Stuck between the Past and the Future

The Little League World Series is happening right now, as Phillies fans became aware of thanks to the Little League Classic. I have been watching as much of the LLWS as I can, and, without a doubt, it is a better viewing experience than watching the MLB.

Safe to say, this is a massive problem for MLB.

While local ratings remain somewhat strong for MLB games, national ratings have been slipping for years, and a look at the baseball social media landscape…well, there’s not much of one, at least not compared to the NBA and NFL. Baseball seems to slip further and further from the national consciousness with each passing year, and the Commissioner’s solution to this is to make tiny little changes that do not address any of the core issues and suggest others that do nothing but anger fans and players alike. So, what are the LLWS rules that make the games more enjoyable?

  1. 6 inning games
  2. 10 run mercy rule
  3. Showing emotion and having fun is allowed. Headhunting, fighting, and retaliation is not allowed.

MLB is facing a clash between its history and its future. MLB is nothing without its record books, and I recognize this. But MLB is also nothing without fans, which it is losing little by little. Right now, it is trying to keep fans by making little changes, like hitters from leaving the batter’s box and instituting a bunch of time clocks. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the reasons why fans are leaving.

6 inning games

Rob Manfred has identified a symptom: games are too long. But it is a symptom, not the illness, and by attacking the symptom, no real change is occurring. The illness is that a nine inning game is designed to fill time, not to be as exciting as possible. In the postseason, it works because the postseason itself adds excitement. But during a 162-game regular season, it just adds a whole lot of meaningless innings. That is, the longer a game is, the less each individual part of the game matters, and the less something matters, the less reason there is to watch it. With a nine inning, three hour game, it is easy to skip the first 6 or 7 innings and just watch the end. In fact, it is often better, as the real drama only occurs in the late innings. MLB could figure out the right cocktail of changes to drop the average game time back to 2:50, but it would still be too long for not enough drama.

It is worth mentioning that a game is nine innings because the people creating the rules in the mid-1800s wanted to tie the number of innings to the number of fielders. It has nothing to do with creating the best possible game.

With the LLWS’s 6 inning games, it does get the added boost of being postseason play, but it also just makes everything that happens feel more important because there’s less time. Having a 1-run lead after 3 innings matters much more when there are only 6 innings. The length of the game itself creates drama. By dropping it to 6 innings, the game is also naturally just a 2 hour game, which is a length much more suited for today’s fans. Sitting through a two hour game that occasionally goes three is a much easier ask than a three hour game that occasionally goes four.

It is also worth pointing out that in a six inning game, most games feature one pitcher from each team unless a pitcher gets shelled. While I would say that is another point in favor of shortening the game, most likely, MLB teams would figure out a way to make a six inning game still feature 3-4 pitchers. Games featuring few if any mid-inning pitching changes just flow significantly better, but it does not happen that way in LLWS because of any specific rule, just because the starting pitchers are the best pitchers.

10 run mercy rule

2018 has seen an explosion of position players pitching. When it was an occasional occurrence, it was an interesting footnote in an otherwise uninteresting game. When it becomes the norm in any blowout, there is a deeper problem. That problem is that teams have recognized when games are effectively over, but teams still have to play them out. The only thing that can happen in these games is statpadding and injuries. In the LLWS, when there’s two mismatched teams or a blowout, the game just ends. According to my research, only three times since 2000 has an MLB team come back from 10+ runs down to win, and no team has ever come back from more than 12 runs down to win in the history of baseball.

The bare fact is that it is just not worth continuing games once a 10-run lead has been established. MLB teams have recognized this, which is why, for example, four different position players have already pitched for the Phillies this year. The fact that it is technically possible to overcome that lead does not change the fact that it happens so rarely that making games automatically end at that point would change the result of maybe one game every 5-10 years. It is common in more strategic games and sports, such as chess and curling, for a player or team to concede once a comeback is so unlikely that it is not worth playing it out. This type of fix stops everybody from playing or watching a game which nobody involved in really wants to be involved in anymore.

Emotion + Fun – Retaliation = Better for Everyone

There was a big story around the All-Star Break when Manfred blamed Mike Trout for not being more marketable. It may not be true that more people know the LLWS’s Big Al after his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel than Mike Trout, but he is undoubtedly a more marketable personality. That is because, as a LLWS player, he can show personality and not be afraid of a 95 MPH fastball coming at him with intent to injure.

There is always talk about playing baseball “the right way.” Playing the right way invariably means that if you show the slightest bit of emotion or try to have any fun or enjoy yourself whatsoever, you (or a better teammate) will be retaliated against – usually with a baseball, usually instigating a brawl. Excuse the language, but this is ****ing stupid. And probably racist. But definitely stupid.

Who doesn’t like bat flips? Who doesn’t like watching players have fun and getting emotional and jawing at each other? The NBA has ridden stupid and petty Twitter and Instagram beefs to its most popular period ever, because NBA players can be honest and say inflammatory things and don’t have to worry about being literally assaulted with intent to injure – they settle it on the court. MLB needs to scrap the unwritten rules, stamp out the retaliation (and racism), and let its players be emotional human beings that fans can connect to.

Conclusion

Baseball is at a crossroads. Baseball of the past is long and boring, and it has seen a slow slide into irrelevancy. I am not saying that these are the best possible rule changes (though I think the latter two are no-brainers), nor that these are the only changes needed. But the longer that baseball resists major changes due to tradition, the further it will fall.