The State of Baseball: Inside the biggest questions MLB is facing with the future of the sport at stake

Baseball finds itself at a crossroads.

The players on the field have never been more talented, but increased velocity from pitchers has led to record strikeout totals and low batting averages. There is new generation of stars emerging, but with every bat flip comes another conversation about whether it violates the unwritten rules. Major League Baseball is exploring new rules that could help solve its pace-of-play issues but is also balancing ways to appeal to traditionalists hesitant to embrace change. Meanwhile, labor issues loom that could threaten to put a stop to any potential progress.

As MLB faces these challenges with the future of the sport at stake, we are embarking on a season-long look at The State of Baseball, examining the storylines that will determine how the game looks in 2021 and far beyond. To start, Howard Bryant, Bradford Doolittle, Doug Glanville, Alden Gonzalez, Tim Keown, Tim Kurkjian, Joon Lee, Kiley McDaniel, Buster Olney, Jeff Passan, Marly Rivera, Jesse Rogers, David Schoenfield and Clinton Yates weigh in on what they believe are the most pressing issues facing baseball today.

Jump to ...:
Big decisions ahead | Action (or inaction) on the field
The marketing dilemma | Making MLB more inclusive

Watch: An in-depth look into the state of baseball

MLB's looming battles

Baseball must decide what it really wants baseball to be

The state of baseball is eternally in flux. It's subject to the whims of the athletes who play the game, the billionaires who run it, the technocrats who populate front offices, the analysts foraging for the slightest advantage, the scientists exploring unseen frontiers, the lawyers tasked with keeping it afloat, the doctors who perpetually put Humpty Dumpty back together again and especially the fans, whose divergent passions and desires make striking a perfect balance between the game's history and future a near impossibility.

Its present is a mishmash -- a historically great array of young talent unleashed in how it celebrates itself but hamstrung by the game becoming too smart, too efficient and, consequently, too plodding. There are levers to pull that could free the game from the weights dragging it down -- and the fear that doing so would alienate the core fan at the expense of the hypothetical one. The past and the future intersect in the present, and baseball's present is confusing: exquisite players playing a fractured game.

This is the time to examine not only what baseball is now but also what it wants to be. Because that's the sort of thing that will drive the decision-makers, the people who are supposed to be the game's stewards. For all of its issues and all of its foibles, baseball's greatness remains on display every night, from April to October. It is the century-old house with good bones. But upgrades are necessary. Change is imperative. And it's incumbent on all the game's stakeholders, from those on the field to those in the ivory towers to those in the stands, to find a shared vision that best fits the modern expectation of what a professional sports league can and should look like. -- Jeff Passan

Can MLB and the MLBPA actually get along?

What we have in baseball is a failure to communicate, and that could not have been borne out more clearly than in 2020. Millions of people in the U.S. were losing their jobs -- including many working under the MLB umbrella, from longtime scouts to minor league coaches to devoted ticket-office employees -- as the coronavirus surged. Yet even against that stark backdrop, the representatives of the league and Major League Baseball Players Association continued to talk past each other, and an ugly, unseemly labor dispute over what would turn out to be a 60-game season spilled into public view in the midst of a pandemic.

The working relationship between the union and MLB appears to be the worst in decades, with the two sides struggling to find any common ground -- let alone sharing the videoconference time necessary to sort through extremely complicated issues that will require collaboration and cooperation. With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire Dec. 1, the most important question in the industry is whether the two sides will communicate less like angry, bickering divorcees and start working together on behalf of the kids -- as in, the next generation of baseball patrons who want everything fast/faster/fastest and might not have the patience to wait for baseball if a long labor stoppage obliterates some or all of the 2022 season.

The business of baseball appears to be at a tipping point. With an incredible generation of young stars like Fernando Tatis Jr. and a developing culture of fun and personal expression and fan connection, the game could grow -- or it could be devastated, by a lockout or strike.

The players' association and MLB have every reason to explore every possible solution together.

But will they? -- Buster Olney

The new CBA needs to address the root of MLB's competitive-balance issue

The complexion of baseball will change as a result of this next collective bargaining agreement. There's the headline-grabbing, big-picture stuff Buster spells out above. Months of posturing on both sides, who wins the economic battle of revenue splits, the discussions around salary caps, luxury-tax thresholds and associated penalties, along with the obvious potential of a work stoppage.

There's also a cascading set of secondary issues that will greatly affect young players who are increasingly the most valued and important players in the game.

