The Future of Major League Baseball
Now that the baseball regular season is behind us, I’m going to look ahead.
It’s hard to say what the 2021 season will look like as America continues to combat the coronavirus. But the truth of the matter is the game has bigger fish to fry as the future draws closer to the present. The monkey on the back of Commissioner Rob Manfred and everyone else that will be sitting down at the negotiating table in the coming months is the Collective Bargaining Agreement that ends after next season.
I think a strike is inevitable. But I’m going to put on my commissioner's hat and see what baseball could look like on the other side, whenever that might be.
(Hint: baseball as you know it is a thing of the past.)
Expansion and Realignment
The expanded 16 team postseason format better just be a one year thing. I think it’s too much and dilutes the regular season. But I do think we will see more than 10 playoff teams going forward.
And more teams as well.
With every team using the DH (yes, that’s staying. Don’t fool yourself into thinking pitchers hitting .110 is good for baseball), I’m not so sure the AL/NL is going to stay. You could keep the AL/NL as the two leagues but the divisions would look completely different. I’d also be okay with an Eastern/Western or Northern/Southern dynamic to each league. I would add two teams, taking baseball to 32 teams with eight four team divisions. (You could also keep the AL/NL format and just have two eight team divisions (East and West) in each league. But I’ll take the more radical approach here for fun.)
I’ll say teams will be added in Nashville and Portland. Here’s how divisions could look, in this example based on geographic proximity and potential East/West leagues:
Maybe it would be weird seeing Yankees/Mets, Cubs/White Sox, Dodgers/Angels in the same divisions, but it wouldn’t be a big deal to me. I think teams should be playing the teams that are closer to them more often, so I think this makes sense.
I would have a total of 12 playoff teams, with four division winners and two wild card winners in each league. I think 12 is a good number. The top two seeds get byes into the Division Series and I’d have 3-6 and 4-5 in a best of three series with the higher seed hosting all three games. The LDS would be a best of five then the LCS and World Series a best of seven in their current formats.
156 game schedule
Let me throw some numbers at you:
36 games with teams in your division (four three game series against each of the three teams).
72 games with teams outside your division but in the same league (two three game series against each of the 12 teams).
48 games against teams in the other league (one three game series against each of the 16 teams).
That makes for 156 games, and every team plays each other every year. I love this format. I’m sick of seeing the same team 18 times a year. There’s no reason for it. Twelve games against divisional foes is more than enough. I was going to shorten the season and thought I would be cutting more than six games, so I’m pleasantly surprised by this outcome.
Not only does this math add up, but I looked ahead to the Royals 2021 schedule as an example. Not counting the All-Star break, there’s 25 weeks and 19 off days. If you take away six games, that’s 25 weeks and 25 off days, which would be perfect because I am proposing Thursday be an off day for every team every week.
Thursday off days would do teams wonders for traveling and maintaining players’ bodies during a long season. I debated Monday but with teams playing Sunday afternoon games, they can fly that evening as opposed to early in the morning and have plenty of time to rest before heading to the park for a Monday night game. Nobody plays Monday day games anyway, so that works out well. Teams can fly Wednesday night or during the off day on Thursday and be ready to go for the weekend. I think this is a perfect idea and would love to see it happen.
(But John, what about rainouts? Yeah that’s fair. But I like this dynamic so much that I’m keeping it anyway. You’ll figure those out.)
Six affiliate minors, 25 round MLB Draft
Even before COVID put an end to the minor league baseball season, it was going to look a lot different in 2021 anyway. The agreement between MLB and MiLB ends after the season and, as of now, no new agreement has been reached. MLB has been reported to want to essentially take over Minor League Baseball, shutting down its St. Petersburg headquarters and running all MiLB operations out of MLB’s New York City office, while also dismantling the two and four year Player Development Contracts that teams and affiliates have been signing since 1962 and replace it with a more permanent system with far less teams.
There is currently no limit to how many affiliates an organization can have, but that is going to change in 2021, with MLB proposing a five team max with the traditional Low-A, High-A, Double-A, Triple-A format in addition to one rookie ball squad at spring training complexes. This will slash a lot of teams out of affiliated ball all together as most organizations have two or three rookie affiliates, creating an uproar from many small towns that will no longer have teams.
(I unfortunately think this stems from the “pay the minor leaguers more” movement. Their answer? More money, less players.)
While I don’t love this idea, I can see the advantages. For one, teams are going to be closer to their parent club - no more Nationals Triple-A in Fresno, California - which is a big plus. Realigning leagues and affiliates will also make for shorter bus rides, sure to be a huge positive for any minor leaguer. It is also going to provide players with better playing conditions as teams with subpar facilities would no longer be utilized.
