A little over five years ago, on January 25, 2015, Rob Manfred took office as Commissioner of Major League Baseball. At that time, he sat down with Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com and discussed what his priorities would be during his regime.
Now, we know that Rob Manfred’s time in office has been eventful, to put it mildly, with cheating scandals marring two of the last three championships and labor unrest simmering the last few seasons. Even so, it can be a bit unfair to judge somebody’s job performance based solely on unanticipated crises. With this in mind, let’s review his performance by his own standards, and see how much progress with them.
“I think youth participation is a huge deal for us...from Little League to the NCAA to make sure more young people and the best athletes are playing the game.” Manfred declared from the onset growing the sport among younger generations to be one of the most important — if not the most important — goals of his regime.
To some extent, he’s succeeded in this regard, continuing to operate Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and sponsoring other initiatives such as Hit and Run Baseball and the Player Development Pipeline meant to give opportunities for more participation in youth leagues and to help ensure that the best players get the best possible shot at going pro. Furthermore, youth baseball participation has been on the rise, seeing a 3% increase to 13% among children between the ages of 6 and 12, second only to basketball.
Most of these programs have existed in some form already — RBI has existed for more than 30 years, for example, and counts CC Sabathia among its alumni. Even so, Manfred does deserve credit for continuing this longstanding initiative. The rest of his track record, however, has been spotty, with the instituting of a hard cap on international amateur free agency, the new minor league contractions, and the shortened 2020 amateur draft.
Manfred viewed the role of technology in baseball in a twofold manner. On the field, technology would be employed to put a better product on the field through the use of instant replay. Off the field, MLB Advanced Media — a technology company at the forefront of streaming — would be expanded to include more content.
To be honest, I didn’t even need to research this much. Major League Baseball completely botched the implementation of technology in the game, paving the way for the largest cheating scandal since the Steroid Era. Meanwhile, countless games are blacked out across the country and unavailable to be streamed — including a wide range of nationally-broadcast games.
Pace of Play
Everybody knows that Manfred has been hell-bent on trying to shorten the average length of a baseball game, shortening the time between innings, limiting the length and number of mound visits, allowing automatic intentional walks, instituting the three-batter minimum, and proposing wide-ranging rule changes that would alter the shape of extra innings. Even so, “average game times have stubbornly hovered around three hours.” Worse still, 2019 saw a nine-minute increase since 2015.
Of course, we all know that a long game is by no means boring— after all, who can forget the five-hour game against the Minnesota Twins last year that ended with Aaron Hicks’ diving catch in extra innings? But even assuming it’s as important as Manfred has believed, these rules have not had the desired effect.
Strengthening Player Relations
Back in 2015, Manfred said, “I am a player guy — all the time.” His track record has stated that is a lie. Under his watch, the conflict over the qualifying offer and draft pick compensation has gotten worse. Back in 2014, when the controversy began, it was players like Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales unable to sign after having draft pick compensation attached to them. Last year, it was Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel who remained unsigned until after the draft. Meanwhile, free agency has drawn to a standstill, with the exception of Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and the top of the market in this past winter, as ownership and front offices have begun to treat the luxury tax limit as a salary cap and begun to rely more on arbitration-eligible and pre-arbitration players.
For years, we’ve expected that the players union and league would be coming to a head during the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, when the current CBA expires in 2021. Instead, however, that has been happening now, as the league and the union fight over the financial terms of a shortened season in the middle of a pandemic, while hordes of people have been laid off or furloughed and are now on unemployment.
The relationship between the league and the players’ union, in fact, has become so bad under Manfred’s watch, that I’m likely forgetting at least one grievance between the two.
A More Unified Business Operation
Admittedly, this is a harder one to analyze, as it’s impossible to see exactly what’s going on behind the curtain. To try and establish what Manfred meant by this, here’s his quote from this section of the ESPN article:
“Everything we’ve done was designed to make baseball one business,” Manfred said. “Whether you’re dealing with [MLB Advanced Media] or [the MLB Network] or 245 Park Avenue, we are one organization. There’s one-stop shopping. Whatever platform you want to be on, come to one place and we’re prepared to service you and we’re open for business.”
It’s hard to quantify exactly what this is supposed to mean. Was Manfred referring to an attempt to unify the league’s branding and operate more akin to the NFL and NBA? Or was he referring to internal operations that we cannot truly see from the outside? Perhaps that is the case, as Crasnick said, “All the changes were intended to provide a more unified message and easier access for baseball’s media partners and sponsors.”
In any case, it’s clear that Major League Baseball has been doing extraordinarily well financially, with Forbes writing that the league saw $10.7 billion in revenues in 2019, an increase for the 17th straight year. Furthermore, TV deal extensions with FOX, ESPN, and other networks will see more revenue flowing into the league’s pockets in coming seasons, as will the Nike uniform deal (as controversial as it is).
Assuming we interpret the “more unified business operation” as successful due to the ever-increasing revenues — and given that is certainly the goal of any administrative changes, I feel that is a safe assumption — we find that Manfred has been definitively successful in only one of his five main goals. Of the other four, two categories, Youth Outreach and Embracing Technology, have had some modicum of success, but they are marred by immense failures. Pace of Play and Player Relations, meanwhile, have fallen somewhere between the great fire of Rome in 64 and the Fourth Crusade on the spectrum of disasters.
Taking all categories equally, Rob Manfred succeeds in at most two out of five categories (one full success and two halves), meaning that his term as MLB Commissioner can so far be graded squarely as an F. Unfortunately, despite his failures, his bosses — the MLB owners — care only about one success and out of five, and so long as he appears to be nailing that, he will continue to be allowed to do damage to the league.