk.
“That’s a bench conversation, meant for the bench,” said Girardi, who was asked about a half-dozen times about the incident. “You can ask all you want; you got everything you’re going to get about it. I’m done with it.”
At one point, Segura had to be restrained by coach Dusty Wathan.
“I didn’t actually see it,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “Obviously, I heard it. It’s heat-of-the-moment stuff, right. We’re all competing. Everybody in the dugout wants to win the same amount. Sometimes that’s what happens.”
Semien finished with three hits and three RBIs, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit his 11th homer, a solo drive in the eighth that gave him home runs in three consecutive games.
“I feel comfortable with what I’m doing mechanically,” Semien said. “That’s always good when you don’t have to worry about changing something every day. You’re just able to focus on what you’re looking for at the plate.”
Toronto won for the sixth time in eight games, moving five games over .500 for the first time this season.
Harper replaced Scott Kingery in right in the sixth inning. Harper popped up a bunt for an out with two on and one out in the eighth with the Phillies down 9-4, then stranded two in the ninth with a game-ending strikeout on a full-count fastball from Jeremy Beasley, the eighth pitch of the at-bat.
Girardi said he talked with Harper about trying for a bunt hit in the sixth. The slugger took several big swings during his ninth-inning at-bat.
“I was concerned,” Girardi said. “Talked about some different things. I talked to Bryce — he said he wanted to try and he was OK, so we let him do it. I trust the player. I thought he had some swings.”
Kingery ran into the wall chasing a fly ball and later felt dizzy, and he will be evaluated.
Royals manager Mike Matheny calls for ‘accountability’ after game-ending call stands
CHICAGO — Add Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny to the list of people who have questioned motives behind video replay.
Matheny was on the wrong end of a review in the bottom of the ninth inning of his team’s game against the Chicago White Sox on Sunday.
With two outs in a 3-3 tie, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu came home on a wild pitch from reliever Wade Davis. Catcher Cam Gallagher retrieved the ball and went to tag Abreu, who slid in on the third base side of home plate. He was called safe on the field and the review upheld the call, which gave the White Sox a 4-3 win.
Replays showed Gallagher may have tagged Abreu on his jersey before he reached the plate.
“If we’re going to use video replay, there needs to be some accountability,” Matheny said after the loss. “I walked in here and had two different camera angles with this guy out. Tagged before he ever touched the plate. Very obvious. I don’t know what they’re doing, backing each other up, whatever it is. It’s wrong.”
Plays can only be overturned if video review shows a conclusive reason for it. Umpires in New York made the call with the umpires in Chicago on a headset — as is the norm. Anything short of a definitive angle to overturn a ruling means the call on the field stands.
“They have the opportunity to take that much time, and from appearances, it looks like they don’t want to bring them [the players] back onto the field while they’re here with this crowd,” Matheny said. “It’s just wrong and something has to be done about it.”
The Sox were down 3-2 going into the ninth. They tied the score on a Yoan Moncada RBI single but Moncada was eventually thrown out at the plate by Whit Merrifield on a base hit to right by Yermin Mercedes. That sent Abreu to third after he was hit by a pitch earlier in the inning. Then Davis threw the wild pitch, bringing Abreu home.
“They said he was safe,” White Sox right-fielder Adam Eaton said. “They even got replay. I had a pretty good view of it. Bang, bang play. Heck of a slide by Jose. We’ll definitely take it.”
“You could see the jersey move when he tagged him on the body,” he said.
The result of the play meant the Sox and Royals split their four-game series.
Shane Bieber’s record strikeout streak ends, as Seattle Mariners chase Cleveland Indians ace early
Bieber had fanned at least eight in 20 straight games. But the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner fell just short against the Mariners, striking out seven in 4 2/3 innings.
Bieber left trailing 3-0 with the bases loaded in his shortest outing of the season.
The 25-year-old right-hander leads the majors with 92 strikeouts. Bieber started the season with 10 or more strikeouts in his first four outings, another major league record.
The last time Bieber didn’t strike out at least eight in a regular-season game was his final start of the 2019 season. He struck out seven last year in a playoff start against the Yankees.
Bieber allowed a run in the first inning Sunday. In all of 2020, he allowed only one run in the first inning.
In the series finale, Cleveland is attempting to gain a split of the four games.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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