Major League Baseball is ill.
A sign-stealing scandal is rocking the sport. Younger fans are tuning out. Attendance is in a downward spiral. Once "America's Pastime," MLB is more regionalized each year.
Commissioner Rob Manfred is the man entrusted to breathe life into this sick patient, but are you inspired by his handling of the Astros mess? That's why Dr. Mueller is here for you. Here are 20 bold ideas for the 2020s to significantly improve the on-field product and fan experience. I don't dispense free beer; just common sense.
For starters, let's really get radical
No divisions. No American or National leagues. Lump all teams into one 30-team league that plays as close to a balanced schedule as possible, with geographic rivals playing with slightly greater frequency. Analytics fans have increasingly pointed to the small sample size randomness of baseball’s playoffs as a flawed capstone to a grueling regular season; and although TV money means that the postseason as we know it isn’t going anywhere, making the regular season a more legitimate barometer as far as determining the league’s best team would be a good thing. (Top 10 teams make the playoffs; the first- and second-place teams get byes.) If this concept sounds like a modified version of what the English Premier League does, that’s because it is. It pains me to admit this, but soccer does it right.
And let's warm up with this
There are enough warm-weather cities with baseball teams to ensure that every series in April happens in those locations. With a newly balanced schedule and the concept of leagues a thing of the past, no one should complain too much about a competitive disadvantage, and fans wouldn’t have to wear parkas, hats and gloves when going to a game. Super-serving fans by actually giving them an enjoyable in-person experience — what a concept!
Let freedom ring!
The steroid era created a warped view of what players are capable of in their 30s. Now, with presumably few players using, careers are ending earlier and teams aren’t willing to pay big money to players approaching 30 despite that being the first chance most have at free agency. More player movement is good for the game, so the solution is simple: free agency after four seasons.
Tanks for this one
Tanking is a major problem in baseball. Last season, 14 teams finished at least 20 games out of first place, and nine finished at least 35 games back. Only two division races were decided by less than five games. That $15 beer doesn’t taste so good when you realize that the team owner doesn’t even know if the team won, much less care. The league’s luxury tax functions as a de facto salary cap, but MLB needs a formal salary floor. The league average payroll for 2019 was $138.4 million, per Spotrac. Six teams spent less than $100 million. Start the floor at $100 mil, and up it incrementally every year.
It may hurt umpires' feelings, but ...
... it's time to have computer technology for calling balls and strikes. Yes, it's time for robot umpires. Human error is part of the charm of sports for some; a cause for fury among others. A Boston University study found that MLB umpires missed 34,294 ball-strike calls in 2018. That averages out to 14 per game. The potential impact of those misses is massive. The difference in batting average on a 1-2 pitch vs. a 2-1 pitch, for example, is close to 200 points most seasons. It appears that Manfred is closer to making this a reality. To placate the hurt feelings, home plate umpires may still use their signature strike three calls — it wouldn’t be baseball without someone “starting the lawnmower,” would it?
Finally, a universal DH!
Traditionalists say that pitchers hitting makes for a more interesting, strategic game. Traditionalists are wrong, because most pitchers are abominable hitters, and no amount of Bartolo Colon-related fun can change that. The DH, adopted by the American League sometime before dinosaurs roamed the Earth, is going nowhere. It could be adopted by the National League soon. Do it. Now. Then institute much more radical changes, such as ...
... a fabulous reentry rule (with a caveat)
Have you ever wished your team had its best reliever available in a crucial situation, only to lament his use earlier in the game? Think of how much more interesting baseball would be if a team could reenter one player into the game. The caveat? If that player is a pitcher, he can face only one batter, and a position player can have only one at-bat. There will be detail-related quirks to work out, but the added strategy and intrigue should be enough to placate double-switch fetishists who are sad about pitchers not hitting anymore.
Show some mercy
Only one season in the last five — 2016 — has had at least one team rally to win after trailing by at least 10 runs. Just three teams in baseball history have won a game where they trailed by at least 10 runs at the start of the seventh inning. Baseball fans cherish their records and statistics, but there is nothing worse than sitting around through the end of a blowout. Fans get bored, it isn’t compelling television and players probably hate it as well. Down 10 runs at the start of the seventh? Congratulations, you lose! And fans win either way. If the home team delivers a mercy rule beating, fans get value added to their next ticket. If the good guys lose? Rebates!
For kicks, steal this soccer idea, too
This is a genuinely radical idea, but the English Premier League has added enormous drama to every season by involving relegation. The three worst teams in the league are sent down to what amounts to Triple-A, and the best three teams from that league are promoted to the Premier League. The same concept could work on a smaller scale in baseball, with the worst team in the league going down to the minors and the champion of the Triple-A playoffs making it to the majors. The 2020 Tigers and Orioles will probably love the idea, since they’re already fielding minor league lineups.
You're on the clock, pal
Part of baseball’s charm is that it doesn’t have a clock, as you’ve likely heard several thousand times. But courting younger fans means cutting down on some of the extraneous non-action that makes up a good portion of any game. Manfred must adopt a formal pitch clock – the 20-second version used in 2019 spring training games would be perfect.