On the simple end of things, changing Super Two arbitration and ending service-time manipulation will change when you see young potential stars on the field (hopefully sooner) and how good your team will be. One step deeper than that, the expected addition of trading draft picks, the addition of an international draft and the trading of picks in that new draft could completely change team-building strategies for years to come while solving some of the competitive-balance issues that have plagued the sport. If a new GM steps into a farm system with a big league club full of players who aren't their type, or an existing GM wants to change strategies on a dime, this additional talent-based liquidity will make trades much easier to pull off while also empowering scouts to have a real reason to scout every player on Earth. -- Kiley McDaniel

MLB must find one set of rules -- and stick with them

When Bud Selig "unified" baseball in the late 1990s by eliminating the National and American League presidencies and streamlining its umpires, it was an unsentimental business decision. The idea of two separate businesses under one roof by the turn of a new century was considered antiquated. The AL/NL nostalgia was dead, and the game was now one entity -- Major League Baseball.

More than two decades later, baseball is less unified than ever. The game built a skyscraper without first leveling its foundation. Baseball has been played under two sets of rules -- with the designated hitter in the AL -- for nearly half a century. The differences represented a unique quirk during World Series and All-Star Games -- but now that baseball plays interleague games every day, the rules of play are different in any given ballpark. In some games, the pitcher hits; in others, he does not. The game has added seven-inning doubleheaders (whose no-hitters do not count) and unearned runners in scoring position in extra innings -- taking the unprecedented step of changing the rules of play in-game. This is no longer an interesting quirk but an untenable situation that undermines the game's credibility. Baseball being played under the same rules really shouldn't be too much to ask. -- Howard Bryant

The action (or inaction) on the field

Time of game vs. pace of play

Major League Baseball is on a mission to reduce the amount of time it takes to play games. Under Rob Manfred, it's been close to an obsession. Seven-inning doubleheaders, a three-batter minimum for pitchers, a runner on second to start extra innings -- welcome to the only industry intent on persuading its consumers to enjoy less of its product. After all, who among us doesn't want a raucous extra-inning game settled as quickly as possible by a clumsy schoolyard contrivance? Setting aside the particulars, there's an inherent conflict: MLB is confusing time of game with pace of play, and its efforts at acceleration run opposite to the skills that teams are prioritizing and incentivizing.

You want to make big league money as a hitter? Hit homers, draw walks and don't sweat the strikeouts. As a pitcher? Strike out as many guys as possible. The metrics employed by every front office dictate a style of play that leads to longer games. There are more pitches, fewer balls put in play and defensive shifts that take longer to set up and alter our perception of the game's positions. Are these fundamental problems that threaten to ruin the game, or will they be forgotten as soon as the next wave of analytics decides contact hitters are the new market inefficiency? Either way, MLB is addressing a pace-of-play disease with time-of-game treatments, which puts baseball, once again, in a distressingly familiar position: at war with itself. -- Tim Keown

The pitchers are just too darn good

On April 29, the Red Sox beat the Mets, 1-0. The game featured six hits and 30 strikeouts. It was the fourth time in major league history that a game included six hits or fewer and at least 30 strikeouts -- once in 2015, once in 2018 and now twice in April. This is not healthy for the game.

The pitchers are too good, too overpowering these days. If a dominant pitcher such as Jacob deGrom doesn't make a mistake, hitters have virtually no chance of getting a hit. The value of the hit has been lost. There were well over 1,000 more strikeouts than hits in April, a first in any month in MLB history. We're headed for a league batting average (currently .234) lower than 1968, the year of the pitcher.

It is not the hitters' fault. This is what the game has urged them to do: get the ball up in the air -- do damage. The players get paid a lot of money to hit that way. But it's time for our young GMs and hitting coaches to acknowledge that this way isn't working. The pitchers made an adjustment after getting their brains beat out 20 years ago. Now it's the hitters' turn to make a change; otherwise we'll have more and more six-hit, 30-punchout games. -- Tim Kurkjian

Do we really need all those relievers?

The average starting pitcher threw 95 pitches per start from 2001 to 2015. From 2016 to 2020, that number dropped to 89. Leaving a starter in long enough to face the same lineup for a third time has now evolved into heresy for all but the very best. The pitchers themselves have gradually relented, a begrudging acceptance that numbers cannot be defeated. Rather than engage in an unwinnable fight, they have attempted to use the strategy to their benefit -- by not being afraid to showcase all their pitches in early at-bats, by dismissing the idea of setting hitters up for the late stages of a game and, basically, by going as close to max effort as possible.

