MLB commissioner Rob Manfred: Strike zone technology moving 'a little faster than I might have thought,' tackier baseballs a possibility

Rob Manfred has been impressed with the pitch-tracking technology MLB is developing. (AP Photo)

In an in-depth interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred discussed moving toward a technology-based strike zone rather than an umpire-based one, changing to a tackier baseball, addressing pace-of-play issues and much more.

Manfred says a technology-based strike zone is progressing.

One of the things that’s been brought up recently is the emergence of technology calling balls and strikes rather than umpires. While Manfred, 59, praised the umpires as “very skilled,” he also acknowledged the rapid advancement of PITCHf/x technology, crediting MLB Executive Vice President of Strategy, Technology and Innovation Chris Marinak and Chief Technology Officer Jason Gaedtke.

The accuracy is way up — way better than what it was a year ago. The technology continues to move… and it actually moved a little faster than I might have thought.

There remains a fundamental question the owners are going to have to address. When you take away the home plate umpire’s control over the strike zone, you take away a principal piece of his authority in terms of managing the whole game. You really need to think carefully about whether you want to make that change.

When asked if he thought umpires would react negatively to the change, Manfred brought up the emergence of instant replay, an aspect that umpires initially “violently opposed” before coming around to it. “We haven’t had a lot of conversations with them on this topic, but I do think there is a serious management-of-the-game issue you’d have to think about with respect to that change.”

Could tackier baseballs be on their way to MLB?

In an effort to limit the use of foreign substances such as pine tar, sunscreen and rosin on the ball, MLB has discussed introducing a tackier baseball.

Over the long haul, I do think the idea of a baseball that is tackier and eliminates any human variation — whether it’s the way it’s mudded, the use of tar, whatever — would be a positive for the game. We haven’t gotten there in terms of the rest of the performance characteristics of the baseball.

Manfred also discussed the current baseball and its changing properties. The ball over the years has changed aerodynamically, reducing “drag” on the baseball and leading to more home runs. Manfred emphasized “there was no purposeful or known alteration of the baseball” and that the specifications of the baseballs remain within the same range.

MLB’s pace of play is improving.

Last year, the average MLB game lasted 3:05:11, by far the highest in MLB history. Through Tuesday’s games, that number is down to 3:00:25, back roughly to where it was in 2016. Manfred, who has had improving pace of play at the top of his priority list ever since he became commissioner in January 2015, has been encouraged.

I’m positive about how they’ve gone for two reasons. No. 1, the threshold matter on any rule change is, “Has it been disruptive on the field?” I don’t think either the (changes in) innings breaks or the mound-visit rule has been disruptive on the field. People adjusted. We’ve had some other rules that had a longer period of adjustment. These did not. That’s a positive.

Manfred also added that a strict pitch clock would be a positive development for continuing to lower average game length.

Attendance is down, but Manfred isn’t overly concerned.

Despite MLB’s lowest average attendance in 15 years, Manfred believes the game is “very healthy.”

Manfred spoke on a few factors as to why he believes the league is in a good spot. He pointed to two terrific postseasons — the Cubs snapping a 108-year streak two years ago and the Astros winning their first ever World Series last year, both in seven games — as a major positive that “has increased the buzz around our game dramatically.” He added that MLB’s advancement in technology has made the game more accessible and that revenue continues to increase.

Furthermore, Manfred dispelled the notion that the league is in trouble because attendance is down. Overall attendance is down 6.7 percent from last year, but Manfred blamed that at least partially on a rainy spring. Still, he acknowledged there’s always room to improve.

[No] institution — no matter how great it is, and I do think our entertainment product is great — can sit still in today’s world. You have to think about ways to continue to grow the ties you have to our existing fans, which really matter to us, and how you make sure the game gets passed on to the next generation with the same kind of passion it has for yours and mine.

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