Give Rob Manfred credit for this: He’s been a proactive commissioner in terms of trying to make the major league game suit the times, and more attractive to the new fans he’s hoping to attract.
He’s instituted rule changes and/or modifications, such as the catcher collision and second base sliding rules, and instituted instant replay and various pace-of-play initiatives. Some have been met with resistance from players, media, and fans, but he’s trying.
And now the reconstituted competition committee has a more inclusive group, from owners to general managers to managers to players, in the hopes it can become a think tank of ideas to improve the game on the field, as well as the fan experience.
Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, a member of the committee, has long been an advocate of trying to stem inactivity between plays. His ideas have been seriously considered, such as keeping batters in the box, an initiative that MLB became lax on last season. Werner, however, has been encouraged by what he’s heard at recent meetings.
“It’s more than just pace of play,” he said. “It’s a positive forum for discussing baseball issues with a great group of baseball people. Everybody in the group is cognizant of not interfering with the history of the game, but to look at ways to improve it by focusing on things such as pace of play and dead time.”
Werner didn’t want to list many of the issues that have been discussed, but he did reference the reduction of mound visits and a pitch clock. There will also be discussions about instant replay and how it can be improved.
One suggestion has been to eliminate the manager’s challenge and to just let umpires review close plays. Eliminating command control in New York would save us from the charade of issuing and losing challenges, etc.
Werner said too much dead time between plays seems to affect television viewers more than it does people at the ballpark. He said those at the ballpark are there more for a social activity. As someone who has a huge stake in NESN, Werner is concerned about keeping viewers engaged. He said that while NESN’s ratings for Red Sox games this season have been good, he wants to make sure that viewers aren’t turned off by dead time.
As an owner, Werner is also concerned about things outside the field of play. He’s passionate about expanding the number of African-American players, getting more kids playing baseball in the inner cities, and attracting the “next generation of fans.”
Werner was buoyed by an independent study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, which found there to be 25 million participants in baseball and softball, ranking as the most participated team sports in the United States in 2016.
The study found that overall baseball participation increased by 7.7 percent and slow-pitch softball participation increased by 8.1 percent in 2016, with casual participation in both showing the highest growth. In 2016, casual participation in baseball rose by 18.1 percent and slow-pitch softball by 12.4 percent. And casual participation in baseball and slow-pitch softball is up 34 percent over the last five years. When combined, baseball and softball (fast- and slow-pitch) have more casual participants than any other sports (10.25 million total participants).
“I think that can only be a good sign for major league baseball,” said Werner. “The more people who are playing baseball means that we’re going to get participants who play at a high level. We’re very interested in that participation in the inner cities and with African-Americans.
“I don’t think we get enough notice for being as popular as we are. People like to bang on baseball, but there’s more participation in baseball and softball than basketball and soccer. The assumption is that every kid under 15 is playing soccer, but this research came from a third party.”
Werner pointed to that participation showing up in recent trends, such as that in the last five years 34 of 168 first-round picks in the draft were African-American or 20.2 percent.
FLIPPING THE SWITCH
Bautista starting to find his stroke
Jose Bautista’s stroke is starting to come back. After a horrible April, Bautista was hitting .270 with five home runs and 17 RBIs, good for a .966 OPS, in May (entering Friday). He’s become a dangerous hitter again.
In April, though, how many times did Bautista hear he was all done?
“I wasn’t listening, if that’s what people were saying,” said Bautista. “I think that’s an easy thing to say based on the numbers at the time, but all I know is that my timing was off. I wasn’t in the rhythm that I personally need to be in. I had to find that timing back again, that’s the way my swing is. I feel it’s come back. I was swinging at bad pitches and the ones I was swinging at that were good, I was missing because of the timing.”