If they're not being counted on to pitch deeper into games, then they won't worry about preserving themselves for it. That's the thought, at least. So they're emptying the tank early, then paving the way for a string of one-inning power relievers who will do the same. The result: Hitters consistently facing devastating stuff, most of it from arms they're seeing for the first time.

The solution to this -- and, thus, the antidote to the game's lack of action -- might be as simple as limiting the number of pitchers a team can carry on its roster. All of a sudden, starters will have to worry about pitching deeper into games, will have to turn a lineup over a third time and will have to think about a more efficient way to pitch. It could ultimately change the game. -- Alden Gonzalez

It's time to address the shift

For the longest time in baseball, being a left-handed hitter had its advantages. Fewer left-handed people in the world means less competition for jobs requiring them, and left-handed batters have more favorable matchups because they face right-handed pitching more than righties do left-handed pitching.

Then along came the shift, and left-handed hitters suddenly became vulnerable. Because batters run to first base -- not third -- lefties have been hurt more than right-handed hitters. At least a righty has a chance to beat out a ground ball to the hole in short, but lefties have almost no chance with three infielders on the right side of second base.

The result of the shift reducing ground-ball hits has led hitters to attempt to launch the ball into the air. They have succeeded to a certain point, as home run rates have exploded. But pitchers seem to have caught up. A launch-angle swing comes with more swing-and-miss potential, so strikeouts have risen and batting average has plummeted. Ban the shift, and you'll bring back hits as well as swings that create action beyond an occasional long ball. -- Jesse Rogers

The marketing dilemma

The next generation is here, now MLB must sell it

Major League Baseball has hit the jackpot with the current crop of young stars rising in the game. From Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mookie Betts to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Shohei Ohtani, MLB currently sports its most exciting up-and-coming core since the '90s. That's when Ken Griffey Jr. became a cultural icon and an influx of shortstops including Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra modeled on magazines. In a sport that's struggled to adapt to social media and attract young, casual fans, this generation seems tailor-made for MLB to market to a broad, crossover audience.

The question -- as it often is with MLB -- is whether the league will fumble the bag. National television ratings are up, but continued growth will depend on whether commissioner Rob Manfred can lean into what's made the sport more nationally relevant in recent years, such as the rivalry between Tatis' upstart Padres and Betts' defending champion Dodgers.

Relying on nostalgia, as baseball has for decades, won't resonate, particularly with so many other entertainment options competing for the attention of younger audiences. Marketing the game to people growing up on the internet will require the sport to push outside of its comfort zone, an area MLB rarely leaves, because of what makes baseball so exciting in 2021: the individuality, personality and diversity of its next generation. -- Joon Lee

But highlight all the great things baseball is -- not what it isn't

Before the turn of the century, Major League Baseball could be classified with one catch phrase that Nike stuck the sport with: Chicks dig the long ball. A clumsy and kind of oafish throw back to the power and awe of home runs, it pretty much embodied who and what the league was. If you hit homers, you were exalted. If you threw strikeouts, likewise.

Somewhere along the way baseball forgot what it was, marketingwise. Instead of teaching the game so kids could love the sport for what it is, hitting, fielding and, of course, baserunning, the league relied on so-called star power to draw casuals for intermittent oohs and aahs. When I was a kid, my favorite players were Gary Sheffield and Shawon Dunston. My grandma's favorite player was Hal McRae.

The stars of today are more all-around than the stars of 20 years ago, but MLB needs to remember that while they are the biggest in the league, that doesn't mean they are enough to carry the sport themselves. Let The Kids Play is one thing. But Market More Stars is another. There doesn't need to be just one or two "faces" of the league to argue over, and just tuning in to watch the players with the enormous contracts isn't what baseball is really about.

Seeing players get after it in the dirt and on the grass while competing at the highest level of what we love is the core of baseball. If more people like that part rather than just the fireworks, the league will be fine. Until then, it probably helps to cater to those who already like it, the fun way. -- Clinton Yates

Enough with the unwritten rules already

Ahead of the season, Fernando Tatis Jr. apologized for bringing fun back into the game of baseball. Tatis was being tongue-in-cheek in a video game commercial, but the truth is that there are numerous players, many of them of Latin American heritage, who were never aware of baseball's unwritten rules.

