Baseball has always been obsessed with numbers. Accolades are earned by accumulating home runs and strikeouts and runs batted in. Major League Baseball’s 2023 success can be summed up in three digits: 2:39. As in 2 hours, 39 minutes, the average time of a game this season, compared to 3 hours, six minutes a season ago.
In recent years baseball, whose overall annual revenue approached $11 billion in 2022, has faced a slew of criticism for taking too long. So this year, MLB instituted a pitch clock—15 seconds to hurl with the bases empty, 20 seconds with a runner on—to quicken the pace. The rule, so far, has worked: MLB commissioner Rob Manfred expects attendance to rise up to 500,000 from pre-pandemic levels.
TIME spoke with Manfred at MLB’s New York City offices in late May to discuss rules changes, the potential for more innovation, and other issues relating to the state of the game. Plus, Manfred—who took over as commissioner in 2015—reveals a few regrets of his tenure.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
What benefits are accruing to Major League Baseball, so far, based on shorter games?
The combination of the new rules—the pitch clock, as well as the shift and the stolen bases— have given our fans a game that’s more like the ideal game, from their perspective. It’s not just about the time. It’s also about the action, the pace of the game. We’ve literally had an overwhelming response to the changes. Everything from improved attendance, to better ratings, to emails from parents saying, ‘I can take my kid to a baseball game on a weeknight even during school,’ which is crucial to the future of our sport.
These rules changes have been bandied about for a number of years. What are some of the highest hurdles you’ve had to overcome to get them instituted?
The biggest impediment was tradition. Tradition is so important in our game. And there was a phrase that was running around: “How can you put a clock in a game without a clock?” I think one of the epiphany moments, one of the young people here in the office who was working on it said, “You know, it’s still a game that doesn’t end based on a clock. It is just an interim measure of what’s going on during the game.” A game is still nine innings no matter what. So I think that realization and getting past a phrase that’s more facile than accurate was actually important.
You had experimented with the new rules in spring training, and it was pretty clear that the planets would still align and the sky wouldn’t fall. Baseball was still baseball. But were you nervous at all that, once the game started counting on Opening Day, that this thing was going to not blow up somehow?
Oh, yeah, you have to be nervous. The game is uncontrollable on the field. We would never want something that embarrassed the game as a result of a change. I was nervous about it, even though I felt like we had done everything possible to give ourselves the assurance that we had the rules right, and that we knew how they were going to turn out.
One concern that’s come up is injuries, especially among pitchers who’ve had to change their habits and rhythms due to the pitch clock. “Pitchers are getting hurt out there right now,” Boston Red Sox reliever Kenley Jansen said on a podcast. “You’re playing with somebody’s career.”
Have you seen any increase in pitcher injuries due to the pitch clock?
There are a number of things that affect pitcher injuries. As a matter of fact, during a period of time when pitchers were pitching more and more slowly, pitcher injuries went up throughout that entire period. Our medical people do not believe that the pitch clock is a causal factor. It’s very hard to isolate a single factor. But we’re not seeing anything in the data that leads us to believe that the pitch clock is related to increased injuries.
We take that issue really seriously. At the end of the day, you have to balance what is maybe a risk for a few players against what’s best for the game and what’s best for our fans.
An emphasis on analytics in the sport over the years has resulted in an increase in home runs, strikeouts, and walks, which has made baseball more predictable. At a lunch earlier this year, you said you agreed with an owner who called analytics “an arms race to nowhere.” You said that analytics had “done damage” to baseball. Why do you think that?
It’s not that I’m against analytics. As a matter of fact, it’s a huge part of my decision making process. With respect to analytics, it’s the same as any management tool. It depends on what your goal is. We allowed individual baseball operations people to use analytics, and they were directed at one goal and one goal only: how can I win one more game? And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s competition. The problem is, that goal may not be the optimal goal for the industry as a whole. And I think that allowing the use of analytics with that singular focus was damaging to the game.
