If nothing else, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been controversial since he became the 10th man to hold baseball’s top spot in January 2015.

He has made “pace of play” his cause celebre, an issue he believes is one of game’s biggest burdens. But in addressing it, Manfred has proposed radical changes that would be to the detriment of the issue at hand.

The use of a 20-second pitch clock, instituting reliever limits and a reduction in defensive shifting are all being considered by MLB’s top minds.

“I think you could make an argument that more relievers have lengthened the game,” Manfred told USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale. “More pitching changes has slowed down the pace of the game and the unbelievable effectiveness of some of those relief pitchers has robbed some of the action from the game.”

Essentially, the commissioner is asking: How can we create more offense yet shorten games? He’s looking for a silver bullet.

There isn’t one.

Manfred needs to give consideration to baseball’s biggest conundrum: Unlike other sports where offense sells tickets, it lengthens a baseball game.

More runs mean longer innings. Longer innings mean a longer game. It’s as simple as first-grade arithmetic. And it’s important to note that runs per game are at their highest since 2009.

The downside of each of the three aforementioned changes is they limit a team’s run-preventing capabilities. That could result in more offense. So much more offense that it could counteract—or even outweigh—any efforts to reduce the length of games.

The NFL instituted the two-point conversion and rules to protect its quarterbacks. The NBA has added the three-point line, shot clock and eliminated hand checking.

Each of those rule changes was put in place to promote offense. But football and basketball have game clocks. So even in cases where scoring calls for a stoppage in the clock, an increase in offense doesn’t have nearly as drastic an effect as it does in baseball.

Essentially, the absence of a game clock allows for an unlimited amount of offense. On Aug. 22, the Los Angeles Dodgers scored 18 runs against the Cincinnati Reds in a nine-inning contest that lasted four hours, two minutes.

A 20-second pitch clock might limit a pitcher’s ability to go through an entire set of signs with his catcher. That could force him to throw a pitch he doesn’t want to throw. The clock could also cause a pitcher to rush and hang a breaking ball up in the zone.

This could all result in more offense. We just don’t know to what degree.

Pitching changes and shifting take time. They are also favorable defensively. So, in theory, limiting the use of both reduces pace of play yet also promotes offense.

But given the relationship between offense and game time in baseball, there’s a sweet spot.

Major league pitchers have never been put on a clock, nor have managers been limited as to the use of their bullpens. So we have no statistical data that suggests how much more offense it may create.

There has been some experimentation with a pitch clock and data does suggest that it may shorten games, per this piece by Sam Dykstra of MiLB.com.

But countless times we have seen a pitcher struggle. No pitcher has his best stuff every outing.

If a team is out of pitching changes and a reliever is struggling to get outs, he could be stranded. There’s no telling how long an inning could go on under those circumstances. 

That same Dodgers-Reds game is a perfect example. Cincinnati pulled starting pitcher Homer Bailey after he allowed six runs on nine hits in 2.1 innings of work. If there were limits on relief pitchers, the Reds might have had to leave Bailey out there.

And how many more runs would Los Angeles have scored? How much longer would that game have gone on? These rule changes set baseball on a slippery slope. It’s unclear if there’s a plateau, making it too risky. 

Manfred has to consider that he may not be able to fix all of the game’s problems with one swing of the bat. It will more likely take targeted changes that have a more certain outcome. Sometimes it’s best to string base hits together in an effort to score a run.

Try hitting for power and you risk striking out. On these issues, Manfred cannot afford to swing and miss.


Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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