Every few months since he took over as commissioner, Rob Manfred has floated some idea for making baseball more exciting. The challenge, though, is that there's one thing he can't change: the players' incentives. They want to win. They exist to win. There is no sport without players trying single-mindedly to win.
That drive is the most relentless force in the sport, the gravity of baseball pulling everything toward it. It's beyond the league's control, more powerful than money, more powerful than entertainment, and totally non-negotiable.
Thirty owners walk into a room, intent on making baseball more exciting in an era when surging strikeouts slow the game but are seen as sound strategy.
What happens next?
At a meeting of the clubs of Major League Baseball, held on March 31, 2017:
RESOLUTION: Acknowledging how crazy it is that Ian Kennedy had a higher strikeout rate in 2016 than Bob Gibson had in his very best strikeout season, and doing something about it finally.
WHEREAS, the league's strikeout rate continues to climb, having in 2016 surpassed eight per game for the first time, the ninth year in a row that the league has broken its previous record;
WHEREAS, the league's pitchers have chosen a defensive strategy that is centered on getting strikeouts by throwing hard or inducing batters to chase pitches out of the zone, while the league's batters have chosen a walks-and-homers offensive strategy that is largely tolerant of strikeouts, creating a competitive vortex in which strikeouts might theoretically continue to rise unabated if the league's governing body doesn't step in to save the sport from ballplayers' short-sighted strategic decisions;
WHEREAS, this emphasis on homers, walks and strikeouts has great and aesthetically unwelcome ramifications on baseball play generally, leading to less base stealing, fewer opportunities for defensive excellence, more pitching changes and far more pitches thrown;
WHEREAS, this last bit, the pitches thrown, is among the biggest causes of baseball's so-called Pace Of Play Problem;
WHEREAS, in 2016, the average plate appearance took 3.87 pitches, a record, up .05 pitches from 2015 and up almost .30 pitches per plate appearance since 1988, an extra 22 pitches per game, all because baseball players don't care how boring they are, they only want to win;
WHEREAS, we, the owners, care about how boring they are, and also how long they keep their hair;
WHEREAS, we, the owners, agree that strikeouts might be good strategy but are on balance an aesthetic slog, depriving viewers of variety, depressing offense generally, and, most importantly, undoing the sport's traditional emphasis on running and action and groundouts to the right side of the infield that advance the runner to third with less than two outs;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the clubs of Major League Baseball that umpires shall call a strike zone that is 10 percent smaller this season, effective immediately, so that pitchers will be forced to throw some durned strikes that batters can actually handle.
At a meeting of the clubs of Major League Baseball, held on March 31, 2019
RESOLUTION: To address the fact that for the first time ever, teams in 2018 had more strikeouts per game than hits, despite our best efforts two years ago today.
WHEREAS, in an attempt to reduce strikeouts, the clubs issued an order in 2017 to shrink the strike zone;
WHEREAS, batters took advantage of this smaller strike zone by swinging at fewer pitches, knowing that the decreased likelihood of pitchers throwing strikes in a small zone would increase the batter's likelihood of drawing a walk;
WHEREAS, taking more pitches led to deeper counts and longer games;
WHEREAS, taking more pitches led to even more strikeouts, if you can believe that, since super-patient batters made sure that practically every at-bat seemed to go to a 3-2 count;
WHEREAS, the change in the strike zone hurt some pitchers more than others, notably penalizing finesse pitchers who thrived by getting batters to chase at, and make poor contact with, pitches on the outer edges of the old, larger strike zone;
WHEREAS, extremely hard-throwing swing-and-miss pitchers were less affected, able as they were to get away with pitches in this smaller, more hitter-friendly strike zone;
WHEREAS, clubs responded by giving even more innings to hard-throwing strikeout pitchers, reducing innings given to finesse pitchers and increasing the league's average fastball velocity to new all-time highs;
WHEREAS, we acknowledge we sure did step in it this time, and we'd better do something to fix it, because this is too many durned strikeouts, am I right;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the pitching mound shall be moved back 2.5 feet, to exactly 63 feet from home plate, in order to increase the number of batted balls in play.
