Improving Pace of Play: MLB Looking for Time in All the Wrong Places
This is not a rebuttal to Leddy Foster’s excellent article on the MLB’s changes to the intentional base on balls (take a gander at this before reading further.) I agree with my man Leddy. It’s more of a companion piece. I’ve long been a proponent of baseball improving the pace and duration of games. The MLB’s current sentiment and motivation are coming from the right place, but the execution isn’t quite right.
As Leddy illustrated, changing the IBB to an automatic freebie is going to save one minute about once a week. This is a drop in the ocean in terms of time, but it can have a massive impact regarding strategy. Not only are all of the mishaps that Leddy detailed possible, but there is also pitcher’s rhythm to consider.
Say a pitcher is struggling to finish the 5th inning of a tight game and he’s had trouble with his command/timing/mechanics the whole game but has managed to keep the game close. There isn’t anyone ready in the bullpen. Putting the No. 5 right-handed batter who has hit three home runs in the last two games on base to pitch to the No. 6 left-handed batter with extra base potential but hasn’t made solid contact in three weeks makes sense with a runner on second and one out. But part of the tradeoff for getting that freebie for the defense is that the manager has to weigh that against the pitcher’s groove.
First, the pitcher has to throw four wide pitches at a different speed to a different target than he’s been throwing at for the last 90 minutes. If he manages to pull that off without sending the runner to third on a wild throw, he then immediately has to get back into throwing strikes after completely altering his motion and rhythm. This could result in a wild pitch, or an inability to put a ball in the strike zone.
It could lead to a meatball in the wheelhouse that breaks Mitch Moreland out of his month-long cold streak.
These are all factors that a manager had to take into account before and now can just dole out free bases willy-nilly with none of those other strategic factors to consider. In my mind, it nudges the advantage too far toward the defense for that situation without adding any risk.
The real point of my article, though, is that MLB has a vast surplus of “dead time” that it can minimize to truly impact the pace of play and the length of games. Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated that he isn’t necessarily trying to reduce the length of games (and why would he want to reduce the advertising revenue opportunities?) but to reduce the dead time between balls in play. I wouldn’t mind both, and I think focusing on dead time will naturally affect the length of games. First pitch at 7:05, game end by 9:45 and post game wrapping up at 10:00 would be ideal to me.
Being one to not just bring complaints but also offer solutions, Mr. Manfred – here are the areas that I think the MLB should focus on:
1) Batters leaving the batter’s box: This has already partially been addressed by MLB. Batters are currently not allowed to step out of the box if they didn’t swing the bat, are forced out by a pitch, someone calls “time,” etc.
The rule (here are the batter’s box rules) says that batters must keep one foot in the box at all times unless one of the listed exceptions occur. However, this seems to be loosely enforced. Thanks to players like Nomar Garciaparra, who took maddening amounts of time between every pitch while he undid and redid the Velcro on his batting gloves no less than 5 times on each glove, every player now has his own 30 second OCD ritual before every pitch. Even though they may not step completely out of the box to perform their rituals, they still do so with one foot in the box. This is unnecessary and (without having done any actual math and maybe slightly exaggerating to illustrate my point) adds at least 10 minutes to every game.
New rule suggestion: Batters may not step either foot out of the batter’s box after a pitch unless they’re brushed back or knocked down by an inside pitch, or their helmet comes off for whatever reason during the pitch, calling of time, and other exceptions listed in the rulebook except that they may not step out after swinging the bat.. They must be ready for a pitch immediately after the preceding pitch. If the umpire signals Play Ball and the batter isn’t in the box, it’s a free strike for the pitcher.
2) Along those lines, concerning pitchers walking laps around the mound and multiple mound meetings: this has also been partially addressed by MLB. MLB has long had the rule that the manager could visit the mound once in an inning for free. After that, the only reason a manager could go out to the mound was to replace the pitcher or an injury to a player on the field.
Now MLB has placed a 30-second-time limit on coach mound visits, which is a step in the right direction. The problem is that the catcher can and frequently does go to the mound several times an inning. So can the shortstop, or any other infielder – without limit. New rule: Maximum of two non-coach mound visits per inning. I’d prefer one, but I’m trying not to be TOO extreme here. I’m not sure what the penalty for a third visit should be, but this gets things going in the proper direction.
Remember erstwhile Ranger great Todd Burns? He compulsively messed with his hat after every pitch. He tugged at the brim, pulled the hat off and put it back on and adjusted it 3-4 times after every pitch, and it was just as maddening as Garciaparra’s silliness. I used to call him the Mad Hatter, and a quick look at his Wikipedia page tells me that that actually was his nickname.
A solution to both of these problems is a 20-second pitch clock. Honestly, I’d prefer 15 seconds. I feel like 30 seconds is too long between pitches for the same batter. First pitch to a new batter gets a 30-second timer. If the batter isn’t ready, free strike for the pitcher. If the pitcher isn’t ready, free ball for the batter. It’s fair to both pitcher and batter – neither player gets to go through their superstitious histrionics. It prevents the pitcher and catcher from going through the signals 3 times.
A sub-section of this rule should address the batter calling time every pitch while the pitcher and batter stare each other down. The batter gets only one time called per at-bat (barring injury or equipment malfunctions.) The game moves faster, and the game time is reduced by 10 minutes.
3) My third and final suggestion for reducing dead time and game length: Dramatically reduced mound warm up sessions for new pitchers coming into the game. Relievers just spent the last several minutes getting warm in the bullpen. They don’t need yet another two minutes to warm up. 30 years ago, when there might have been two different relief pitchers per team per game, this wasn’t a big deal.
New rule suggestion: New pitchers get 5 pitches to get a feel for the dirt around the rubber and their landing area and that’s it. These days of specialized relief pitching, with starters coming out after the 5th inning and there can be 4-5 pitching changes during an inning per game, this is another 10-15 minutes of dead space that can be cut.
Replay has added some time to the game, but to me, it serves a valid purpose. Can the process be streamlined? Absolutely – but it’s new and evolving. I have no problem with replay’s addition to the overall game clock. I’d be willing to entertain the idea of a 90 second or two-minute timer for the replay crew. Once the clock runs out, if the replay crew hasn’t come up with a call, then the call on the field stands. Three to five minute or longer replay review sessions are a little too much.
I realize that these suggestions won’t be popular to many and that nothing close to these rules will ever see the light of day. But one can dream after one falls asleep in one’s recliner waiting for the end of a three and a half hour west coast game that started at 9:00.