7 min read

Thinning the Innings

Trying to Create Real Solutions To MLB's Pace of Play Problem

Last week Trevor Bauer lost a game 1-0 in part, he claimed afterwards, because he was not given sufficient time to warm up before the seventh inning and then gave up a home run on the first pitch he threw that inning. Given that the game time temperature that day was 34 degrees, it’s possible that the new pace of play rules should have included some leeway to make sure that Bauer was loose before he threw a pitch that Lucas Duda hit out of the park – not just because of its impact on the outcome of the game, but because Bauer or anyone else is under heightened risk of injury in such conditions.

MLB was obviously under pressure to do something after the last postseason was riddled with games that lasted four hours and more. They got no cooperation from the players’ union, so they did what they could on the margins. Like most changes that are rushed a bit, there will be unintended consequences, some perhaps more dire than Trevor Bauer losing a game. The real question is whether the changes are making things better. A baseball game is similar to a conversation, in that it’s not the duration but the quality that matters. All of us have at some point stayed up until dawn talking with friends without having cause to complain about it later, but a two-minute encounter full of awkward silences makes us yearn for an excuse to flee the scene.

I’m not yet enamored of the need to keep track of the number of mound visits each team makes in the course of a game. It’s now a feature of every scoreboard I have seen, which means that some other, more useful piece of information has likely been eliminated. I haven’t seen a game yet in which a team has used even half of its allotted visits, which makes me wonder if they were either necessary or all that plentiful in the first place. It would have served roughly the same purpose and been less cumbersome to allow one visit each inning.

There are various other limitations on personal freedom that are designed to quicken the pace, but mostly they are designed to expedite the transition between innings. For a fan, either at home or actually in the stadium, the break between innings is generally useful. It allows an opportunity to use the bathroom, grab a snack, or engage in conversation. Shortening this by twenty seconds – a total, thus, of six minutes for an entire game – is less helpful than it would be to shorten the pauses between each hitter and between pitches to the hitter. A hitter generally spends a minute or two in the on-deck circle, either while the pitcher is warming up or while the previous hitter bats. That is ample time to make certain his gloves and helmet fit properly and his crotch is properly aligned, and the act of walking from the on-deck circle to the plate is not going to undo any of that. Watching the first pitch or two fly past also does not create a need to reset any equipment, anatomical or otherwise, even on a windy day.
We could also do with fewer staredowns between pitchers and hitters. There was a proposal for a pitch clock, which has been tabled for now, but even that idea exempts situations when runners are on base. It’s not entirely clear why it takes longer to deliver a pitch when there are runners on base. Does Tom Brady get five extra seconds to read the defense on third down? In any event, the minor leagues have had a pitch clock for a couple of years, both for between hitters and between pitches, and it isn’t a factor because everyone has adapted. Which means that the cat-and-mouse of making hitters cool the jets until they get impatient and step out of the box to reset their gloves and helmet is a farce that has no relevance to the game. Eliminating this would do far more to fix the pace of play problem than anything currently in place.

Like every other sport, baseball has allowed itself to be bogged down by replays. The average replay took one minute and 36 seconds in 2016. This does not include the time it takes for the aggrieved party to decide to challenge the call, so the actual average is about two minutes. Standard deviation being what it is, this means that some calls take three or four minutes. (side note to ESPN: when Gamecast goes three or four minutes with nothing happening, you could explain that a call is being challenged, or someone is hurt, or the stadium has been attacked by aliens. All we get now is awkward silence, so we assume that our phones or your site has lost their signal, or we go to Yahoo to find out what is going on because they explain delays better than you do). It’s important to get calls right, but could we all agree that if we haven’t come to a decision within about thirty seconds, we should stick with the original call? Taking several minutes to decide by definition means that the evidence is inconclusive, which by the rule means that the original call should stand. If umpires aren’t careful they will end up like NBA refs, who often no longer even bother to make a call; they just go straight to the monitor. It’s probably not a good idea to remind people on a nightly basis that your job can be done better by a machine.

Here’s one more idea on how to shorten games: stop the fights. The first weeks of the season have had more than their share of bench clearings, and in all of sports, there may be nothing more ridiculous or useless than a baseball fight. A man, who seconds before was adjusting his balls in front of thousands of people, suddenly finds a reason to feel that his dignity has been offended, and the only way to remedy that affront is violence. Not really violence, usually something that more closely resembles the first couple to be eliminated on Dancing With The Stars. While the two combatants are doing their thing, both dugouts empty and a couple dozen players jog in from the bullpen just in case they are needed. As best I can tell, none of this counts as a mound visit. For the most part, everyone ends up staring at each other as though they were rehearsing a scene from West Side Story, and the fight takes less time than everyone returning to their original post.

Here are two things that would fix this: first, nobody leaves the dugout or bullpen. This has worked for the NBA and NHL. Guys are much less likely to instigate or prolong a fight if they know they are on their own. Second, most fights result from a batter getting hit or brushed back by a pitch, let’s take out the subjective aspect to punishing pitchers who hit batters. If a hitter is confident that a pitcher will face some consequence for hitting him, it stands to reason that he will feel less inclined to take matters into his own hands. So, let’s do this: for every six hit batsmen, a pitcher misses a start. If it’s a reliever, he’s out for a week. Just to be fair, hitting Brandon Guyer doesn’t count toward a suspension, since that isn’t under the pitcher’s control. A total of 93 pitchers would have missed a start last year under this rule; six would have missed two. We can tweak this, but the overall concept is similar to the NBA rules about technical and flagrant fouls: no judgment calls about the severity of the offense, just an automatic suspension if you do it too often. Batters will get hit, and it’s understandable why they get uptight about it. But most pitchers are neither malicious nor careless. Some are less precise than others, and it’s reasonable for there to be a consequence that encourages them to hit as few hitters as possible. There’s no evidence that the prospect of a guy charging the mound has ever served as a deterrent, because pitchers have seen enough baseball fights to know that the major casualty is self-respect.

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