Monday, September 20, 2021
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How MLB can be better – for fans and for players

From MLB broadcasting rights and the cost of going to a game, to in-game chatter and cheating, we take a look at how MLB can be better for both the fans and the players.

For eons, one of the prevailing topics of conversation around Major League Baseball has been how to make it better. Some say it’s the fans who need to change rather than how the game is played, while others take a more critical approach to longstanding baseball tradition. No matter what side you’re on, the fact remains that baseball viewership is down. Youth baseball enrollment is down, too. The game’s quality of play and era-defining talent, however, is poised to be the best ever.

MLB is in the midst of an identity shift. The shortened 2020 season introduced new rules and demonstrated the excitement that’s possible with a few changes. In order to regain fans’ attention and those coveted TV numbers, there needs to be a sustained effort to show off the best parts of the game.

On the field, I don’t actually think there’s much to change. Pitchers are throwing more gas than ever, while hitters have the power to match. Defensive heroics regularly make the rounds on worldwide highlight reels. For existing fans, there are lots of reasons to watch. It’s growing the game and reaching new fans that I think needs the most attention.

What will keep the players invested in the game’s integrity? How will fans get a glimpse into the inner workings of their teams? Are there rules that can be eliminated for more competitive play? Let’s get into it.

MLB broadcasting rights

Brandon Crawford
San Francisco Giants Shortstop Brandon Crawford tries his hand at the TV camera before the Major League Baseball game between the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants on August 29, 2019 at Oracle Park in San Francisco, CA. – Credit: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/16/mlb-new-media-rights-deal-with-turner-sports-worth-over-3-billion.html

Accessing MLB broadcasts is a thorn in the side of more fans than not, especially in the US where broadcasts are subject to logic-defying local blackouts. The way the league has negotiated their TV rights leaves a lot to be desired.

For $120 (or so) a year, the MLB.tv streaming service offers full access to every game, but that’s not the reality for their viewers. Thanks to contracts that lock down all the broadcasting rights with the TV network that airs the games, fans watching in specific regions are locked out of their home team’s games. To watch, they either have to pay for cable or a separate streaming service from their local station.

CBS Sports’ Mike Axisa breaks down the madness that is the world of local restrictions:

“A kid going to school in Boston can’t pull up [Xander Bogaerts] and the Red Sox on his phone while in the cafeteria. Not on MLB.tv. Someone on a business trip in Los Angeles can’t tune in for that Walker Buehler vs. Dinelson Lamet pitching matchup because the Dodgers (and Angels!) are blacked out [in Los Angeles]. Fans in Iowa can’t watch the Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Royals, Twins, or White Sox play live. For real. Fans in Iowa are blacked out of six teams. That’s 20 percent of the league!”

What’s the point of offering MLB.tv when fans can’t even watch in-market games, presumably the games they’re most likely to watch in the first place? At best this looks like an embarrassing oversight, and at worst like false advertising with a side of extortion. Fans shouldn’t have to pay for multiple services to access a single sporting event.

The bottom line here is that baseball needs to be accessible to viewers if the league wants to retain its fans.

Cost

Kansas City Royals Sunrise Dog at Kauffman Stadium
Kansas City Royals Sunrise Dog at Kauffman Stadium – Credit: https://www.delish.com/food/g1998/baseball-stadium-hot-dogs/?slide=10

Speaking of accessibility, one of the most prohibitive aspects of attending a Major League Baseball game is the price. And not just of the tickets. While the average single ticket price rose from $22.21 to $34.04 between 2006 and 2020, that’s not the only number that’s concerning.

When a bottle of water costs $5 (and you can’t bring your own), a hot dog costs $6, and an ice cream costs $8, going to a game puts the hurt on your wallet big time.

In fact, concessions have been steadily rising in price over the last decade. The average cost of a hotdog went from $3.79 in 2010 to $4.95 in 2019, while soft drinks rose from $3.47 to $4.60 over the same span. Beer, on the other hand, has only risen about $0.20 and has held steady at $6.

Keep in mind that these are the averages. At Citi Field, a Mets fan will shell out $6.50 for a hot dog and $11 for a beer, while a Yankees fan across town spends about 50% less at $3 and $6, respectively. Rockies fans can score a beer for $3! Meanwhile, Dodger faithful pay more for a soft drink ($6) than half the league pays for a beer. The scale is all over the place, but even the averages are often too high for fans to drop for an afternoon of baseball.

All in, here’s the cost breakdown for a family of four to go to a ballgame:

Four tickets: $136.16

Two beers and two soft drinks: $21.20

Four hot dogs: $19.80

Total = $177.16 (and that’s without the peanuts, ice cream, or souvenir)

If baseball is meant to be for everyone (for anyone!), the league can’t expect to share the magic with regular people who can’t afford to get in the park. And it’s those people who do the talking, the watching, and lifelong traditions.