It’s interesting that, despite this damage, baseball’s revenues have consistently gone up over the past decade. The missing piece there is that we were charging more to fewer people coming to the ballpark. It’s kind of Management 101: that’s not a trend that you can keep exploiting for an indefinite period of time. We needed to make sure we’re putting more people in the ballpark, drawing bigger audiences, drawing younger audiences. And that was the motivation for change.
Will we be seeing “robot umpires”–the automated strike zone–in the majors any time soon?
Baseball has been experimenting with this in the minors for several years now. Number one, we went down the path of the automated strike zone for the simple reason that we thought if we got it right all the time, if we could get the technology to that point, that would be a benefit to the game. It’s always better to be right than wrong. The technology is actually amazingly accurate.
Number two, I think it’s important to understand that the technology works in a way that the human element does not go out of the game. I think some people, because of the phrase “robo umpires,” think there’s not going to be a home plate umpire. Well, that’s not true. He has an earpiece, he gets the call, and he makes the call, just like he does today. So there’s no change for the fans.
We continue to hope that we’ll use it at the big league level. Just like with the rule changes we implemented this year, there are issues we’re still working through at the minor league level. There are actually two forms of the system that we’re testing, one a challenge system and one where every pitch is called. And we have some work to do before we’re ready to make a decision as to how you deploy it.
What’s an issue you’re dealing with there?
The single biggest issue is actually the single biggest advantage. The system is so accurate, it calls quite literally what the rulebook strike zone is. The human beings that work behind the plate, don’t call that perfect rectangle. They call more of an oval. The difference between those two, pitches low and inside [and] away, are very difficult pitches to hit. So you would either face the prospect of less offense because pitchers would learn to hit those spots. Or you’d have to undertake a rewriting of the rulebook to define the strike zone differently, which you can imagine would be a difficult undertaking.
It might be easier to rewrite the Constitution.
Yeah, it would be hard to do.
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Good luck with that. Diamond Sports Group, which owns Bally Sports–the group of regional sports networks with rights to 14 MLB teams—had filed for bankruptcy. The financial future of AT&T SportsNet, which owns the rights to Pittsburgh Pirates, Colorado Rockies, and Houston Astros games, also appears uncertain. You’ve created a local media department that’s ready to take back local media rights if need be and produce games for fans. MLB has already taken over the production and distribution of San Diego Padres games. Do you anticipate having that happen more often?
Well, I think that it’s clear that next year, we’ll have at least two teams where we’ll be supporting their local media efforts. (Colorado and Pittsburgh.) The principal reason that you have not seen any disruption in local broadcasts is the fact that we’ve made clear to the people who currently control the rights that if they don’t broadcast, we will step in and make sure that our fans are served. From a digital perspective, we do every game already, it’s a question of flipping a switch so that it’s available in-market as opposed to just outside the market. Once the games are produced, finding a linear platform, I won’t say it’s easy, but it is a solvable problem. I probably couldn’t predict with certainty what it’s going to look like a year from now or five years from now. I will say this with certainty: there will be no disruption for our fans. The games will be available.
Baseball now can be seen on multiple linear and digital platforms, which has been the source of confusion and frustration for some fans. A Yankee fan tweeted last month about watching five games on four different services: YES Network, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, and Peacock. Older fans in particular might not be keen on subscribing to 15 different platforms. They can get grumpy about these kinds of things. It seems like a revenue versus accessibility question, and revenue has priority right now.
Why do you lean that way?
It’s not really a revenue issue. It’s a disruption issue. It’s pretty clear that there is going to be a major shift from the traditional linear cable model into digital or streaming services. It’s fair to say that the principal culprits in the confusion, legitimate confusion that you refer to, are Apple and Peacock. Those are both national deals. We would not have done the Apple and Peacock deals, and conversely, I don’t think they would have done the Apple and Peacock deals unless both parties were looking towards the future to a more coherent delivery system for our fans over the long haul. It’s a question of trying to figure out how we’re going to manage the disruption that’s taking place. What the new model looks like. And that requires some experimentation.
The Oakland A’s recently announced their intent to move to Las Vegas. The team is 19-56, and attendance is bleak. What’s your message to fans right now in that market?