At a meeting of the clubs of Major League Baseball, held on March 31, 2021
RESOLUTION: To address the fact that my nephew Anton told me that none of his friends watch baseball anymore, probably because there are now nearly 11 strikeouts per game and the right fielder can pretty much sit down and read comic books while his team is in the field.
WHEREAS, moving the mound back had unintended consequences that surely none of us could have foreseen;
WHEREAS, pitchers had a harder time than ever hitting their targets, on account of having to throw to a tiny strike zone from even farther away;
WHEREAS, batters recognized this and found still more incentive to take pitches, work deep counts, and reap the copious amounts of walks, even if those deep counts led to even more strikeouts;
WHEREAS, the longer distance from the mound to the plate penalized high-velocity pitchers some but penalized finesse pitchers even more, as pitchers who could previously scrape by with 90 mph fastballs were now throwing the equivalent of batting practice fastballs, giving teams even more incentive to ditch crafty pitch-to-contact guys and load up on only the hardest throwers;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the clubs of Major League Baseball that the seams of the baseball shall be raised, giving pitchers the ability to get more movement on their breaking pitches and restoring the balance between offense and defense.
At a meeting of the clubs of Major League Baseball, held on March 31, 2023
RESOLUTION: That nothing seems to work as we intend but maybe this next thing will!
WHEREAS, raising the seams of the baseball did, as intended, increase movement on breaking pitches;
WHEREAS, this made pitches much more difficult to hit squarely, and also greatly reduced baseballs' carry, batters had far less incentive to swing, as the value of the average batted ball went way down while the value of a walk stayed constant;
WHEREAS, batters therefore worked still deeper counts, leading to still more strikeouts and still fewer hard-hit balls in play that provide the leaping catches, clean singles, sprints from first to third, crisp double plays and other XTreme action that my nephew Anton's friends would probably really respond to;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that, to increase the likelihood that balls in play will turn into hits or errors, and to give batters further incentive to put the ball in play, all fielders shall be restricted to tiny gloves with tiny webbing.
At a meeting of the clubs of Major League Baseball, held on March 31, 2025
WHEREAS, increasing the value of batted balls incentivized pitchers to avoid letting any balls be put in play;
WHEREAS, this led to more nibbling on the edges of the zone and a further increase in walks;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that it will now take five balls to make a walk.
At a meeting of the clubs of Major League Baseball, held on March 31, 2027
WHEREAS, now pitchers are just wasting way more pitches, or throwing chase pitches to induce swinging strikes, knowing they have more room for error before reaching Ball Five;
WHEREAS, that has led to more strikeouts;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that it will take four strikes before an out is recorded.
At a meeting of the clubs of Major League Baseball, held on March 31, 2029
WHEREAS, there are, as we should have predicted with the rise of pitches per plate appearance, way too many pitching changes now;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that only five -- no, three, let's say three pitchers are allowed per game.
At a meeting of the clubs of Major League Baseball, held on March 31, 2031
WHEREAS, with pitchers exhausted all the time by our strict three-pitchers-per-game limit, the rate of home runs has gone way up, which has made pitchers nibble even more, afraid of throwing any strikes at all, which has led batters to take advantage by drawing more walks, even at the cost of increased strikeouts resulting from deep counts;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that all ballparks' fences must be moved back 25 feet.
At a meeting of the clubs of Major League Baseball, held on March 31, 2067
WHEREAS, we have deadened the ball;
WHEREAS, gloves have been outlawed;
WHEREAS, ballparks are all exact replicas of Griffith Stadium;
WHEREAS, it takes nine balls to draw a walk and four strikes for a strikeout;
WHEREAS, player substitutions are not allowed except in case of injury;
WHEREAS, no pitches thrown from above the waist are permitted;
WHEREAS, the pitcher is not allowed to snap his wrist while delivering a pitch;
WHEREAS, the batter is allowed to ask for a pitch in his preferred location;
WHEREAS, catchers shall not wear protective gear, nor shall batters wear helmets;
WHEREAS, my nephew Anton is now 58 years old and loves baseball;
WHEREAS, strikeouts seem to have peaked at 16 per game and are now slowly moving down;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that our work on strikeouts is done, and we can now move on to baseball's mongoose problem.