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Baseball Moving To Seven Innings? Interesting, But Also Problematic

 

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Buster Olney reported that a “high ranking executive” of an MLB team believes reducing baseball from nine innings to seven would be a panacea for baseball’s problems with entertainment and pitching injuries.

“I think they ought to change the games to seven innings,” he said.

Seven innings? You mean, in each game? Seven innings instead of nine?

“Seven innings,” he said again, and he went on to explain that if baseball adopted this, it could represent a tonic for all the problems he sees.

There are a few points that should be made here.

MLB is doing well financially. Baseball is generating more money from media rights than ever before. It should be. Since the value of live sports in the DVR climate has skyrocketed. Sports fans watch sports networks for live sports. MLB provides consistent content through the slow part of the calendar, April through August, making it especially valuable. ESPN and FOX will overpay to keep it. The sport provides an excellent springboard for launching lucrative local sports networks. That’s quite a strong position moving forward.

However, the demographics are troubling. We can quibble about what the numbers say and how important the message is. But, fewer kids are playing baseball and fewer kids are watching baseball. The sport has the lowest percentage of kids watching of any of the major sports. That’s the most important demographic for advertisers. The sports one real name-brand star, Derek Jeter, is retiring. You may not be concerned. Though, MLB making ham-fisted efforts to promote its players to youths with pop culture and social media are a sign the league is concerned. The idea baseball is and will remain optimally suited for a changing marketplace as constituted is naive and asinine.

Seven Innings would be an improvement, from an entertainment perspective. It doesn’t make baseball more popular, but it would alleviate problems that detract potential fans. It would shorten the overall lengths of games, potentially into the two/two-and-a-half hour range. It would add urgency throughout the game. Those are probably baseball’s two biggest hurdles dealing with a 21st Century audience. Sure, the NFL plays for three and a half hours. The NFL isn’t trying to start the Super Bowl after 9 p.m. ET on a school night.

Though, it’s not clear what the effect would be on pitching injuries. Fewer pitches equaling fewer injuries seems to make sense. But no direct correlation has been established. The primary effect on pitching would be fewer pitching jobs, which would come to the attention of baseball’s powerful players’ union.

The proposal is unlikely to gain traction. Baseball tends to resist change. It took nearly three decades to adopt meaningful instant replay. Sensible proposals to reduce the number of overall games to 154 or (gasp!) 144 have fallen on deaf ears. An invasive change to the actual game itself would be far more invasive and controversial. Fans would adjust. Steroids and advanced metrics have eroded much of the “emotional attachment” to countable stats and record book continuity. Even the once hallowed no-hitter is now a statistical aberration.

It’s possible to achieve a similar effect with less drastic changes. Baseball’s issue is not the number of innings, but the pacing and flow during them. Simple steps such as keeping batters in the batter’s box and managers within the dugout during innings could shave off minutes. So would harsher steps such as a pitching clock, or limiting teams to one pitching change per inning (excluding injury). It’s possible to shorten the game by the desired half-hour or so (and make it peppier) without altering its structural integrity.

[USA Today Sports]

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