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Pitch clocks, pace of play and robo-umps — Who should decide what’s best for baseball?

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By now, you’ve probably thought about whether you would like a pitch clock in baseball or limits on mound visits or other major league mandates to speed the pace of play. Your own tastes aside, the more important question is whether those mandates should happen, which is really a question of who owns the game.

Major League Baseball has three primary stakeholder groups: the players, who create the product; the owners, who finance and distribute it; and the fans, who consume it. The sport wouldn’t exist as we know it without all three. This is technically true also of advertisers and guys hawking peanuts and turf companies, but those are secondary actors with only minor claims. The owners, the players and the fans are the core. All could plausibly claim to be the reason the league exists, and could plausibly claim to be whom the league exists for. Complicating matters, these three stakeholder groups often want different things.

Most of us were taught by our kindergarten teachers to believe in the compromise model of solving problems: If there’s one last slice of pizza, we compromise (say, by splitting it). But compromise doesn’t apply in all cases, such as when one party has a significantly stronger interest or when one party’s sacrosanct rights are violated. If you want to punch my face and I want you to not punch me at all, we don’t compromise by having you punch my chest.

Another way of solving these disputes, common in politics, markets or parent/child relationships, is to say that the party with more power (or the party more willing to wield its power) gets to decide. Two bidders on an auction item don’t split the item. One bids more and gets it. This also breaks down in many cases, turning everything into a negotiation over power. You might be allergic to cheese and tomato sauce, but by withholding your consent on the slice of pizza, you force me into giving up something else. Everything gets weaponized, cynicism corrupts the system and half-slices of pizza sometimes end up going to people who barely want and don’t need them.

Which brings us to a third tactic for settling disputes: Determining which distribution of assets will create the most total satisfaction, and working toward that outcome. If one party values something much, much more than another party does, the system (and the parties within it) should work to somehow get that slice of pizza to the person who most values it. Otherwise, we’ve kind of failed.

This is a somewhat utopian vision for settling problems, but philosophers have argued it’s a moral imperative and should be at the center of any “what’s good for the game” resolution. All three stakeholder groups contribute to the sport, and all three get value out of it. But they contribute and get value from different parts of the sport. A just way of thinking about these hard decisions is to ask which party contributes the most, and draws the most value, from the area in question. Or, more concisely, who owns it?

Identifying where each group’s ownership begins and ends helps answer the question of whether there should be a pitch clock, and any number of other questions: whether shifts should be banned; whether pitchers should be suspended for throwing at batters; which legal performance-enhancing supplements should be outlawed within the sport; whether players should be allowed to tweet midgame; whether Yankees should be allowed to grow beards; whether the ball should be juiced, etc.

Here, I think, are reasonable boundaries for each group’s primary ownership of the game:

Players

The players probably have the strongest claim of ownership on the game. If the owners all disappeared today and the fans disappeared tomorrow, most of the players would keep playing, and they’d be just as emotional and obsessive about it as they are now. (Evidence: Murderball.) At the innermost core of the sport is a group of athletes who, independent of everything else, want to succeed. Their obsessive pursuit of that success is the product. That’s what we, the fans, want to watch, and that’s what the owners convert into advertisements. For the existence of the sport, we need the players way more than they need us.

So the players own everything that affects their ability to pursue baseball success. They own the play. If they opt to play a style of baseball that is boring or ugly, or even (within reason) dangerous, we should defer to them. Optimistically, they won’t want those things!

Owners

The owners almost certainly think they own the game, just because they literally do. In the second way we discussed of solving disputes — in which the most powerful party gets to decide — they might be right, but in the utilitarian model that we should be using, they’re wrong.

Early in the sport’s history they had a better case for co-equal (or more) ownership with the players. Owners back then were entrepreneurs risking their money to develop a new industry. But today’s owners mostly inherited an industry, and even the very worst of them end up with huge profits from it. I’d be shocked if teams couldn’t be run successfully (probably more successfully) as nonprofits, perhaps even public utilities. Owners are overrated.

That said, they do have literal, legal ownership over the sport — this is still America! — and this (along with their putative experience as businesspersons) makes them the natural stewards of the sport’s profitability, which benefits both players (for obvious reasons) and fans (for reasons of accessibility, production and constancy). So, owners have standing over areas that are primarily about making the sport thrive as a business and don’t intrude on the players’ ownership over play.

Fans

I have the hardest time with fans, perhaps because that’s my stakeholder group. In most ways, fans seem to sacrifice the least, and to need the least return, because our commitment is the least permanent. The fan wakes up every day and gets to decide whether he or she wants to invest in the sport that day. If we decide not to, there are countless alternatives available to us and our time and money.

On the other hand, you can make the argument that the fan, not the player, is the starting point for everything. We (and the votes we cast with our wallets and advertising exposure) are actually the most permanent force in this equation: If there were no baseball players and no owners, the vacuum would quickly be filled by other people wearing different costumes and trying new things to entertain us. We’re the king! The jester doesn’t tell the king how he’s going to jest, or at least he doesn’t for long.