In-game chatter

The Houston Astros mic'd up
The Houston Astros mic’d up

One of the most entertaining parts of Spring Training, the All-Star Game, and players’ weekend festivities is when players wear microphones during play. Getting guys mic’d up (as they say) lends itself well to fans getting to know players around the league, and it offers ample opportunity for players to showcase their personalities. For better or for worse, no offense to the silent types.

Here’s Freddie Freeman from the first 2020 preseason, and here’s Mookie Betts during Spring Training in 2019. All these videos are racking up hundreds of thousands of views, and I can’t help but wonder what kind of reach the league could get if they did it more often.

Plus, it’s well within the league’s move toward marketing their big stars. They just need to be heard!

Cheating

Hear me out. While I have no time for systematic cheating, I think there’s some room to let the game evolve a little when it comes to the little adjustments. Lots of fans are now acquainted with Gerrit Cole’s sticky situation, but as much joy as it gives critics to point out, the reality is that many pitchers use pine tar and other substances to gain extra control over the ball.

Technically this practice is illegal in baseball. The vast majority of the time, though, it’s unenforced.

I’m in the “take the rule off the books” camp in hopes that pitchers use it to throw more strikes. If they claim pine tar helps control breaking balls better, why not keep those pitches competitive? Batters who face a higher ratio of competitive to non-competitive pitches are more likely to swing, and many of them are making good contact on borderline pitches anyway.

A higher likelihood of a swing and/or contact seems like something the league would want – adds some excitement for fans, too. Pitchers and trainers probably wouldn’t argue against the chances of a lower pitch count, either.

Expand the zone

The strike zone
The strike zone – Credit: http://m.mlb.com/glossary/rules/strike-zone

As definitive as it seems, the strike zone has been and will always be a fickle, shape-shifting, often contentious part of the game. You can say the same thing for the umpires who determine it. But what’s emerging as an option to increase action on both sides of the ball is marginally expanding the zone so that more borderline pitches end up being strikes.

This has the potential to lead to two opposing things: first, more baserunners and potentially longer games; and second, more balls in play leading to quicker innings. Either one is worth watching, in my opinion. The people who already think baseball games are too long aren’t going to be swayed by a 2h50 game over a 3h10 game. But the people who want more action could see a difference.

Expanding the zone even by an inch to 18” across gives plenty of space to play for both pitchers and batters. League-wide, strikeouts and chase rate have been on the rise, and I wouldn’t be mad about shifting focus from the longball to more consistent contact. A bigger strike zone could mean contact swings and more incentive for pitchers to throw competitive pitches.

League setup

David Ortiz (Designated Hitter)
David Ortiz (Designated Hitter) – Credit: https://eu.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/redsox/2019/06/10/david-ortiz-shooting-what-we-know-red-sox-stars-condition/1406704001/

As of now, there’s still no news on whether Major League Baseball and the players’ union will revisit their negotiations for 2021 season rule changes. I like the universal DH rule, begrudgingly, because it keeps pitchers in the game longer and protects them from potential injuries related to batting or baserunning. (Do I think professional athletes should be able to do those things as well as pitch? Yes. But that’s another story.)

Give me universal DH in both leagues, but with a twist. What if the starting pitcher was tied to the DH, and that DH had to leave the game when the manager went to the bullpen? It would mean expanding the bench and the number of substitutions. It would also impact matchups on both sides of the ball.

The pros seem both clear and exciting for the strategy-heads who liked pitcher-involved double switches in the NL. Adding another strategic element encourages more creative substitutions, as well as more creative playmaking offensively. Teams might also be more inclined to invest in unconventional talents with super-utility skills and small ball tools.

There’s a way to do the DH thing without leaning on the strikeout-or-homer guys, as beloved as many of them are. What the game really feels like it’s missing is a sense of disruption. I want to see players in situations where they can succeed or have a better chance at success. If that means getting them to swing more, run more, or bunt more, so be it. But a free out in the 9 spot isn’t the way to do it.

Another change I’d make to the league setup is a revamp of the divisions themselves. I’m as nostalgic as the next guy, but if the universal DH is passed there’s little reason to keep the National League and American League wholly separate during the regular season.

Get the crosstown and regional rivals in the same league. Give fans the opportunity to see teams they wouldn’t otherwise have much exposure to. More local games cut down on long road trips and let players have more time close to home. It’s good for morale and will keep them feeling fresher for longer.

That said, I’d also shorten the season. Not by much, just 12 to 16 games or so, to allow for more off-days and expanded playoffs. I want to see teams as healthy as possible down the stretch and into October, and the bubble teams getting a chance to upset the favourites makes for excellent baseball.

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