The good news for fans is that the gates to training camps will creak open in just a week and in less than three weeks there’ll actually be games (of dubious quality mind you, as is always the case early in Spring training) taking place. For the Jays fans, the good news is that most pundits see the team as middling but one having the potential to make a run for the glory, should everything fall into place. Those things mostly consisting of Aaron Sanchez not getting blisters after every dozenth pitch again, Marco Estrada sleeping well (he says his terrible stretch in the middle of last season was a result of insomnia), Josh Donaldson being healthy and wanting to show off his talents for potential free agent suitors in 2019 and the bullpen being as good as it was last year.
The bad news of course is that some of the most prominent players in the game don’t have a team yet, and there’s even going to be a separate camp for unsigned free agents, with them being so numerous. Hostilities between players and owners are at their worst since the bad ol’ 90s and some hotheads (LA’s Kenley Jansen for instance) are urging a wildcat strike just when most fans are either too young to remember, or old enough to have forgotten the fiasco that was the last, World Series-canceling,1994 strike.
Now I’ve made the point here recently that I don’t think there is collusion taking place. The unsigned free agents largely have to look in the mirror and around their old clubhouses to see why the offers aren’t rolling in like they once did. I think by this time in the Off Season, fans probably don’t care if JD Martinez plays or not in 2018 – he’s got a 5 year, $125M offer from the Red Sox, seems to have stated that he refuses to play for any of the other 29 teams but he’s holding out for more nonetheless. Or take Eric Hosmer, by common agreement a decent enough hitter and teammate. He’s got a lot going for him. He was a 2015 World Series champ; he’s durable (missing only 8 games over the past 3 years) and is still just 28. He’s coming off a very good .318/25/94 year with a .882 OPS – career high on the average and OPS- and has averaged 23 homers and over 90 RBI per year since 2015. On the other hand, he plays first base, and not very well at that. For the second year in a row, he had a negative defensive WAR, meaning that he likely cost his team wins by his poor defence compared to just an “average” player.
Hosmer has, its reported, two offers for 7-year deals, at or above $140M. One might think he’d jump at it, but of course the opposite is true. He’s balking and feeling insulted and wants either more per year and/or a much longer deal. It’s not hard to see why he may not be on the field when teams come out and play on March 29. It is however,hard to feel sorry for him.
All that said, it still is worrisome that the players and their bosses are so antagonistic towards each other. A strike would be the last thing anyone would, or should want. The second-last thing would be for the year to get going with a large number of stars like Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn, Hosmer, Martinez and about 100 others sitting out. The fans lose out with either and if we lose, the teams lose out to at the turnstile, at the concession stands and when it comes time to renew their TV contracts.
One would think this would concern the game’s Commissioner, Rob Manfred. But instead, all indications are that he is pleased as punch at his personal successes with the minutia he’s obsessed with – game length and what hat Cleveland players don.
Ever since he took his position, his main priority seems to be to speed up games. So far, he’s failed,as last year the length of an average game rose to a record 3 hours, 5 minutes.It rose to over 3 hours for the first time in 2014; in 1975 remarkably the game was typically under 2 and a half hours. Of course, much of this results from changes to the way the game is played these days, particularly the use of bullpens. In ’75, teams used an average of 2.4 pitchers per game . Nowadays the average is 4.2/game ( a starter and 3 or 4 relievers). Complete games are Whooping Crane rare. What’s more, the number of pitches per plate appearance keep rising, to 3.9 last season, up from 3.7 in 2001 when they started keeping tabs on that. More strikeouts, more foul balls…more windups, more batters stepping out. It adds minutes to the game.
Manfred has thus threatened players- speed up or else! He’s promised to bring in a pitch clock by 2019 if they don’t change the pace on their own. This would have a clock ticking off 20 seconds from when the pitcher gets the ball. If they don’t start their pitching windup, a ball would be called. Easy to see some slow pitchers issuing a whole lot more walks with that in place! Furthermore, he wants to limit the number of trips to the mound , by catchers as well as managers or coaches , to two per inning. Any more than that and the pitcher is removed (leading to a new pitcher coming in and wasting time running to the mound, warming up etc!). Players hate the proposal; Manfred essentially sticks his tongue out at them and says “try to stop me!”
Would it speed up the games? Possibly, although in all likelihood only by a minute or two. Until we bring in the DH rule to the NL to reduce pitching changes and change teams’ attitudes that a different reliever is called for every time a decent hitter comes to the plate late in the game, we’re not going back to 2 and a half hour g
ames. But wait- is that a bad thing?
Consider that for all the slagging the game gets
for being slow, it still comes in shorter than the average NFL game. The most recent tally for football show an average game being 3:12…of which the ball is actually in play for only 11 minutes! Nascar races clock in well over 3 hours too. Baseball seems to be doing just fine for all the slow-motion. Last year, attendance was an average of 29 905 per game- a thousand less than 5 years ago but miles ahead of the pre-strike era! In 2003, the average gate was under 28 000; back in those speedy Seventies, the usual attendance was in the 15 000 range. Most teams are making considerable profits and as we know, players keep getting richer even if 2018 seems like a little bump in that road for them. One might think that the suggestion would be that the game is doing well as is and doesn’t need any significant changes to its pace.
Likewise we have the whole Indians situation. I understand that Chief Wahoo is a controversial logo and would be ill-advised for a team to bring in new in 2018. But I also understand that looking around their park, the old logo is beloved by their fans and the caps with “wahoo” outsell the boring capital-C ones the team also offer. What we also know is that last year the Indians drew an average of about 25 300 per game, not spectacular but 11th best in the AL despite operating in the smallest metropolitan area in the league. Attendance there, Wahoo and all, is up sharply (by about 45% in fact) since just 201
5. therefore, I’d suggest that the actual fans of the team don’t care about the “offensive” logo. If you don’t believe that, ask Mark Naymik at Cleveland.com which ran a poll. 63% of the respondents liked the Chief Wahoo logo and the “majority of feedback” he got when urging the logo disappear, was highly negative.
Does this mean the Indians should absolutely keep the smiling cartoon on their caps? Not necessarily. But it does mean it’s not going to do much to grow the game in northern Ohio replacing it. It does mean Rob Manfred should look to real problems the sport is facing and deal with them instead of worrying about caps and wanting to install new clocks at ballparks. It means he should sit down with union reps and owners and hash out the problems and see what can be done to get guys like Eric Hosmer back on the field this year. It means he needs to address teams like Tampa (with horrible attendance despite boring, inoffensive-to-anyone caps) and Oakland which seem to never try to field a winning team. To look at why so many teams are happy to “rebuild” this year and not try to win until the next decade- from Pittsburgh to Detroit to Miami to Texas, it seems like owners are promoting Not Winning As a Winning Strategy. They’re wrong.
Anyone who’s worked in retail, as I have, has probably heard more times than they can count, that it’s easier to keep an existing customer than win a new one. Some suggest it’s about a 5:1 deal; it costs as much to get one new customer as to keep 5 old ones happy (thus the annoying policy of “the customer is always right even when they’re wrong.”) Baseball would do well to heed that advice. Even if the games get zipped down by half an hour, its unlikely the kids who live for X-games and “first person shooter” video affairs are going to be lured into becoming fans. But changing the whole personality of the game, or accepting a league where only 7 or 8 out of 30 teams have any shot of, or even desire of winning is sure to turn a lot of us diehards away from America’s Pastime.