When Rob Manfred became commissioner of Major League Baseball, he had a goal to basically eradicate baseball’s reputation as “the boring sport.” It was always going to be a tough, uphill battle competing with the popularity of football and the resurgence of the NBA. The biggest knock against baseball was that there was never much going on and that there was a lot of inaction in the game. So Manfred’s main focus became pace of play.
Since he took over, we’ve seen a few rule changes come out that supported Manfred’s fight. The no-pitch intentional walk and limiting the minimum number of batters a pitcher has to face were two rules that were met with some hesitation, but made sense. No matter what individual opinions are held about making a pitcher throw four pitches way outside for an intentional walk, there’s just no need for that. Cutting down on small items of that ilk will all eventually add up to aid the pace of the game and make it seem like less of a drag.
Yet none of these things appear to define Manfred’s tenure so far as MLB commissioner. The state of baseball is fundamentally broken. As the months go by, it seems more likely that baseball is heading towards a labor strike, as teams are finding more and more ways to avoid paying their players. Instead of teams actively trying to compete and sign free agents to get better, “rebuilding” is the way to go. Owners have sold this idea of winning with “homegrown” players, so fans accept having the worst record in the league because their team gets that first overall draft pick, who is most likely years away and may or may not even pan out.
If movies revolving around a charming, smooth-talking con artist strike your fancy, the grift that these owners have pulled off is simply a work of art. Outside of this era of no competition and satisfaction with just making the playoffs, the most newsworthy story to hit baseball was, coincidentally, one of the biggest organized cheating scandals this sport has seen.
While I do find it almost refreshing to see a team actually try to win when so many are fine with merely being along for the ride, it just further shows the lengths that teams will go to in finding cheaper ways to win. Manfred’s response to the Astros scandal was basically baseball’s version of the Willy Wonka “Stop. Don’t. Come back.” GIF. And his fight against the pace of play has just taken a weird turn.
Extra innings start with the pitching team having a runner in scoring position for no good reason at all, doubleheaders now come with seven-inning games that count just as much as normal contests, and because home runs were bad, we’re dealing with a dejuiced ball in 2021. Manfred’s vendetta went from baseball’s action to baseball itself. I personally don’t care if we no longer get any 18-inning marathons, but manufacturing intensity and excitement and forcing the game to end without a natural conclusion is simply bizarre. I’m not quite sure when baseball went from “This game needs to speed up,” to “This game needs to end,” but that’s where we are right now.
Tied up in all of this are the 2021 Yankees. If you’re reading this, I imagine you’ve watched at least one Yankees game this year. To say it’s been ugly would be an understatement. The team came into the season as the heavy favorites to represent the American League in the World Series, and they were supposed to be carried their by their powerful offense. The pitching was supposed to be suspect. Yet that offense sits in a tie for 23rd in runs scored. Clearly, they’re underachieving. Regardless, as ugly as the Yankees offense has been, it’s good for almost league average with a 97 wRC+.
Offense has been down across the entire league, as MLB pitchers have simply flattened the bats. This is probably best evinced by Gary Sánchez. I’ve always been a Sánchez defender, but his .202/.326/.378 slash line is abysmal and should not equate to being a league average hitter with a wRC+ of 102. There have also been seven* no-hitters so far this year, including one thrown by New York’s Corey Kluber. And thanks to the Yankees’ surprisingly strong pitching — Kluber’s injury notwithstanding — the team currently sits five games over .500.
*I count Madison Bumgarner’s because if Manfred says that a seven-inning doubleheader opener counts as a real, whole game, then it should count as a no-hitter.
The way that the Yankees’ offense has played, they have no business winning as many games as they have. On Friday, the Yankees came close to taking the first game of the series against the Tigers and Joshua Diemert had this ready to say: “The thing about ugly winning is, you still won.” Of course Justin Wilson happened, and the Yankees lost that game as a sign of things to come over the weekend.
The New York offense has been mostly absent this season outside of a few hot streaks, and yet they’ve somehow kept winning games. They’ve churned out a bunch of those “ugly wins,” which allowed them to have a respectable record, despite their level of play. Of course, the team’s winning baseball could finally be coming to an end after the Yankees were swept by the Tigers, who were actually planning to be bad this year and have kept up their end of the deal. It just takes a few more “ugly wins” to dig out of it, though.
This is all a culmination of MLB’s misguided fight. The Yankees have not played well at all, and they should not have a winning record, but they do. If baseball wasn’t broken and teams actually cared about winning, the Yankees would not be able to get away with playing in such a dismal fashion.
Instead of properly addressing their real problems, Manfred has introduced fixes for problems that were hardly a major concern (if they even existed). I don’t know if it’s as simple as just rejuicing the ball or what, but MLB needs to do something about offense and needs to motivate teams to compete again. If pace a play was a problem when teams were actually putting the ball into play and hitting home runs, imagine how much worse it is if teams aren’t hitting or even trying. And if MLB isn’t doing anything to address their issues, the Yankees need to do something because their luck just may be running out.
*All stats and standings are as of writing this prior to the game played on Monday 5/31/21.