Baseball may need to evolve to keep fans interested


Does baseball need updating?

Recent tinkering with the game—notably, the introduction of replay challenges—indicates that MLB officials are growing worried about the sport’s declining appeal and are willing to innovate. New commissioner Rob Manfred says he’s concerned, among other things, about pace of play. And maybe he should be; maybe it’s time for the Grand Old Game to become a twenty-first century pastime. Allow me to cover my eyes and take a plunge.

Young fans have short attention spans

It’s a long time since the half-century ago when most kids played pick-up games in schoolyards. Now the few remaining sandlots that haven’t been converted to soccer pitches sit empty all summer. Few kids play with bats, balls, and gloves.

Instead, they sit home and occupy themselves staring at screens for hours on end. Baseball is trying to catch up with this new reality by using replay. But it’s rudimentary. When there’s a close play we watch managers looking at coaches on a phone in the dugout to get the word from someone in the clubhouse watching a replay that fans can see on TV at home or on the scoreboard. Minutes elapse while the manager decides whether to play one of his replay chips. If so, more time passes—four minutes in the Tigers’ recent game in Cincinnati—while everyone waits for umpires to get orders from league offices on headphones. Absurd—and certainly contrary to the desire to speed up play.

Fairly useless too. More than 53 percent of all replay challenges have been upheld this season. On close plays, the umpires are right more often than they are wrong—or the results are too inscrutable to determine even with multiple camera angles. All this proves, really, is that the dimensions of a baseball diamond laid out more than 150 years ago are still perfect. The false rule that we often invoked as kids— “a tie goes to the runner”—is evidence of that truth. For all practical purpose, many plays are in fact a virtual tie between the ball arriving at a base and a player’s foot (or hand) touching a base.

Even though it’s largely a waste of time in the vain pursuit of unattainable perfection—and even though the vast majority of the corrected calls have no real impact of the outcome of the game—most people in baseball and most fans like the replays. Such is the lure of even slow technology.

If tech must rule, why go only part of the way? Why make games longer with the clumsy replay process?

Fewer fielding plays in modern baseball

Adding to the pace-of-play problem is the alarming increase in “non-plays”. This year, there’s a big rise in strikeouts. More hitters today are free swingers. With more strikeouts (and still a large number of walks and home runs), fielding plays are becoming rarer, depriving the game of some of its most exciting elements in the field and on the base paths.

More than ever before, major league baseball is dominated by the mental battle between pitcher, catcher, and hitter—a complex strategy game of pitch selection and batter anticipation. Each participant is trying to read the other’s mind. It’s more chess than action—and a kind of chess in which each move is invisible to fans and hard for them to discern.

Could there be “Mobile-App Managers” in the future?

Perhaps the time is right to start developing an app that allows fans to play along with this core game. It might work like this: a fan, playing as his home team’s pitcher, selects a possible pitch—and perhaps even its speed and general location—from a selection of pitches available for that particular pitcher on a hand-held device. Fans could play along with their team’s batters in a similar fashion, trying to guess the next pitch and location and deciding whether and where to swing the bat. Make a game of it for everyone who wants to play along.

In this new version of a complete fan experience, fans could become immersed in the mental battle between pitcher and batter that is at the very heart of the sport. By doing so, they could learn a lot about the hidden aspects of what are really the most complex intellectual challenges any sport has to offer.

The technology is , or should soon be, available to transform the fan who so chooses to use it into an active “manager” of the game—and a virtual catcher, pitcher, or hitter—calling each pitch and responding to it.

To complete the makeover, you could even replace umpires with a technological ball-or-strike, safe-or-out system. Results of each pitch—a visual representation of the pitch’s flight path through a three-dimensional strike zone—could be displayed simultaneously on the scoreboard and the play-along app—and the results of each call on the bases could also be determined by video and instantly noted on the big board and the small screen. The elimination of umpires is probably inevitable eventually; I’ve heard commentators already calling for it.

The current excruciatingly slow system involving live umpires, hand signals, phones, and headsets will soon seem laughably crude and antiquated in the coming brave new world of high-tech baseball.