The need for speed in baseball

In response to the short attention span of the ‘need it now’ society that we live in, several sports are faced with decisions on shortening the length of their games.

As our national pastime is often maligned for being too ‘old-school,’ it has been taking measures to investigate whether speeding up the game is a reasonable objective. Major League Baseball’s pace-of-game committee came up with six experimental rules quicken the pace of its game, enacted in this year’s Arizona Fall League:

  1. Hitters must keep at least one foot inside the batter’s box at all times, barring exceptions like foul balls, wild pitches, or if the umpire grants him time out.
  2. Pitchers must throw a pitch within 20 seconds of receiving the ball. Clocks posted in each dugout will count down the 20 seconds.
  3. There will be a maximum break between innings of 2:05, with a clock keeping track. Hitters must be in the batter’s box by 1:45. If the hitter’s not ready, the umpire can call a strike. If the pitcher doesn’t throw a pitch by 2:05, the umpire can call a ball.
  4. Teams will have a maximum of 2:30 to change pitchers, with the clock starting as soon as the reliever enters the playing field.
  5. Teams are limited to a maximum of three mound visits per game, not including pitching changes. This applies to trips to the mound by managers, coaches, and catchers.
  6. Pitchers no longer have to deliver four balls for an intentional walk. The manager can simply signal to the umpire.

Starting on May 1, the MLB will begin to fine batters who don’t keep a foot in the box and pitchers who don’t complete their warm-ups in time. As with anything in baseball, the changes have come with mixed results:

“I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal. I really don’t,” said Indians manager Terry Francona in an AP article by Tom Withers. “It’s going to be that day and it’s hot and everyone’s a little on edge, that’s when you’re going to see something. But that’s what you see during the games anyway.”

“It’s a work in progress,” MLB umpire Tom Hallion added in the same article. “It’s the first game and we’ll go from here. It’s going to take some work. It’s a change for everybody. It’s not going to get fixed on the first day.” –MLB umpire Tom Hallion

Other baseball leagues around the country have also experimented with pace of play rules. The Atlantic Independent Professional Baseball League has enacted several rules over the past few years, including calling the ‘high strike,’ a pitch clock and 90 seconds between innings. Further, any game that lasts more than two hours and 45 minutes requires a written report to be filed by the umpires, managers, the official scorer and home team general manager and sent to the league office explaining why the game took so long.

If that wasn’t enough, the Atlantic League has also experimented automatic intentional walks, closer enforcement of the traditional strike zone, batters keeping a foot in the box, mound visits and offensive timeouts, a 12-second pitch clock and six warm-up pitches between innings instead of eight.

NYmag.com Associate Editor and SportsOnEarth contributing writer Joe DeLessio has observed that the Atlantic League is also considering additional speed-of-game regulations that include a limit on the number of foul balls a batter is allowed in a single plate appearance, a quicker way to end games that go beyond regulation with a tie score, the old-school “balloon” chest protector for home plate umpires (which could in theory allow them a better view to call high strikes), requiring batters to take just one bat to the on-deck circle and requiring relief pitchers to throw to more than one batter.

The MLB has been in communication with the Atlantic League’s study and while it is not considering all of the aforementioned changes, there are some that feel that it’s just a matter of time.

With all of the talk surrounding baseball’s pace, it’s important to note that baseball is not alone, and most major sports are currently being scrutinized for the same thing.

A college basketball game typically has nine TV timeouts and many other game-stoppers:

“At minimum there are 22 minutes of full timeouts in most games and another eight minutes in ‘30-second’ timeouts. That’s 30 solid minutes of nothing going on per game… The NCAA tournament is even worse. The breaks there are closer to 2:30 and there’s another full timeout added in the first half. That means the dead time is closer to 40 minutes and halftime is 20 minutes long. That’s a full hour in each game when no one is playing basketball.” –John Feinstein

David Biderman of the Wall Street Journal observed the ‘action’ (or lack thereof) in NFL football games and concluded that “the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes. Commercials take up about an hour, and as many as 75 minutes is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps. Replays and shots of coaches, fans, referees, cheerleaders and analysts take up another chunk.”

Tony Manfred echoed Biderman’s thoughts in an article titled ‘What I Learned About The NFL By Watching The Seahawks-Packers Game In 35 Minutes’: “There were times when there was a commercial, a single play, and another commercial. That’s insane. It’s almost 10 minutes of real time with almost no football. Somehow these are even more infuriating when you fast-forward through it.”

Changes of possession, high-scoring offenses and player safety rules continue to evolve within today’s version of football, further elongating the time required to sit through a full game.

In 1950, the average major league baseball game was about two and a half hours. In 2014, games ran a little more than 3 hours on average. While college baseball doesn’t necessarily face the same challenges as professional baseball (in terms of television viewership, broadcast and stadium advertising, for example), the trickle-down effect from MLB games lasting more than three hours has been felt.

“I think our game is played the way it needs to be played. It’s a traditional game and I’m not a real big fan of clocks and gimmicks to speed it up. I think sometimes from an administrative and officiating standpoint we get in too big of a hurry to get the game over with. I think we need to let the game play its course and whether it’s two hours or four hours, it is what it is.” –Todd Whitting, head coach, University of Houston

“I’m not a guy that wants to speed up the game at all. When we’ve got a game to play, however long it takes is however long it takes, because I’ve blocked off the whole day. That’s the beautiful thing about baseball; it’s infinite. So I’m a purist when it comes to that, I have no problem with how long games take.” –Matt Deggs, head coach, Sam Houston State

“We have a four-hour time limit in the American Athletic Conference and when we were making travel plans, Terry Rooney (head coach at University of Central Florida) and I were joking about not needing near that long for a regulation game. I think the speed of the college game is good; the bats have definitely sped it up from where it was.” –Cliff Godwin, head coach, East Carolina University

“That is a difficult question to answer in the sense that there have already been a few rules implemented to speed up the game. The pitch clock is outstanding and does help with the overall flow of the game. I would consider using it even in the stretch, which is not utilized as of now. I like the batters box rule of not leaving the box on any take, etc. by the hitter.” -Mark Smartt, assistant coach, Troy University

“Ensure teams hustle on and off the field and make sure your pitchers throw strikes.  Three balls instead of four could force pitchers to challenge more hitters.” -Morgan Cummins, head coach, Claremont Mudd-Scripps

I think we’d all like it faster and we’re making jumps towards that, but it’s just going to be hard to shorten the games that much. Hopefully the more we can shorten it the more TV slots we can gain, I think that’s the biggest reason for trying to shorten it- to get college baseball on TV more and more. –Chris Lemonis, head coach, Indiana University

Pace of play rules in baseball have been implemented with mixed reviews. Is it fine the way it is or should our sport continue to look for ways to accelerate play? E-mail your thoughts to insidepitchmag@gmail.com!

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