Bautista got himself in a bit of hot water with the Braves when he flipped his bat following an eighth-inning homer against lefthander Eric O’Flaherty last Wednesday. It resulted in the Braves retaliating against Bautista the next night, Julio Teheran drilling him in the left thigh on the second pitch of his at-bat in the first inning. Bautista said nothing and went to first base in what became a three-run inning. Bautista went 2 for 4 and scored a pair of runs in the Blue Jays’ 9-0 win.
Bautista didn’t want to comment on the incident, feeling “anything I say will get misinterpreted, but I just think what we all have to remember is that we’re a fraternity as players. We shouldn’t be trying to harm each other.”
Bautista also was involved in an infamous bat flipping episode in the playoffs last year against the Rangers, which was out of pure emotion given the moment.
Bautista has had a miserable season that’s just starting to improve. Hitting homers is what he does, so when he connects, given his poor start, it’s also an emotional moment for him. I still believe he’s an exciting hitter, and the bat flipping may seem like poor sportsmanship, but it’s natural to him.
It’s similar to when David Ortiz irked some opponents, particularly the Rays’ Chris Archer, when he flipped his bat and slowly trotted around the bases following a home run. You could say Ortiz had more of a right to do what he did because of his résumé, and it was his style. But it’s Bautista’s style, as well. And his résumé isn’t bad, either. It’s a bat flip, for goodness sake. What harm is there?
Apropos of nothing
1. Oakland infielder Jed Lowrie has a suggestion on a compromise for the defensive shift, which players generally hate. Lowrie believes MLB should allow shifting but “make it mandatory for all the fielders to have to stay in the infield.” Lowrie believes an infielder playing in short right field takes away offense, and fans come to watch offense rather than see a big lefthanded hitter ground out to right field. While I’d like to see the total elimination of shifts, I could certainly live with Lowrie’s proposal.
2. No, the Giants aren’t bailing out on the season despite their poor start. Brian Sabean, who has been the architect of three World Series championships in San Francisco, said, “It’s way too early for us to be thinking that way. Our season has been confounding because we’ve had some key injuries. It hasn’t helped to lose [Madison] Bumgarner or Brandon Crawford. We’ve played well at home, where we’ve pitched well, but we haven’t pitched well or hit well on the road. We’re trying to figure things out, but we’re not giving up on anything.”
3. Bench coach DeMarlo Hale sees some hope in the Blue Jays’ season. “We’ve been playing better and we should get back some key players within the next 10 days. I can’t say we’ve turned the corner, but a healthy team can be a good team,” he said. The Jays expect to get Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin back in that 10-day window of which Hale spoke. And lefthanded starter J.A. Happ (elbow) is also making good progress toward a rehab that should conclude in early June.
4. Loved one evaluator who called Pirates reliever Felipe Rivero “a poor man’s Aroldis Chapman.” The big lefthander, who is reaching 100 miles per hour, may not be making the league minimum much longer if he keeps throwing like that.
5. The composition of the competition committee is missing scouts, who know more about baseball than anyone, and umpires. Smart people such as Theo Epstein, Joe Girardi, Buck Showalter, Dave Roberts, Mike Matheny, etc., are involved, but scouts and umpires see baseball from a unique perspective.
6. The baseball world lost one of its finest people in former umpire Steve Palermo of Oxford. Here’s a man who was a hero, fending off a robber, getting shot and paralyzed, and then learning to walk again. He’s a man I will never forget.
Updates on nine
1. Jhonny Peralta, 3B, Cardinals — Peralta is off the disabled list (upper respiratory infection) but there’s no place for him to play with Jedd Gyorko entrenched at third base. Peralta could become trade bait or release material. Remember, Peralta was Dave Dombrowski’s shortstop in Detroit. With Boston’s poor third base situation, could Peralta, 34, be a possible target? The Cardinals would have to pick up a great portion of his $10 million salary.
