NEW YORK — Commissioner Rob Manfred on Thursday afternoon said he was “encouraged by the results” of the pitch clock in the minor leagues, but he did not go so far as to say he intended to bring that change, or a restriction on the shift , to the major leagues in 2023.
The new collective bargaining agreement created a competition committee comprising appointees from both the commissioner’s office and the players’ union. Manfred, ultimately, has more appointees, and therefore, the league theoretically can implement the rule changes that it wants in between seasons. Manfred on Thursday was deferential to the committee’s process, including whether the clock would be introduced at all and what the length of time allowed on it might be.
“I don’t want to prejudge the outcome,” Manfred said.
The competition committee’s first meeting is scheduled for next week.
One issue that Manfred said he does not expect to go in front of the competition committee this year is the automated strike zone. Unless that changes, then, it’s not a change in consideration for 2023.
MLB is testing a modified challenge system in the minors this year, which allows teams to appeal to the automated ball-strike system if they disagree with the home plate umpire’s call.
“We’re continuing to experiment in the minor leagues,” Manfred said. “Big kind of development in the challenge-system alternative. The idea of using two different formats is a big change this year. Went down and saw the challenge system, I have to say, I saw three challenges in the minor league game, the first one was so darn fast, I missed it. ‘What happened?’
“I mean, it was like four seconds, literally. I kind of like that. I mean, four seconds is a pretty good replay change. So you know, we need to continue to work on that. There are difficult issues surrounding the strike zone that affect outcomes on the field. And we need to make sure we understand those before we jump off that bridge.”
MLB continues to push towards its own streaming bundle
The first topic Manfred touched on in his opening remarks was related to a key component of the business: media distribution.
“Local media was a big topic of conversation, it’s not a revenue issue for us right now,” Manfred said. “Our local media revenue continues to be strong. We are concerned about our reach. We think that we have fans who want to watch baseball who don’t feel they have an adequate opportunity to do that. There’s a strong sense among ownership that an undertaking we’re referring to as ‘MLB Media’ should step into the digital space in particular to provide fans with greater and more flexible opportunities to watch games. We believe that Major League Baseball is uniquely situated to be successful in that undertaking.
“Unlike any other entity, we have access to all of the digital rights, and let’s not forget we do have the technology chops to stream 2,430 games, given that we’ve been doing it since 2000. … It’s about giving fans that may be outside the traditional cable bundle adequate opportunity to see our games.”
While MLB already offers a bundle of games for viewers who reside outside of a given team’s market through MLB.tv, those games are blacked out inside a given team’s market. (So if you live in New York City, you can’t watch the Mets or Yankees via MLB.tv.)
A’s, Ray’s Stadium situations
As he typically does following owners meetings, Manfred addressed questions about the stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa Bay.
On Oakland: “There is really significant activity in Oakland. The political process has moved along significantly. I met with Mayor (Libby) Schaaf last week. She has done a really good job at moving the process forward in Oakland. But as you all know, California political processes are their own sort of animal. There’s work to do on the Oakland side. I think the A’s prudently have continued to pursue the Las Vegas alternative. We like Las Vegas as a market. Again, it’s in the same category as Tampa Bay. We need a solution in both of those markets, and the time has come for that solution.”
On Tampa Bay: “I think there is urgency with respect to Tampa. I’ve said this before, I’m going to say it again. There needs to be a resolution in the Tampa Bay region for the Rays. Obviously, the end of that lease is a hard deadline. You need to take into account that stadiums take a little bit of time to build. We are getting to the point that wherever it is in the region that has interest in having 162 baseball games, they need to get to it, get with the club. I know the Rays are anxious to get something done and see if a deal can be made.”
Manfred said “right now” he is focused on the Tampa Bay market, as opposed to relocation.
There’s been a flurry of activity related to minor leagues in recent months. The terms of a settlement in a long-running lawsuit brought by minor leagues are expected to be announced in July. Meanwhile, a rights group, Advocates for Minor Leaguers, has been in talks with the Mets.
“Minor leagues like all of our employees, we’re constantly in a position, whether they’re employees here or major league players here, we’re constantly in a position where we’re getting input from people and trying to be responsive and create the best possible workplace,” Manfred said.
Said executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, Harry Marino, in response: “We appreciate the Commissioner acknowledging that Minor League players are employees and that work remains to improve Minor League working conditions. What the Commissioner has failed to acknowledge — at least publicly — is that the treatment of minor league players continues to be a black eye for baseball. It will remain that way until minor league players are able to negotiate their working conditions with MLB, just like major league players have done for years.”
MLB has a new housing policy for minor leagues this year as well, which Manfred called “a step forward,” although its implementation has generated some problems.
“Like with any new policy, there are places where it’s been difficult because of housing shortages, availability of the kind of housing you want,” Manfred said. “We’ll get better at that as time goes on.”
(Photo of Rob Manfred: Associated Press / Wilfredo Lee)