Out of all the milestones in the sports world, throwing a no-hitter in a baseball game might be the hardest one to accomplish. It’s not just a test of your athleticism, but of your endurance and your ability to hold your opponents to no success throughout the entire game. Incredibly, only a month into the young season, three pitchers have held their opponents hitless.
Well, sort of.
Last week, the Diamondbacks’ Madison Bumgarner no-hit the Atlanta Braves, an even more impressive feat considering that he had to hold Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, and Marcell Ozuna hitless. However, Bumgarner was not credited with his no-hitter, as it was the second game of a doubleheader. Recent changes to the MLB rules shortened doubleheader games to seven innings, and in MLB’s eyes, this does not count as a full game, denying Bumgarner his official no-hitter. Seven inning doubleheaders are part of a new set of rules that Major League Baseball has introduced in recent years, intended to increase pace of play and correct for a long-established trend of declining viewership.
It is true that baseball needs to change itself to market to a younger audience. The sport, admittedly, lacks the constant action of an NBA game or the nail-biting consequentiality of the NFL. The way that we watch sports in the United States is changing, too. Fewer young people wake up in the morning and turn on SportsCenter to watch the highlights of the previous night’s action, instead turning to TikTok for viral fifteen second clips. An overtime goal, slam dunk, or hail mary will get clicks, likes, and views; a pitcher’s duel gets swiped past. MLB is a business, and sports leagues make their money through deals with entertainment companies, so it makes sense that the league is changing its ways to market itself. But Commissioner Rob Manfred is focusing these reforms on changing the pace of play, speeding the game up and fundamentally changing the way baseball is played. However, this is the wrong way for MLB to change, alienating baseball’s dedicated fan base before turning to the untapped potential for the marketability of their employees – the players.
Baseball’s pace of play rules are controversial, and in my opinion, completely ridiculous. The most egregious addition is the “ghost runner” on second base during extra innings, making it so a bunt and a deep flyout could theoretically end the game and functionally eliminating tense, exciting, extra-inning duels (think the Nats’ heartbreaking loss in Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS). Some might not enjoy staying at a game for hours while the teams grind out the game, but that’s one of the quintessential characteristics of baseball: there is no timeline for how long the game must last, testing players’ endurance. Baseball is also a game of strategy, and two recent additions to the rulebook severely limit the need for strategy in the later innings: the three-batter minimum for pitchers and the universal designated hitter. Some teams carry relief pitchers, specifically lefties, on their roster for the sole purpose of coming into games in the seventh or eighth inning and getting a star hitter out. Former Dodgers pitcher Adam Kolarek is a perfect example of the “left-handed one out guy” or LOOGY, and prominently was able to get Juan Soto out each time he faced him during the 2019 NLDS. I want to see managers play strategy with their bullpens to win games without being bound to rules that cut down in-game breaks. The universal designated hitter rule, implemented in the shortened 2020 season, limits the playing time of some crucial pieces on the team, while also limiting the strategy. Clint Robinson was some sort of “designated pinch hitter” in the 2015 and 2016 Nationals seasons; Dusty Baker knew that there was someone on the bench who could get that clutch late hit. Robinson would have likely gotten much less playing time with a universal DH, because the bench as a whole would become largely irrelevant during a game, save for an injury situation. I want to see the bench used, and I also want to see small ball played when the pitcher’s spot comes around. In a world with a universal DH, there would likely be less bunting, and pitchers would not have the opportunity to make the entire baseball world happy when they hit a home run. And of course, MLB can’t have the doubleheader situation both ways—either keep doubleheaders at seven inning “incomplete” games and don’t count them towards a team’s win or loss record or historical purposes, or return doubleheaders to nine innings, the rightful number of innings that should be played in a game, and make them count as official games.
These rules cause controversy within the baseball community, especially among more old-school fans like myself. With more rules potentially on the way in coming seasons, like an automated strike zone or a ban on defensive shifts, we have to consider one crucial thing: are these changes worth it to shave off 20 minutes from a game? I’d say no, and that liberalizing player expression is the only way to increase MLB’s popularity.
Before 2015, baseball very much felt like an old-school, proper sport where on-field expression was toned down. It seems like the sport has moved far from the days where Brian McCann started a benches-clearing argument with Jose Fernandez over a slow home run trot. Today, however, players like Tim Anderson and Fernando Tatis play the game an entirely new way. Bat flips, screams of excitement after big plays, and off-the-field player arguments are the norm. Why hasn’t MLB leaned into these rivalries? Sure, the “let the kids play” advertising campaign has been present for the last few years, but other than amplifying their individual profiles, what more has MLB done? Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer has his own Youtube channel where he “vlogs” his experiences as a star pitcher, making him incredibly popular among younger fans—the league should be salivating at the fact that one of their most marketable players on one of the highest-profile teams is cultivating a following of Gen Z kids online, and the league has done next to nothing to pounce on this opportunity. Other actions to liberalize MLB, like allowing players to wear custom cleats or use custom bats, should be no-brainers. Bleacher Report has an Instagram page dedicated to basketball players’ shoes that has millions of followers, and a baseball account would likely garner a similarly large following. And if Aaron Judge hit a walk-off grand slam using a custom-painted Statue of Liberty bat, while his teammates are going crazy on the field as he runs around the bases, fist-pumping and screaming “LET’S GO” in front of a capacity crowd of Yankees fans, fan engagement would go through the roof—and would have make more of a difference on the league’s growth than a runner on second to start extras. MLB is blessed to have a diverse set of electrifying young athletes, and by not allowing them to express themselves through their bats, shoes, and on-field reactions, the league is missing out on their chance to attract a Gen Z following. Take it from me, a member of Gen Z—myself and most of my peers want to see the players having fun on the field. We want to watch Anthony Rizzo strike out Freddie Freeman, and watch both of them crack up in laughter while Freeman returns to the dugout. We want to watch starting pitcher Bartolo “Big Sexy” Colon hit a home run. We don’t care that the game might be a few minutes shorter; we want to see players loving the game the same way that other leagues allow their players to.
We have to recognize that baseball is losing its one chance to save the league from falling into irrelevancy. Baseball needs to make itself more like the NBA or the NFL, where each star player has their own “brand” and is allowed to cultivate strong followings among themselves for young people to look up to. While this makes me, a more traditional baseball fan, wince, these changes are imperative—not the new pace of play rules.