I would approach this with a six affiliate max: Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, Low-A, Rookie, and Complex Rookie. I think there should be a cap on how many affiliates organizations can have, but five is too few. One additional rookie level club will suffice. There are also some independent league teams with really nice stadiums and I could see some of them get promoted into affiliated ball, which is good news for them.
I would also cut the MLB Draft to 25 rounds. 40 is too much and five is obviously too few but that was a one year thing. Teams are better at identifying players now more than ever so while I love the MLB Draft, I don’t think it needs to be 40 rounds. I think 25 is a good number. And with better facilities and fewer players going forward, teams can have more centralized training for each player and I think that will make player development more efficient.
This is something entirely separate from the CBA but a pivotal moment in the game’s future nonetheless and will be something to look forward to in 2021.
Move the mound back, de-juice the ball, limit the shift
Now let’s get into the on-field stuff. People have differing opinions of the “dingers, whiffs and shifts” game baseball has become. I’m an old-school guy and simply put, I don’t like it. I want to see the ball in play. I want to see guys on base and stealing bases. I want to see a bunt for crying out loud when the situation calls for it (nobody knows how to bunt anymore, but that’s another issue). I don’t care what the exit velocity or launch angle of a ball is. If a ball is hit 120 mph off the bat and ends up in the dude’s glove, it’s an out. Hit it where they ain’t, I don’t care how hard it’s hit.
That said, contrary to my initial thoughts, the approach of hitters is not the only thing contributing to the game’s current state. Pitching is better today than it’s ever been and the batter’s adjustment has been to hit the ball over the shift because it’s easier said than done to take a 98 mph fastball riding in on your hands and hit it the other way, or drop a bunt down the third base line.
So to counter that, I’m moving the mound back a foot and a half to 62 feet. If that doesn’t help on its own, then I would lower it too. And maybe move it back more if you need to. Find the happy medium. I don’t know what’s up with the baseball but it needs to be fixed so fix it. To me, home runs are not as exciting when there’s 10 of them hit in every game. Baseball didn’t want juiced players so they juiced the ball and there’s no way you can convince me it wasn’t done intentionally. It was their way to increase the offense and they took it too far.
As for the shift, I don’t want to see the third baseman catching a fly ball in the right field corner. Two guys on each side of the second base bag and stay on the infield dirt. Simple as that. If you want to move around a bit within those limitations, fine. I think we would see more action and a much more exciting game with these changes.
Pace of play
I understand there’s a lot more information in the game now than there was 10 years ago and that’s not going away. But I think there’s so much going on in these player’s brains between each pitch that it’s making the games longer.
When you’re on the field, play the game. Get the ball, pitch the ball. Get in the box, see the ball and react naturally. No reason to take five minutes in between each pitch thinking about what to do next. And with hundreds of pitches thrown each game, that adds up. There’s a number of things that contribute to baseball becoming the slog that it unfortunately is today, but I think this is one thing nobody considers. (The pitch clock was not doing a whole lot to combat this in the minors.) You can use the information all you want when you’re off the field. But once the game starts, just play the game like you were playing it when you were 10 years old. That’s all it is.
As a wise man once said: “Man, this is baseball. You gotta stop thinking. Just have fun.”
Another thing that factors into this is too many TV commercials but that’s not going away. I don’t love the extra inning rule but if you need to put a runner on base, put him on first and not second. Maybe do it in the 12th inning rather than the 10th. I wouldn’t have it at all and have three extra innings max. If a game ends in a tie after 12 innings, so be it (maybe Mario Baseball was ahead of its time). I also don’t love the three batter minimum rule and don’t think that’s shaving a lot of time off games. I’d get rid of it, but it’s probably here to stay.
I don’t like this and I would not do it but I think baseball’s ultimate answer is going to be seven inning games. I think all games are going to be seven innings, probably at some point within the next decade, and I’d bet seven inning doubleheaders are here right now to stay.
That is an effective way to make games shorter: play fewer innings. And to be fair I really don’t know what you can do to speed up the game itself. (Two outs in an inning? Three balls and two strikes? No thank you.) I think my above proposal would be a greater difference than anything baseball has implemented to this point. Yes the game changes, but I’m amazed at how much longer a nine inning game is now compared to 20, 50, 100 years ago. It’s night and day, and not in a good way.
There’s going to be more modifications discussed, such as service time manipulation (any debuts before September gets a full year of service time?), team control (four full years before free agency?) and, as much as I’m pro-tanking, something to de-incentivize teams from doing it (draft lottery?) but this covers a lot of what I have in mind.
As a lifelong baseball fan, I will admit the game is in a bad spot and approaching a crossroads. There was a lot of compromise in the previous CBA and the players have voiced their frustration with how things went. They’re not going to compromise this time and I think a strike is inevitable. But eventually, a deal will be reached and I did my best to try and paint the picture into what baseball could look like on the other side, or at least how it would look if I were in charge. I’ll be curious to see how it plays out.
(Cover Photo: Getty Images)