Batter Up! The start of the new baseball season not only offers the usual promise for fans and players alike, but also projects an unanticipated benefit to corporate leaders and strategic planners.
For the apparent success with which Major League Baseball’s new rule changes have been implemented provides practical corporate leadership lessons on how best to implement meaningful change within an environment traditionally resistant to change.
For the uninitiated, MLB implemented a series of significant rule changes this spring, all related to increasing the pace of play. They include requiring pitchers to begin their motion within 15 seconds with the bases empty, and 20 seconds with a runner on. In addition, batters must be in the box within eight seconds. Pitchers will be limited to two “disengagements” from the runner per batter. Finally defensive shifts are banned, and the base size is enlarged.
Of all these changes, the institution of the pitch clock is the most consequential, with an obvious and immediate impact on the pitcher/batter dynamic and on managerial strategy. But its impact extends beyond the ballpark to the leadership suite, with a series of lessons on confronting and responding to a significant business model concern:
Number One: Something’s Got to Give. Even for a sport valued for its leisurely pace, the game was just getting too long. Three and four hour games were turning off the fan base and alienating the all-important Gen X and Y markets. The game was rapidly falling behind the NFL in public interest. The leadership lesson: Change may be both hard and risky, but leaders must have their pulse on customer sentiment and the courage to propose a meaningful response.
Number Two: The Barriers of Tradition. A particular beauty of baseball is its devotion to tradition. From the shape of ballparks to the style of uniforms to the love of statistics, it’s a sport that’s intentionally resistant to evolution. For better or worse, the game Babe Ruth played is essentially the same one played by Mike Trout. The leadership lesson: The comfort of tradition can lead to the risk of complacency-which must eventually be confronted.
Number Three: Collaboration Can Work. Perhaps no major industry has a more contentious labor relationship than baseball. The repetitiveness and enmity of the game’s labor stoppages suggests that players and owners will always be at odds. But for the 2023 rule changes, they “reached across the aisle” to adopt meaningful change. The leadership lesson: Even in the most bitter of business relationships, there is value in seeking a collaborative resolution to a shared concern.
Number Four: Allow The Fruit to Ripen. The pitch clock has been in the sights of MLB leadership for some time. There was a deliberate approach to its consideration. But the players’ association was circumspect, especially about its impact to on-the-field routine. But once the length of ballgames approached four hours on a regular basis, an agreement was reached. The leadership lesson: Meaningful change requires the patience to allow the other party to share the gravity of the problem.
Number Five: Change May Actually Work. While it’s useful to applaud the process that leads to change, it’s also helpful when change actually works. And the spring training data provides pretty unequivocal indications that the pitch count is reducing game length by a significant amount. The leadership lesson: Should this trend continue, the pitch clock could become a widely recognized example of the benefits of efficiency and the value of informed risk-taking.
Number Six: The Unintended Consequences. While most pitchers and batters have adjusted seamlessly to the pitch clock, others have not. The time limits are forcing some players off their stride, impacting their performance-and prompting injury. And off the field, the vendors and others who benefit from longer games will take a hit. The leadership lesson: No successful initiative is without issue. Leaders must plan for the unexpected; for the Rumsfeldian “known knowns” and the “known unknowns.”
Number Seven: Long Live Efficiency. As players become accustomed to the quicker pace of the game, many are experiencing newfound benefits: greater alertness in the field; more attentiveness in the batter’s box and the basepaths; pitchers leaving hitters with less chance to adjust. The leadership lesson: Natural fears and concerns associated with placing time or other limits on any task, such as meetings, presentations, even memos, can be vastly overrated.
Number Eight: The Necessity of Flexibility. Even with the indications of success of the pitch clock and other rules changes, MLB and the Players’ Association remain willing to adjust. A series of additional tweaks to the new rules were made just before the season’s start–not to weaken the rules, but to respond to legitimate wrinkles and concerns. The leadership lesson: No matter how successful an initiative may appear to be, confident leaders will recognize the inevitability of adaptation, and welcome it.
Number Nine: There’s Always A Max Scherzer. That’s intended as a compliment. The future Hall-of-Famer has, since the beginning of the rules change, been in the forefront of pushing the limits of the rules, questioning particular applications, and looking for ways to bend them to his advantage. As any competitor would! The leadership lesson: In the implementation of any controversial initiative, it will be important to anticipate consistent, but hopefully constructive, skepticism.
Number Ten: Questioning the Strategy. The rules book hasn’t fully closed on the application of the pitch clock. A long season lies ahead, and further issues with the new rules will likely arise. MLB and the Players’ Association will undoubtedly take time in the offseason to review the specific application of the pitch clock against the body of 162 games. The leadership lesson: No initiative works out perfectly; no strategy is without fault. Build into the process a point to reassess and consider further changes.
Rarely does major league baseball provide a “how to” model for the broader business community. It’s notoriously hidebound, has terrible labor relations and often makes business decisions based on whim and emotion rather than common sense and basic economics. But with the pitch clock – both the rule change itself and the process that led to it – the game seems to have hit a home run in both the ball park and the leadership suite.