Rob Manfred says he wants robot umps in MLB by 2024, hints at expansion to 32 teams

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Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to reporters following an owners' meeting at MLB headquarters in New York, Thursday, June 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Rob Manfred has some big plans for the next few years. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Just because MLB has a new collective bargaining agreement doesn't mean MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is done tinkering with the sport he has been charged with stewarding.

In a wide-ranging interview with ESPN's Don Van Natta Jr., Manfred hinted at multiple on-field reforms he would like to see reach the big leagues in the near future, from robot umpires to an increased number of teams.

Such changes have been a stated intention of Manfred's for years, but he presented some of them in more real terms than previously seen, most notably throwing out a potential timeline for the introduction of automated balls and strikes, or robot umps.

Manfred apparently wants to see the change by the 2024 season, with the possibility of giving managers several challenges for calls during a game.

From ESPN:

In 2024, Manfred says, the automated ball-strike zone system, or as it's commonly called, "robot umpires," will likely be introduced. One possibility is for the automated system to call every pitch and transmit the balls and strikes to a home plate umpire via an ear piece. Another option is a replay review system of balls and strikes with each manager getting several challenges a game. The system is being tested in the minor leagues and has shaved nine additional minutes off the average game length this season, MLB data shows. "We have an automated strike zone system that works," Manfred says.

As in other interviews, Manfred again banged the drum of a pitch clock, in which pitchers would get 14 seconds between pitches with the bases empty and 18 or 19 seconds with runners on base. ESPN reports the current average between-pitch time to be 23.8 seconds, with MLB reportedly projecting an average of 30 minutes shaved off games.

The clocks have been used in the minor leagues for a while, with encouraging results according to MLB. There have been, of course, detractors in the past.

MLB could end streaming blackouts

Manfred also hinted that MLB's often-criticized blackouts, in which streaming fans are forbidden from watching games involving teams from their local markets. The commissioner claimed MLB is keen to phase the practice out:

"Our No. 1 business priority right now is reach," Manfred says. The topic was a main discussion at an owners meeting in June. "Believe me," he says, "we hate blackouts as much as fans do." Manfred notes that the blackout clauses are written into broadcast deals — which he has overseen — but he says it's now a "top priority" for MLB to phase them out.

Such a sentiment could be related to MLB's reported plans to introduce a streaming service for home games.

There could be more teams to stream in the future as well. Manfred hinted that a number of billionaires are interested in acquiring an expansion franchise and said he "would love to get to 32 teams."

Rob Manfred willing to listen to Pete Rose

These are topics that have frequently come up during Manfred's tenure as commissioner. He could also soon address a major one of his predecessor Bud Selig's, namely the ban of Pete Rose. The all-time MLB hits leader has reportedly submitted a third petition for reinstatement and his lawyers are arguing that the lack of repercussions for the Houston Astros demonstrates Rose has been treated unfairly.

MLB has recently embraced gambling as well, which could be another boon for Rose's argument. Then again, it could be reason for enforcing an even stronger firewall between players and gambling.

Either way, Manfred is apparently willing to hear Rose out:

"Rule 21, the gambling prohibition, is regarded to be the most important rule in baseball," Manfred said. "It is the bedrock of ensuring that our fans see fair, all-out competition, unaffected by any outside forces, on the field."

He says he will hear Rose out. "Pete will be given an opportunity to come in and be heard, if that's what he wants to do, before I make a decision," Manfred says.