Times A'Changin': How To Improve Baseball

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Times A'Changin': How To Improve Baseball
(Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Another B/R writer and I recently traded articles about changing baseball. How could MLB improve the game? I didn’t agree with a lot of his ideas (to put it mildly), but the ideas were very engaging. I kept thinking about what I would do to improve baseball.

I’ve draw up a list of changes I’d make to the game. These ideas are not entirely mine, as my thinking on these matters was shaped largely by Baseball Prospectus and the first baseball book I really got into, Bob Costas’ “Fair Ball: A Fan’s Case for Baseball.”

 

Impose a Payroll Minimum

If the revenue sharing rules MLB has in place are basically aimed at the Yankees, this would be aimed at the Marlins. Florida has a good front office—they find exceptional talent and know when to trade it for more, younger talent. But Florida fans never get a chance to see players stick around. The Hanley Ramirez deal is a coup—but shouldn’t they be able to keep both him and Miguel Cabrera?

The traditional argument has been that small market teams like the Marlins can’t afford a good player like Cabrera. But with revenue sharing, that’s not strictly true. The Marlins are actually spending less money on their team than they receive from the league just for putting bodies on the field. This quote from a business analysis sums it up:

“Likewise, in 2006 and 2007, the Florida Marlins reportedly received more than $60 million in revenue sharing, according to The Hardball Times, but the team had opening day payrolls totaling $45.5 million.”

Florida pocketed $14.5 million in profits just from the league over ’06 and ’07. This doesn’t account for money they draw in from their own operations—gate and concession receipts, TV deals, etc.

Given all the money they’re sitting on, I find it hard to believe they couldn’t be landing solid mid-level free agents to supplement their core talent. They definitely could have afforded Pat Burrell for the kind of deal the Rays got him for, and they probably could have afforded Adam Dunn at the rate the Nationals got him.

It’s hard to believe a front office with the Marlins’ savy couldn’t have signed a medium deal like this or a couple low-end deals that make them more competitive.

The Marlins need to invest in their team. Not just because it would make their team better, or because giving the franchise a face would draw more fans—they need to invest because, if they don’t, it makes the current revenue structure unfair to other teams.

The Yankees may be the evil empire, but they shouldn’t have to subsidize opponents unwilling to support themselves.

I don’t have the business background to give details for a payroll minimum plan, but in principle it should be based on the average major league payroll. Any team that fell beyond two standard deviations of the average payroll would be forced to invest all shared revenue into their team payroll, with the possibility of penalties in place for teams that continue to fall out of compliance.

 

Make Games Shorter

Baseball is a slow game. This is part of its beauty; it is methodical, linear, and allows the fan to focus on moments lost in the hustle and bustle of faster sports. Baseball is like reading a good book; basketball is like watching Super Bowl commercials. Football is like watching one Super Bowl commercial at a time and then picking it apart in slow motion for the next five minutes.

That said, games could become much shorter overall without losing the pace of the game. In a world where we are often overbooked and have five places to be at once, four hours watching a game is a lot to ask. People are busy. Games that last close to three hours should be more common.

Where can we shave minutes off the running time of games? Here are some suggestions.

Pitching changes: Only two pitching changes are allowed per inning, except in the case of debilitating injury. This reduces the amount of time spent waiting for pitching changes, coaches coming to the mound, and watching relievers throw warm-up pitches. It also encourages long relievers; guys who can get more than one out in a row.

Right now, pitching changes can be used strategically with one-out lefty specialists coming in to face sluggers with a weak spot (Ryan Howard) and then getting pulled from the game.

This kind of usage would still be allowed, but it would become much more risky. If you pulled the starter to put in a situational lefty and then pulled that lefty, you would have burned both your pitching changes.

In a way, this might encourage more strategy. Using a situational lefty is a much bigger deal if you then have to keep him in to face a couple righties. Determining if it is a worthwhile decision becomes a much bigger deal.

Player timeouts: Right now, a batter or pitcher can call a timeout at almost any time, for almost any reason. If they want to adjust their cups, spit, or just throw off the opposition, they can call a time out. Fans don’t need to sit through these. Players should have one time out allowed each at-bat.

Breaks between innings: I know TV advertisers love to be able to slot into natural breaks in the action between innings. But cutting out one minute every time the players have to take the field would save 18 minutes a game. That’s not a lot by itself, but add it with time saved from changes made above, and you’ve cut down ball games by around half an hour without losing any playing time.

 

Institute an Amateur Draft for International Players

Teams like the Yankees and Red Sox can leverage their higher revenues to sign the best international free agents the same way they can with major league free agents. With smart front offices led by Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein, they’ve started to do so.

While smart, low-revenue teams might have been able to win with brains and good scouting before Moneyball, now that every Harvard grad wants to be Billy Beane, the game is going to be a lot tighter.

And if things are tighter in the brains department, the amount of money a team can throw at international signings will become much more relevant. If MLB wants to maintain a competitive balance, it should make international players subject to the same recruitment rules US players are.

This means that international players will not be signed all the sudden by a rich team that found them. It means they will be drafted, with teams with losing records picking ahead of those with winning records. This will not put a salary cap on signings, as in the US draft; signing bonuses above what MLB recommends will be allowed.

Additionally, by having a formal process of registering players, MLB will better be able to prevent the kind of age faking scandals that occurred within the last few years. If MLB was doing a little record keeping for who was being signed, we’d have less Esmailyn Gonzalezes.

Finally, this system would allow for some contingency when Cuba opens up. Cuban baseball players already risk their lives to become millionaires playing in the US; when the Castros finally lose power and the doors are opened, a deluge of major league talent will be available (to get a sense for how good Cuban baseball is, Yunel Escobar was not a starter on his home team).

Having a system in place to handle talent distribution could be the difference between a stronger, more vital league, and one that is thrown out of equilibrium as a few teams remake their entire batting order and others get left by the wayside.

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