Consider the fans! Why MLB could and should make rule changes a major part of CBA talks

In an effort to engender care and consideration for Major League Baseball’s labor strife-ridden offseason, I often shorthand that the collective bargaining agreement is “everything” — and that these negotiations will shape the future of the sport, providing a much-needed opportunity to evolve the game.

This is sort of true. If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that the economic scaffolding laid out in the CBA overwhelmingly shapes team behavior (even when it seems to run contrary to their competitive best interests). Changes to the reserve clause or revenue sharing, draft structure or seeding will eventually, inevitably, have secondary effects on the play between lines.

But when we listed potential rule changes among the issues at the heart of the offseason’s upheaval, that was largely wishful thinking.

The nominal Dec. 2 deadline to agree to a new CBA came and went without a new CBA — everyone saw that part coming — and without the league ever making an official proposal about rule changes. Instead, league representatives made a presentation about the results of rule experiments and proposed a joint committee for discussing the sport’s on-field future, which was rejected.

In his press conference the morning after initiating the lockout, commissioner Rob Manfred confirmed that there had not been any “specific rule change proposals.” He said that this was because they are still “evaluating changes” but also that they were trying to avoid “another contentious issue.”

Perhaps most tellingly, even though the negotiations will continue until a new agreement is reached, Manfred gave no indication that a rule proposal is forthcoming, saying instead that “we could deal with it mid-term of the next agreement.”

The rule changes we're talking about here are things like a pitch clock — which has received rave reviews from stakeholders who saw it in action during the Arizona Fall League — as well as banning the shift, limiting pick-off attempts, automating ball-strike calls and other adjustments designed to speed up the game and inspire more action. The league has been interested and invested in these potential changes for years now — testing them at various levels within the game to study the impact.

The universal designated hitter and the expanded postseason are part of the ongoing CBA discussions and have both already been proposed in some form or fashion during these negotiations.

PORT CHARLOTTE, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 24:  A detail of the new pitch clock during the Grapefruit League spring training game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees at Charlotte Sports Park on February 24, 2019 in Port Charlotte, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Pitch clocks have been operated without enforcement in MLB spring training, and been tested in minor leagues and in the Arizona Fall League. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The upshot seems clear: Despite what is widely recognized as a critical juncture in baseball’s on-field development and a pivotal moment in its relative popularity, we should not expect the conversations this offseason to include a substantive consideration of improving the product itself.

The Athletic’s Jayson Stark provided a thorough examination of why this is likely to be the case. But the short answer is leverage. And money, for a change. If the league were to make serious proposals for on-field changes, the union could reasonably expect to trade an acceptance of those proposals for some of the economic gains they’re after. Once rules are on the table, they become a chip. In other words, Manfred and the owners could propose any changes they think are best for the game of baseball this offseason, and they’d likely be approved by the players. They would just have to pay them for it.

The league would argue that it’s not necessary to waste precious negotiation time on aesthetic issues. Rules can be discussed outside the context of the CBA as a whole and, assuming this particular provision of the outgoing agreement carries over, Manfred retains the right to unilaterally make on-field changes with one year’s notice. He has publicly avowed a preference for only implementing changes that the players association has signed off on, but in a contentious negotiation, that kind of idealism can be set aside to avoid leaving any unnecessary leverage lying around for the other side to grab a hold of.

League leaders would say they’re not going to make any proposals for on-field improvements — even the ones that have been overwhelmingly lauded as boons for the game — because they don’t have to.

To which I would say, that’s absolutely true, but it’s still not worth cutting off your nose no matter how mad you are at your face.

There are a couple of truisms that pervade conversations about baseball’s labor situation. One is that the owners are able to play the long game. Their stakes in the sport are almost guaranteed to stretch decades longer than any athlete’s playing career. Another is that the league/owners are largely happy with the economic status quo that has proven so frustrating for players.

And finally, there’s the one that says maximizing personal profits is the only real motivator acting on either side. But it doesn’t actually have to be.

Google “baseball” and “popularity” and you’ll get several years worth of stories — from columns and trend pieces to graphs and charts trending in the wrong direction — that all include the word “decline” somewhere in there.

Hand-wringing is not a perfect measure of popularity, clout is not necessarily a stand-in for viability, and blaming either exclusively on the style of play is a vast oversimplification. But also the style of play lately is pretty tedious and alienating. You don’t have to hate baseball to think that games are too long, include too much dead time and not enough action with the ball in play. To his credit, fixing this has been a major focus since Manfred ascended to the commissioner’s office in 2015.

That’s no secret. Pace-of-play was part of his platform when he was elected, and he’s talked about the issue on the record numerous times in the years since. Most recently, Manfred told Sports Illustrated, “there is a very strong consensus among ownership that alterations in the way the game is played need to be made for the benefit of our fans.”

That was in March of this year, just before the 2021 season, with the current CBA negotiations waiting on the other side.

“I expect that is going to be an important topic in our discussions in a new basic agreement,” he said.

That comment, of course, isn’t binding and the owners don’t have to prioritize what’s best for the fans just because Manfred promised — but they should do it for the long-term benefits.

Simply put, the side with the privilege of taking the wide-lens view by virtue of their long career shelf life should dedicate some of their negotiating power to pushing through improvements to the product aimed at courting a new generation of fans. That’s just good business.

Especially if they aren’t desperate for more immediate financial concessions.

It’s absolutely true that if the league made on-field proposals, the union would likely try to trade those for changes to arbitration or an earlier path to free agency. But rather than see that as a problem, wouldn't that just be negotiations working as they’re supposed to? The players feel the current setup is economically unfair to them, the league is ostensibly concerned about the future viability of the game — which, you could argue, has economic implications for team owners — but otherwise seems satisfied with the existing economic structures. In fact, most of MLB’s proposals have been attempts to address the union’s concerns (without giving up too much cost control). That would seem to create the ideal conditions under which the league could make considerable progress on a non-economic agenda that would be implemented with union support.

(If the owners want to claim that the current system is, actually, financially unfair to them and thus the good of the game is simply too far down the list, they are welcome to do so. I just can’t imagine it would go over all that well.)

It may seem biased to blame the league for the lack of consideration being given to the state of the game in these negotiations. But, if anything, I just think a confluence of factors have created the morally — and publicly — advantageous opportunity for Manfred to actually act like the steward of the sport.

I don’t have any expectations that the players will prioritize anything other than securing a bigger portion of the pie this offseason. Their prevailing issues are getting players paid earlier and lifting any restrictions on free agent spending. The league can prioritize thwarting those attempts. Or it could try to do something good for the fans.