Home / Sports / Pace of play impasse may signal larger issue for baseball

Pace of play impasse may signal larger issue for baseball

The implementation of a pitch clock hardly seems worth getting into a big fight about, yet the MLB Players Association has dug in its heels on the matter, perhaps forcing commissioner Rob Manfred to unilaterally impose his pace-of-play initiatives for the coming season.

It’s silly because a 20-second pitch clock is a logical start toward speeding up the action, which most everyone agrees would be a good thing, yet it’s not likely to have any sort of dramatic effect on the way major league games are played.

Ideally it simply creates a mindset for both pitcher and hitter to cut out some of lag time between pitches. Instead of hitters stepping out of the box between every pitch, even wandering around, they stay ready, while pitchers get the ball back from the catcher, look for the new sign, and go.

It’s really not that hard, and all you have to do is watch video from 20, 30, 40 years ago for proof major-league baseball was once played that way, without all the down time between pitches that can make some games feel interminable these days.

The fight over putting a clock on the pitchers is more than just putting a clock on the pitchers.

The fight over putting a clock on the pitchers is more than just putting a clock on the pitchers.

(Bill Wippert/AP)

So why are the players taking a stand, rejecting Manfred’s proposal even while knowing he plans to use his power to enforce some version of it?

People in baseball I talked to on Friday painted a picture of a bigger issue being the heart of the matter. In short, there is a strain in relations between players and management/owners that some fear could lead to at least the threat of a work stoppage when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021.

“You’d like to think we could never go back to 1994,” a person sympathetic to the players’ side said Friday, referring to the infamous strike that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series that year.

“But players aren’t happy with the fallout from the last (CBA) negotiations, and they have real concerns about free agency and why guys aren’t getting paid right now. if this is the way things are going to be, I could see them pushing hard for changes in the next negotiations and things might get a little nasty, which we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Yes, the ’94 strike left such a bad aftertaste on both sides that owners and players have been careful to put the best interests of baseball ahead of all else to ensure labor peace since then.

However, there was a feeling around the sport that the players gave up too much in the CBA agreed to in December of 2016, largely revolving around the luxury-tax threshold and its inherent financial penalties that have created something of a de facto salary cap for big-market teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Giants, etc.

Meanwhile, the trend of tanking in the sport, which helped the Cubs and Astros build championship teams, albeit at the expense of years of losing, has given other teams reason not to spend on free agents as they make rebuilding the priority.

The result is teams at both the top and bottom of the sport sitting out free agency this winter, at least to some degree, as the majority of top free agents remain unsigned.

“If this continues players are going to fight for some type of salary floor that would force teams to spend to a certain level,” another person close to the situation said. “Tanking eventually paid off for Houston but they went a few years of losing 100 games with payrolls of about $ 25 million.

“Players have a right to try and force teams to play at a more competitive level even when they’re in a rebuild.”

In other words, if teams in this analytically-savvy era of baseball are getting smarter about paying for free agents, in particular limiting the length of mega-contracts, players are going to want some type of guarantee that every team has to spend to a minimum payroll level, say, $ 100 million.

The bottom line, for the moment, is this stance on pace-of-play initiatives may simply be a warning shot fired by the players indicating they’re not going to play nice at the negotiating table next time.

For years now the sport has been healthy financially overall enough that both sides knew it would be idiotic to let self-interest get in the way of deals at the bargaining table. And that remains the case, as evidenced to some extent by the $ 50 million each franchise is receiving this year from the sale of MLB’s advanced-media arm.

But that could change dramatically if the players become further convinced they’re not getting their fair share of the riches.

So never mind the pace-of-play stuff so much. Players will get used to a pitch clock, even if there are bugs to work out.

How this free-agency freeze thaws out over the next few weeks will say a lot more about whether there will be continued labor peace in the years to come.

SPEED ZONE

Ok, so I’m for the pitch clock, but if MLB wants to get serious about reducing the dead time in games, it has to do something about replay.

There’s no going back now. For all of its faults, I believe replay is worth keeping in order to correct the obvious missed calls by umpires that can change the outcome of games.

But only if MLB is willing to speed up the process.

It really shouldn’t be that hard, either. Start by forcing managers to declare immediately if they want to challenge a play.

No more waiting on the top step for a signal from the video guy; again, replay was created to save teams from egregious calls, so if a manager should have a strong enough feeling about such calls to commit immediately to a replay.

From there MLB needs to clean up the process. Technology is such that umpires shouldn’t have to walk off the field and put headsets on, since they’re not making the call anyway.

The crew chief should be equipped with a tiny transmitter that would allow him to communicate at any time with the umps at the Chelsea replay center. And, finally, if those viewing the various replays can’t make a definitive decision within a minute, then time should be up and the call stands.

Those changes would eliminate significant dead time and at least make replay bearable.

THE NIMMO DEBATE

I understand the uproar over the Mets refusing to trade Brandon Nimmo for Andrew McCutchen, and I would have made the deal because I still consider this a win-now team whose front office needs to get a little more creative in bringing in potential difference-makers — even if only for one year.

But Nimmo does have value, even as a fourth outfielder, which can make for an argument about giving up six years of control for him as opposed to taking on $ 14.5 million of salary for one year of control of McCutchen.

Part of the frustration for fans, I believe, is that Nimmo, as Sandy Alderson’s first-ever draft pick as GM of the Mets, in June of 2011, symbolizes the failure of the GM’s regime to produce enough impact talent via the draft.

At the time the consensus among rival scouts was that Nimmo, while talented, was too much of a gamble at the No. 13 overall pick, considering the level of competition he’d faced as a kid from Wyoming whose high school didn’t even have a baseball team.

As it turned out, Nimmo doesn’t look like a bust but neither is he what the Mets envisioned as a kid with high-ceiling tools when they paid him a $ 2.1 million signing bonus.

For what it’s worth, here are the players drafted after Nimmo in that first round who have become major-leaguers of note:

14) Jose Fernandez; 17) C.J. Cron; 18)Sonny Gray; 19) Matt Barnes; 22)Kolten Wong; 25) Joe Ross; 26) Blake Swihart; 29) Joe Panik; 31) Mikie Mahtook.

And, to be fair, remember the Mets drafted Michael Fulmer with the 44th overall pick that year as well.

JUSTUS SOON

MLBPipeline.com ranked the top 10 left-handed pitching prospects in baseball last week, and the Yankees’ Justus Sheffield was on the list at No. 3, behind only the Padres’ MacKenzie Gore, the No. 3 overall pick last summer, and the A’s A.J. Puk, the No. 6 overall pick in 2016.

Sheffield, the No. 31 overall pick by the Indians in 2014, is expected to start the season in Triple-A, after an oblique injury limited him to 17 starts in Double-A last season.

The Yankees expect the 22-year-old to be major league-ready at some point this summer.

As for Chance Adams, he didn’t place in the MLBPipeline’s list of top 10 right-handed prospects. However, GM Brian Cashman thinks enough of him that he wouldn’t include Adams with Clint Frazier as a package for Gerrit Cole in the recent trade talks with the Pirates.

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