Editor’s note: From rising strikeout totals and unwritten-rules debates to connecting with a new generation of fans and a looming labor battle, baseball is at a crossroads. As MLB faces these challenges, we are embarking on a season-long look at The State of Baseball, examining the issues and storylines that will determine how the game looks in 2021 and far beyond.
When it comes to the issues surrounding Major League Baseball, there is no shortage of opinions.
Through annual surveys, the league has asked fans what they think of the game and how it could be changed for the better. Debates on rule changes, special events like the recent Field of Dreams game, uniform experiments and how to appeal to younger fans are a social media staple. We at ESPN have our own suggestions, too.
But what do the players think?
We polled 20 big leaguers to get their take on the prevalence of the shift, the role of analytics and baseball’s ever-slowing pace of play. A few of them agreed to play commissioner for a day, too, with results both realistic and a bit over-the-top.
Here’s what they told us.
Is either the pace or length of games in baseball a problem?
Players typically say they simply aren’t fazed by either issue because they’re so locked into the game — but as the poll indicates, there are dissenting views.
Even some of those in the dugout, as Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon once indicated, will admit: When they’re at home watching a game, instead of participating in it, a lengthy one can be tedious.
The average length of game this season is 3:09, up nine minutes from just three years ago.
Zack Wheeler, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher: “Sometimes the games are long and drawn out. A three-hour game is OK but sometimes it does go over. It’s the strike zone, too. You have to throw in a shoe box. Younger guys, nitpicking around the strike zone, games can get drawn out that way, too.”
J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies catcher: “We feel it. Games used to go three hours. Now it’s three and a half/four hours for a nine-inning game. It’s not good for us. It’s not good for the fans or anyone. It would be beneficial for both sides to figure that out as long as it doesn’t mess with the game too much. The 3-2 game that takes three and a half is just wild.”
National League pitcher who asked to remain anonymous: “Everyone wants to blame pitchers, but watch hitters. They take their time in the box much more than pitchers on the mound. If we have a problem with pace, it’s there.”
Should the shift be regulated?
To be fair, many players were actually on the fence regarding the shift but were asked to answer one way or the other. As you would expect, responses were split along party lines: Hitters were in favor of regulation, pitchers less so.
Perhaps most interesting was the split among a couple of catchers who obviously have a stake in scoring and preventing runs.
Realmuto: “I would get rid of it. Where you can’t have three guys on one side or one guy playing right field. I think it would help hitters go back to putting the ball in play and hitting line drives and hard ground balls.”
Seby Zavala, Chicago White Sox catcher: “Keep it. You would be taking away from the creativeness of the team and the manager. If we take away the shift, then everyone plays the same. Some shift more, some shift less, that’s part of the strategy of the game.”
Are analytics applied the right way in the game?
The players who voted yes to this question weren’t nearly as aggressive in their answers as those who voted no. Communication is a big part of the dialogue. Players want things explained to them in a way that helps, not complicates.
Most answers included something positive — followed by a “but.”
Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman: “There’s definitely a spot for analytics in the game. It just needs to be translated and made practical for baseball. A bunch of numbers thrown at guys does no good.”
Wheeler: “There’s a place for it, but sometimes it overtakes the thinking part of the game. You have players and coaches doing it for so long, they have a feel for things.”
Does the game need fixing?
When asked more generally, players were hesitant to find problems with a game that has given them so much. Many believe it needs tweaking but isn’t necessarily broken, as some of the harsher critics of baseball have suggested over time.
And of those who do have issues, many find them off the field rather than on it.
Jesse Winker, Cincinnati Reds outfielder: “I feel like we’re always trying to fix the game [on the field], but I say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We have a beautiful game. I grew up enjoying the game because of the way it is.”
Andrew Miller, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher: “We think the [financial] system is outdated and it needs to be adjusted to account for young players taking up more significant parts of the roster. Competition from all 30 teams will fix a lot of what’s going on in the markets. If everyone is trying to win, the free-agent market will certainly be better for players.”
If you were commissioner for a day, what would you do?
Rogers: “I like the runner at second base in extra innings. I would keep that. At first I wasn’t for it but as it progressed, it saves guys in the bullpen, it saves guys from going down. And there is a lot more excitement at the back end of games.”
Nick Castellanos, Cincinnati Reds outfielder: “We have consequences for losing and underperforming, I wish everyone across baseball would have the same. Just to keep the integrity of the game at its highest. The purity and intensity and commitment to winning can be watered down if there are no consequences for losing.”
Turner: “I would go to a DH in both leagues. For health aspects and keeping our pitchers on the mound. Also, as an older player, it would probably benefit me a little bit.”
Zavala: “I would make it a show every night like they do in the Dominican. Music going. Everything goes. Make every game more like a party like they do down there. Have fun, forget their troubles while they’re here.”
Mullins: “Five hundred foot homers should count for two runs, and we should get four strikes.”