That has come at a price. Baseball in Latin America is a much different experience than in Major League Baseball. Many players grew up playing in an environment in which celebrations that violate baseball's unwritten rules are widely accepted. Players who do not fit the mold of the "American Way" are vilified here, particularly because of the unquestionable racial undertone.

When one of these incidents of breaking baseball's unwritten rules happens, you can expect to see a Latin player standing in front of a camera saying, "I did not mean to disrespect anybody." Baseball, which aspires to be a multicultural and multiethnic sport, often falls short because of the demographics of its audience. Jose Bautista was infamously ripped for his postseason bat flip, a moment that the former Blue Jays outfielder described as an "out-of-body experience." Bautista did not do it to "disrespect" anybody. He did it out of joy. Legislating joy is a pointless attempt to not celebrate the changing culture of baseball.

Attitudes need to shift, but that will never happen without comprehending the players' backgrounds. The 2021 Opening Day rosters featured 256 internationally born players, the great majority of them of Latino heritage. The Dominican Republic leads the majors with 98 players, Venezuela ranks second with 64, Cuba places third with 19 players and Puerto Rico is fourth with 18. Yet it's only a matter of time before the next Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., Javy Baez or Francisco Lindor has to stand in front of that camera again. -- Marly Rivera

Make the sport more inclusive

True power should reflect the talent on the field

In 1947, when baseball brought Jackie Robinson into the league, it was a commitment. Beyond valuing the best talent, irrespective of color, it was also a step toward full representation in society. Seventy-five years later, Major League Baseball is still grappling with being representative at the top of its power structure, falling short of Robinson's dying wish for Black leadership.

Now, some of the league's exciting top talent reflect many cultures and colors that lack true power at the boardroom table -- players like Shohei Ohtani, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Tim Anderson. It is no longer modern to have homogenous leadership. Despite the Selig Rule and other genuine policy shifts that have chipped away in some areas of the game, there are enough private corporate workarounds to leave diversity lacking where there is true power. -- Doug Glanville

MLB must let people, you know, actually watch the games

If you consider the National Association a major league, which many don't, my home state of Iowa has had a big league team -- the 1875 Keokuk Westerns, which lasted for all of 13 games. Sadly, for Iowans, it may have been better to be a big league fan in 1875 than it is now. One-hundred and forty-six years later, Iowa has become an avatar for what worries me most about baseball's future: a lack of accessibility for too many people, and an overreliance on the economically elite to generate revenue.

There are six big league clubs in the states that share a border with Iowa. Any fan there who buys one of MLB's national broadcast packages to follow the sport can't watch any of them because of baseball's archaic blackout rules. Las Vegas is also blacked out from watching six teams, and that's a potential MLB expansion city. In Chicago, if you rely on streaming TV and use the wrong service, you can't watch the Cubs. In L.A., numerous fans still don't get Dodgers games.

All of this comes at a time when economic disparity is at historic levels and ticket prices at MLB ballparks grow increasingly expensive. To keep the foundation of the sport strong, baseball needs to get as many butts in seats and eyeballs on games as possible, even if it means loosening the grip on every short-term marginal dollar. This can't just be a sport played by and watched by the well-off. And the term "premium experience" needs to be stricken from every piece of MLB-related marketing material. -- Bradford Doolittle

MLB must invest in getting more kids from all backgrounds playing baseball

The good news: Youth participation in baseball and softball increased by nearly 3 million kids from 2013 to 2018, according to annual surveys from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. More than 25 million kids played baseball or softball in 2018, with nearly 15 million of those considered "core" players who played regularly. Kids who play hopefully become adults who watch.

MLB must continue to invest in youth infrastructure, however, including current programs like the Breakthrough Series for baseball and softball or the MLB Youth Academies that operate in eight cities with a couple more on the way. The first Youth Academy opened in 2006. Fifteen years later, there should be one in every major league city.

Another issue is the cost of playing baseball, from Little League travel teams to hiring personal hitting or pitching coaches. Andrew McCutchen once wrote that he wouldn't have been able to keep playing baseball if not for a coach who helped his family with expenses. Even then, he thought he would play football in college -- a sport in which scholarships are more plentiful -- until he tore his ACL when he was 15. MLB is losing out not just on future fans but also future stars for those fans to watch. Think of the tens of millions the sport spends annually just on its analytics and player development staffs. Imagine if those groups had more players with Andrew McCutchen's ability to work with. -- David Schoenfield