2. Daniel Bard, RHP, free agent — Bard was quietly released by the Cardinals last week. He had tried to make it as a sidearmer, but in 10 games (8⅔ innings) for Double A Springfield he allowed 10 earned runs (10.38 ERA) with 19 walks and two hit batters. Nobody has tried harder to make it back than Bard, who at 31 says he’s hoping to hook on with another team. “It’s been a tough ride at times but the journey has been good, I’ve met a lot of good people along the way,” he said. “I still think I can pitch at the highest level. I just need a little more time to refine this sidearm thing.” Bard conferred with Brad Ziegler in spring training about throwing from down under but has otherwise made this transition on his own.
3. Todd Frazier, 3B, White Sox — Yes, the Red Sox have been scouting Frazier given their tenuous third base situation and the fact they want to give Rafael Devers more time to develop. Frazier has the perfect power swing for Fenway but has had an awful start (.198, four homers, 15 RBIs). Frazier is making $12 million this season, but the White Sox would eat some of that if a trade came to fruition. There have been reports of the Red Sox looking at White Sox lefthander Jose Quintana as well, but we doubt the Red Sox would give up another package of top prospects for him.
4. Donovan Casey, outfielder/pitcher, Boston College — Casey has become one of the more intriguing players in the upcoming draft. Most evaluators look at the 6-foot-3-inch, 205-pound righthanded hitter and pitcher as a third- or fourth-round pick, but that could change. According to one amateur scout who has seen a lot of him, teams will draft Casey as a hitter, but all are intrigued by his 95-m.p.h. fastball. Casey hasn’t pitched that much, which is also attractive to teams that feel they would try Casey out as a hitter, and if that didn’t go well they’d convert him.
5. Yoan Moncada, 2B, White Sox — There are still some who wonder what position Moncada will end up playing, but the White Sox are more convinced than ever that he’ll be a second baseman. One evaluator pointed out recently, “He can really turn the double play, quick transfer ability.” The Red Sox were trying to figure out a position for Moncada and moved him to third, when they felt they had a need with Pablo Sandoval missing most of last season with his shoulder injury.
6. Lorenzo Cain, CF, Royals — Cain is perhaps the free agent-to-be the Royals would least like to trade because they feel they might be able to re-sign him. Yet he’s also the player most in demand among himself and teammates Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, who are also upcoming free agents. The Royals have significant players to deal, but they may not get maximum return if they decide to trade them. “Some teams may be hesitant to give up much for rent-a-players,” said one American League GM.
7. Trevor Plouffe, 3B, Athletics — Plouffe came to Oakland to revive his career, and he has. Entering Friday, he had hit safely in nine consecutive starts, batting .424 (14 for 33) with six extra-base hits, and eight runs in that time. The A’s will likely be in sell mode soon, so Plouffe has thrust himself into trade discussions.
8. Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pirates — With only a year of control left by the Pirates, teams are circling to see if Cole is made available should Pittsburgh continue to struggle. The Astros, who know they need a high-quality starter to make their dream of winning the World Series a reality, are very interested, according to a major league source.
9. Dee Gordon, 2B, Marlins — Gordon won the National League batting title in 2015 (.333) but was caught for PED use the following year. Gordon hasn’t been the same since. He’s struggled this season with a .245 average and .604 OPS. He’s stolen 12 bases, but the Marlins would surely part with him if there are takers at the deadline.
From the Bill Chuck files — “In 160 at-bats this season, Charlie Blackmon has not hit into a double play, and he hasn’t hit into one since June 3 of last season, a streak of 140 games.” . . . Also, “In the last two seasons after the All-Star break, Chris Sale is 8-14, allowing 80 earned runs in 191 IP, for a 3.77 ERA.” . . . Happy birthday, Andrew Miller (32) and Bryce Florie (47).
Behind in the count
We’re only seven weeks into the 2017 season, but it may not be too early to wonder what’s wrong with sluggers Curtis Granderson, Alex Gordon, Mike Napoli, Jose Bautista, and Todd Frazier, who have a combined 15 All-Star Game appearances. They ranked among the worst full-time players in baseball in a number of key offensive categories entering Friday.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.