Here’s where I come down: The fan has very little ownership over the game that’s played tomorrow, because it is extraordinarily easy for him or her to opt out of that game, keep the money and watch something else instead. However, the fan has tremendous ownership over games that he or she has already paid for. This means that, when a game is in progress, decisions made that affect the integrity or completion of that game follow the fans’ interests, not the players’ or the owners’. It also means that, once a game ends, the owners and players should take no action that devalues the history, memory, legacy of that game. (The right to later feel nostalgia is part of what a fan pays for.) It means owners and players should not deceive the fans about the nature of the game, as these lies revealed could retroactively alter the value of a product already paid for. Which is a complicated way of saying the integrity and continuity of the sport is the fans’ primary area of ownership.

This doesn’t seem to give fans much voice, but the nice thing is that our interests are already somewhat (if not entirely) baked into the owners’ motivation, because we vote with every purchase.

(Where managers and GMs/front offices fall is complicated, and I can’t decide whether they are closer to talent — engaged in the pursuit of winning baseball for our spectatorship — or management, representatives of the owners’ pursuit of profit and control. For now, I prefer to label them as non-core stakeholders, though they might move into one or the other primary stakeholder groups depending on the question at hand.)

It’s still not simple to say how controversial changes should be made (or not made). For one thing, there will always be disagreement within each stakeholder group, and there are asymmetrical costs and benefits to different members within each group. But it gives us a starting point for answering the question of “what’s good for the game” without begging the question of “whose game?” So:


Pitch clock requiring pitchers to throw the ball within 18 or 20 seconds when nobody is on base

Who should decide: Owners

Some individual players, and players as a bargaining group, assert this is a substantial change in the way the game is played, and there is evidence pitchers might take more time between pitches because it helps them throw harder and/or stay healthy. While we should defer to the players generously, the difference is small and noisy, won’t affect most plays and seems (to me) to fall under preference more than requirement. A much more aggressive clock (say, 12 seconds) that truly forced pitchers to change their style or led to more injuries would probably fall under the players’ ownership, but they haven’t made a good enough case against the 20-second clock to convince me.

Similarly, owners get to say how much time there is between innings, how long the on-deck batter has to get into the batter’s box and other non-disruptive “clock” questions.


Pitch clock requiring pitchers to throw the ball within 20 seconds when runners are on base

Who should decide: Players

This would have consequences beyond player comfort. It could affect the running game and pitchers’ strategies for thwarting the running game, and so it could therefore unilaterally affect some players’ careers significantly. The stakes of competition also go way up when runners are on base, and player concerns become more compelling when runners are in scoring position, when games are on the line, when pitchers are on the ropes and so forth.


Limiting visits to the mound by catchers and infielders

Who should decide: Probably the players

But (A) owners could make some limits on visits without dramatically affecting game play, and (B) players could certainly find some workarounds to ludicrously constant visits, which would ease the viewership problem without requiring league intervention. Which is to say, if players refuse to do (B) and owners are reasonable with (A), the benefits to owners’ interests would probably outweigh the cost to players’ interests.


Juicing, or unjuicing, the balls

Who should decide: All

The ball should never be intentionally changed unless the players want it to be, as entire careers have been laboriously built to an established calibration of how baseballs move when thrown or hit. If a ball is accidentally changed, as seems to have maybe happened, the owners, as stewards of the game’s integrity, have ownership to correct things and bring it back to normal — assuming they do so before a new normal is established, before players have recalibrated their training and professional development to suit the new baseball. But, most crucially, none of this should be done in secret, because the fan has the right to know when equipment changes have altered the nature of the game. The fan has the absolute right to know what product he or she is buying.


Banning extreme infield shifts (to add offense)

Who should decide: Players

Up to the point that a strategy becomes so powerful it ruins the competitive possibility of the sport, players have ownership over the strategies they choose and the degree to which they make use of the sport’s rules. Even if it makes the sport uglier. Players, recognizing their own interest in the sport’s business, might decide to ban the shift or reduce allowable pitching changes or lower the mound or whatever, but their interests should be deferred to.


Robo-umps calling balls and strikes

Who should decide: Players, mostly

Players are the ones most affected by bad calls, and if they want to “fix” this by implementing a more objective system, they have the most stake in asking for it. But the evidence also suggests that the rulebook strike zone is an illusion, that umpires call a non-rulebook strike zone by design, and that this seems to be how players want it.


Drug testing

Who should decide: Owners, on behalf of fans, and as stewards of the game’s integrity

But the drugs themselves — which ones should be legal and which should be not, within the bounds of actual federal and state laws — should fall to players to decide. If they think supplements that make them stronger and better are good, and they are open and public about it, it is not the place of owners or fans to tell them no. (Fans can individually protest with their wallets, of course, as with all of these decisions.) Or, if they think that LASIK surgery and vitamin water are actually lame and cheating, it’s not on us to tell them they’re wrong. Just as in pick-up basketball or house poker games, the participants mostly get to decide what’s fair.


Home-plate collision rules, second-base slide rules

Who should decide: Players

The players should decide what an acceptable level of risk is, and they mostly vote by their actions — how they play, how they react to each other and the unwritten rules that we mock at our own peril. Of course, all of this is complicated.

You might have different opinions about who owns the game, which would lead you to different conclusions about whose interests should be weighed in these issues. That’s great! I really just hope you — and, by you, I really mean the owners and their commissioner — start thinking about “what’s good for the game” in a deeper way than “what’s good for my share of it.”



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