CINCINNATI — The state of Major League Baseball is strong, says commissioner Rob Manfred, as a tumultuous free-agent period, overall reduction in the average player salaries and disputes over proposed changes in play point to contentious negotiations between owners and players before the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021.
“Collective bargaining is an ongoing process, and like a lot of multi-year processes, you have ups and downs,” Manfred said. “The trick is to manage through those down periods in a way that doesn’t result in a big dispute. We will manage through this little rough patch that we’ve had over the last few months. We’ve taken concrete steps in that regard to create a more positive atmosphere.”
Manfred was in Cincinnati on Thursday to participate in Opening Day festivities to help kick off the 150th anniversary of professional baseball. He served as grand marshal for the 100th Findlay Market Parade, sharing a car with Reds Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench.
“You could put the most despicable character in the world in a car with Johnny Bench and he would get cheered in Cincinnati,” Manfred said.
One parade bystander held up a sign suggesting Manfred was ruining the game with a proposed rule requiring relief pitchers to face a minimum of three batters. Other than that, and a few sporadic mentions of Pete Rose’s banishment, Manfred had a peaceful ride through the streets of Over-the-Rhine and Downtown.
Prior to the Reds/Pirates game, Manfred addressed reporters in the field level media room at Great American Ball Park. Following his opening statement, Manfred said, “With that, I’ll take some positive questions.” He didn’t get his wish.
The first question dealt with the fact that free-agents like Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel remained unsigned on Opening Day after stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado did not sign with new clubs until very late in spring training.
And, according to the Associated Press, the average MLB salary now is $4.36 million, down from $4.41 million on Opening Day last season and $4.45 million in 2017.
“The system’s a product of collective bargaining,” Manfred said.
A 20-second pitch clock that was tested during spring training was not yet implemented for the regular season because according to Manfred, there more pressing issues, such as rosters being expanded to 26 players, September rosters reduced from 40 to 28, and capping the number of mound visits.
“We decided to make an agreement with the players, trade out the clock, and try to enter this season on as positive a note as possible,” Manfred said. “What we would like to see is a game that is played at a crisp pace and has the level of action in the game that makes the product compelling for our fans.”
Several more radical rule changes are being tested in the Atlantic League, designed to create more balls in play, promote scoring and improve player safety.
Among the changes being tested in the minor leagues include:
- A radar system called “TrackMan” to assist umpires with calling balls and strikes, although it’s not certain whether this system would ultimately replace umpires or be used as a tool for them to consult.
- Prohibiting players or coaches from visiting the mound unless a pitching change is being made.
- Requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters to reduce the number of pitching changes thus speeding up the game.
- Limiting defensive shifts by requiring teams to keep two players on each side of second base to promote scoring.
- Reducing time between innings from 2 minutes and 5 seconds to 1 minute and 45 seconds.
- Increasing the distance from the pitcher’s rubber to home plate from 60 feet 6 inches to 62 feet 6 inches to cut down on strikeouts. Players have expressed concerns about this move, mostly due to concerns about increased arm injuries.
- Lastly, the size of all the infield bases would be increased from 15 inches to 18 inches, so a fielder and runner would each have part of the bag to limit injury.
“We’ve been fairly consistent with the idea that testing these rules in the minor leagues is a good idea for us before we start using them in the big-league level,” Manfred said.
The Atlantic League begins play in April. Manfred is hoping the experimental stage will help identify certain in-game scenarios where the rule change needs to be tweaked.
“For fairly simple rules, the text that is in draft form is quite extensive and is designed to prevent manipulation,” he said.
There have been eight work stoppages in MLB history, the most recent coming in 1994, lasting 232 days and resulting in the cancellation of the World Series. Perhaps no big-league market took longer to recover from the ’94 strike than Cincinnati. But for the kickoff of the Reds’ season-long 150th anniversary celebration on Thursday, Manfred did his best to maintain a positive tone.
“We believe that we have the greatest game in the world,” he said. “The raw material of our game is absolutely phenomenal. I think sometimes when we talk about managing the change in the game, we lose sight of the fact that we have a great product the way it is, that’s deeply ingrained in people’s lives. Our business continues to be really, really strong. Our revenues continue to grow. We draw almost 70 million people every single year, in an age where people have a lot of entertainment alternatives. We’re excited to start another campaign.”