... and speaking of speeding up the game, introducing the 'Big Papi' rule
Few aspects of your average baseball game are more annoying than watching players take a pitch — ball or strike — without swinging or doing anything, then step out, adjust their batting gloves, stare at the sky, take a few practice swings, ad nauseam. From now on, a batter who doesn’t swing at a pitch must keep one foot in the box and have both feet in within five seconds of the pitcher getting the ball back from the catcher. That’s plenty of time to get a sign from the third base coach. First offense? A warning. Second offense? A called strike. Call it the "Big Papi" rule, just for a little ironic fun.
Hello, Big Brother
Want to make sure another Astros-esque cheating scandal never happens again? Make the replay review process even more gut-oriented. The Replay Command Center in New York City is fine as is, but the existence of video technology in ballparks is too easily exploited for nefarious purposes. If managers want to challenge a call, they should still get 30 seconds from the end of the play to decide. However, forbid them from discussing the play with a replay assistant. Make it a true gut decision. Additionally, any and all video shot at games must be monitored by an MLB employee. Don’t like that Big Brother is watching you? Blame Houston.
Deliver a pile of cash to non-playoff team
As an incentive to win, the non-playoff team with the best record will receive $500,000 from every other club — money that must be used in its entirety on player acquisition or retention for the following season. Instead of trying to prevent teams from tanking, this rule would encourage teams to win, right up until the end of the season. The idea of, say, Pittsburgh owner Robert Nutting having to cut a check at the end of another 70-92 season is particularly appealing.
Bet big on this concept
Baseball should create an area in every stadium, perhaps one section, where each seat is outfitted with a portable, personal sports betting device. One of the major online sports books can sponsor it, or offer its technology, and fans willing to pay a premium price can wager on everything in the game in real time, down to whether the next pitch will be a ball or a strike. Have ushers dedicated to getting those fans drinks and food, and watch as that section fills up, even for the most boring, blasé matchups. Bonus: The rest of the fans in attendance get to watch grown-ups cry about pop-ups to the shortstop in an 8-1 game.
World Series daydreaming
The last outdoor day game at the World Series was in 1984, when the Tigers finished off the Padres in Game 5. The average baseball fan isn’t getting any younger, and late-starting playoff games, particularly the World Series, are a turnoff for many. Want to get kids more interested in the sport? Start a game — make it a weekend affair — closer to noon than dinner time. Prime time is overrated.
Streaming the home team
Every team in the sport is awash in cash thanks to bountiful local and national television deals, but many fans have cut the cord with cable and are unable to watch their favorite team using MLB.TV because of local blackout restrictions. It’s a problem with an easy solution: Mandate that every regional sports network have a streaming service, and charge fans a nominal monthly fee for access to the games. Who loses (besides obscenely rich cable company executives)?
Borrow from the NHL. (Am I nuts?!)
Absolutely... ahh... well, no.
Listen up: Marathon extra-inning games are occasionally fun, but more often than not, they’re just boring. Baseball ought to take a page from the NHL’s playbook, and if a game goes 12 full innings and is still tied, a best-of-five home run derby should decide it. Each team can pick its representative, and that player can decide who throws the pitches. The most home runs on five swings wins.
Be more 'short'-sighted
U.S. sports revolve around the playoff system. Baseball players have by far the longest regular season coupled with the shortest postseason outside the NFL. A 162-game schedule is unnecessary, so MLB should cut eight games from the regular season and make every playoff series seven games. The result: more drama in October, a greater chance that the better team wins a series and eight extra days off that will likely help with player wear and tear. Unfortunately, the league is trending in a much dumber direction, as a brilliant writer pointed out.
Spread the wealth
Many players have production-based bonus clauses in their contracts. The league should sweeten the pot for them by giving out similar bonuses for the league leaders in major categories. A million dollars for “major” categories like home runs and ERA titles and lesser amounts, but no less than $250,000 for, say, stolen base titles and most outfield assists. Players on also-ran teams doggedly chasing an individual milestone, often with comedic results? Sign me up.
Introducing ... the Scoring Position Channel
The NFL has the RedZone channel, and while baseball’s fantasy following isn’t as rabid, plenty of fans still play it. MLB should create a channel that cuts to every game that features at least one runner in scoring position and jump around with running commentary and discussion of fantasy implications. It’s a simple concept that would also serve to make the game more exciting overall. If there is a channel where something is constantly happening, it would help the sport appear more fast-paced and action-packed.
BONUS! Bring fans closer to the game... literally
Ever been to a sparsely attended baseball game and tried to move down closer to the field from your nosebleed seats, only to be told by an usher to get lost? It’s ridiculous and penalizes fans for a completely benign, victimless action. Manfred ought to step in and create a “common sense” rule that doesn’t just permit but also encourages fans to move closer to the field when attendance is light. Better to reward paying customers when there are fewer of them rather than push them away.