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On Tom Verducci, pace of play, and baseball’s true problems

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Lying underneath Tom Verducci’s recent article on baseball’s pace of play problem is a framework of assumptions that highlight the real problems facing baseball today.

Division Series - Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves - Game One Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

For almost a decade now, pace of play has been one of the most discussed problems about the modern game of baseball, if not the single most-discussed problem. From Joe West’s famous complaint about Yankees-Red Sox games that regularly ran more than three and a half hours more than a decade ago, to modern concerns about “Three True Outcome” baseball adding immense amounts of “dead air” to the game, perhaps nothing has been talked about more this side of the Steroid Era than pace of play, with the possible exception of the trash can scandal.

Earlier this week, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated waded into this discourse with a long-form piece titled “MLB Can’t Wait Any Longer to Fix Its Pace of Play Crisis” and with the tagline “In the next five years [baseball will] either be the national pastime or a niche sport.” And while, on the surface, the article appeared to give a well-balanced, in-depth, and urgent portrayal of a problem that needs to be solved for the good of the sport — and this undoubtedly is what Verducci was going for — I couldn’t shake the notion that something felt a bit off as I was reading.

For those unaware, writing here at Pinstripe Alley is not my day job; when I’m not hanging around the comment section or working on an article, I’m a graduate student studying Ancient Greek and Roman history and literature (i.e., the Classics). One of the most common things that Classicists do is analyze texts beyond authorial intent, in order to see what framework of assumptions lie behind a particular work of literature. Trying to uncover what felt strange to me about Verducci’s piece, I borrowed these skills, and engaged in some close textual analysis.

So, what did I find? For starters, despite a clear attempt to try and present both front offices and players as being at fault regarding pace of play, the piece very clearly but subtly supports ownership over the players. Some of this is the fault of Tony Clark, the executive director of the player’s association, who “did not immediately respond to a request for comment.” But even the structure of the piece itself is organized not around collective action, but on ownership’s proposals for rule changes, which themselves are the result of Zoom meetings not between representatives of the player’s association and of ownership, but between Rob Manfred and the owners.

Furthermore, numerous executives are quoted throughout the piece, but only one player, David Price — and it wasn’t even a new quote, but a re-print of him saying, “I don’t care. I’m taking my time. I know I’m slow” from 2018. Verducci concludes his piece that “there are no ‘bigger’ issues” to be discussed in this CBA negotiation, which blatantly ignores the fact that the player’s union almost certainly believes that service time manipulation, the slow free agent market, and regular and prolonged tanking by teams are at the very least on the same level of importance as pace of play. Taken together, these details mean that the article slants heavily, albeit subtly, towards the perspective that the league ownership has all the answers to fix the game, if only those pesky players wouldn’t stop dragging their feet and focusing on themselves.

Within the article, Verducci also reports a number of possible rule changes that the league has come up with, some of which will be tested at the minor league level this season. Some of these rules make sense — base stealing, one of the most exciting plays in the game, has declined because teams have realized that it is not effective unless you’re very proficient at it, so implementing rules that should make it slightly easier should hypothetically result in more stolen base attempts.

Some, however, reflect a serious misunderstanding of what is actually happening. Will an elimination of the shift result in more hits through the holes? Probably. But its impact will be limited by the fact that the immense rise in strikeouts throughout the league means that players will continue to try and put the ball in the air. The Three True Outcome approach will not actually be affected. Such a change puts a small band-aid on the problem, but doesn’t actually fix it at its roots. Verducci’s exhortation that the can cannot be kicked down the road any further rings hollow when he reveals the allegedly-bold proposals that do nothing more than continue to kick the can down the road, simply with extra steps.

Last, but not least, the piece represents the generational gap that currently exists within baseball. Verducci waxes poetic about baseball in the 1980s, the era in which he grew up in, calling it the “apotheosis of aesthetics.” On the flip side, he criticizes the modern game, directly attributing the decline of “baseball’s entertainment value” to the influx of readily-available information due to the introduction of Statcast in 2015. This is a dangerously arrogant position for Major League Baseball to take. Look, I can’t personally comment on baseball in the 1980s, as I wasn’t born yet, but neither were the future generations of young fans that the sport needs to win over; no new fans really care what the game was like in 1983, they want to know what it will be like in 2021 and 2022. The past is gone, and the sport needs to stop grasping for it and let the game evolve.

The introduction of new data into the game will, naturally, change the game, but to think that these changes must be bad is to ignore developments in literally every other sport. Analytics told NBA players to start shooting more three-pointers instead of mid-range jumpers, and did that kill the sport? In the NFL, new information has prompted teams to go for it on fourth down and to lean on the passing game more often, two things that have added additional levels of excitement. In many other sports, more efficient gameplay as the result of analytics has produced more excitement. Baseball is the notable exception. So what needs to be done? Change the rules slightly, much like the NFL did when it moved the extra point field goal back from the 2 yard line to the 15, in order to incentivize other events. What we shouldn’t see is a condemnation of players just trying to maximize their chances of winning, because in essence, this is nothing more than complaining that players are playing as well as they can — and that is not a sustainable business model.

For the most part, Verducci put together an interesting, well-reasoned, and thought-provoking piece; I want to make that clear, I’m not critiquing what Verducci says, at least not directly. He’s not writing in a vacuum, though, and as a result, many of the major problems that are facing baseball are reflected in his words — namely, the divide between players and ownership, the league’s inability to understand what’s actually going on in its games, and a refusal to let the past go and embrace new trends for a new generation of baseball fans. Unless the league learns to solve those problems, the real problems, then, to borrow Verducci’s phrase, “baseball will be caught looking.”