I feel for the fans in that market. Oakland has a proud history. But the fact of the matter is, we have a facility in Oakland that is not a major league facility. It’s not suitable for the A’s to be there. It’s not suitable for the other 29 teams to have to go into that facility. [A’s owner] John Fisher devoted the better part of a decade, and a willingness to put up the largest private financing for a baseball stadium ever, and still couldn’t get a deal done. At some point, you need to find an alternative. I don’t like that idea. I would have preferred in some ways for it to have worked out in Oakland. But at some point, you have to admit that it’s not going to get done and find an alternative that’s better for the game.
Economists have pointed out that public financing of sports facilities doesn’t really pay off. In Nevada, some lawmakers had balked at the price of the A’s relocation to Las Vegas. Why should public financing be involved at all?
I have read obviously peoples’ arguments about public financing. There’s an equal number of scholars on the opposite side of that issue. Whatever the merits of that debate in the context of sports, generally, baseball produces a kind of growth because of the number of games involved. I lived in Washington for 15 years before I came to work for baseball. The thriving area around Nationals Park. Nobody went there when I lived there. I defy people to tell me another form of governmental action or renewal effort that produces that kind of change.
How much responsibility for the Oakland issue do you place on your shoulders?
It doesn’t matter what I put on my shoulders, they put it on my shoulders. Trust me on this. That’s part of the responsibility of the job. You make hard decisions about the future of the game, the future of franchises. And at the end of the day, you know, it is my responsibility.
In May, the Los Angeles Dodgers invited the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to its June 16 Pride Night. Sen. Marco Rubio and Catholic leaders reached out to you with objections. The Dodgers then said the Sisters would not be involved in the program. But after further backlash to that decision, they were re-invited. When you received the letter from Rubio, did you urge Los Angeles to reconsider?
We obviously talk to the clubs all the time. Our view on local promotions is one that we have refined over time. Our 30 markets are very, very different. The people on the ground in those markets are best positioned to decide what’s appropriate for their fan base, and what’s not appropriate for their fan base. The Dodgers are a well run organization. And I trust their judgment as to what’s appropriate for their market. And there’s no right or wrong answer that applies across the 30 clubs.
So I assume you support their decision to invite the Sisters?
Yeah. Because our policy is to allow those decisions to be made locally. And that’s what happened here.
What’s the smartest move that you’ve made since your tenure began?
I’ll give you two answers. I think for the long haul, the best decision we made was investing in youth programming, because I think it serves two really important objectives for the industry. Number one, it grows our young fanbase. If people play they’re way more likely to become fans as adults. And because we’re focusing on underserved communities, communities that are disproportionately Black, it serves our diversity goals as well.
Short-term, it’s hard not to say the rules change. Because they have been really good.
One thing you wish you had done over?
That’s probably a longer list. There are some decisions that I would like to have back. There’s absolutely no question about that. Some of the decisions surrounding the Houston situation, would like to have those back. I mean, if I could take back the rather flip comment I made about the World Series trophy at one time, I’d take that one back. There have been times, particularly in times of pressure, when I look back, taking a little more time might have led to a different outcome.
In the Houston sign-stealing situation, what do you regret?
I’m not sure that I would have approached it with giving players immunity. Once we gave players immunity, it puts you in a box as to what exactly you were going to do in terms of punishment. I might have gone about the investigative process without that grant of immunity and see where it takes us. Starting with, I’m not going to punish anybody, maybe not my best decision ever.
Fair enough. Anything else you’d want to say on the state of the game?
When I think about the game, I always begin with the notion of America’s pastime. That connotes the fact that our game has a special place in our culture. Somebody else may have more revenue or higher ratings. But I think the important thing for us is that we always keep our eye on maintaining the place of baseball in American culture.
Where is baseball’s place in American culture right now?
It’s in the same place it’s always been. I really do believe that. The best evidence of it is some of the things we talked about, in terms of people’s reaction to change. You know, other sports can change. People don’t get too worked up about it. I think the fact that they get worked up about it in our sport is a reflection of how connected they are to the game.
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