Pace of play. This is a term that I feel has been shoved down my throat since Rob Manfred took over as commissioner of MLB in January of 2015. He has talked at length about the need to speed up baseball. Now, admittedly, I don’t really see this as a big issue. So what if the average 9 inning game in 2014 was 3 hours 2 minutes and 21 seconds? That was 3 hours 2 minutes and 21 seconds of greatness. Manfred’s push to improve pace of play got game times down to an average of 2 hours 56 minutes and 14 seconds in 2015. Holy potatoes, y’all! Everyone saved about 6 minutes per game. Did you feel more accomplished in 2015? Because you should have – you had six extra minutes to do something non-baseball related every time you watched a game. WOO!
Clearly, pace of play isn’t something that overall bugs me. A friend of mine, however, is bothered. He enjoys baseball and is my season plan partner, so he is definitely a fan of the game. He’s also has ADD and even on meds sometimes struggles to sit still. When we discuss this topic, he often has to reel me in and point out that it’s less of saving the 6 minutes now, and more of preventing games from getting even longer, which they had been doing. Ok. Fine. I guess when I look at it that way, I see it. And to his point, after saving those six minutes in 2015, game times were up to 3 hours and 42 seconds in 2016. That was movement in the wrong direction for Manfred and people like my friend.
So, this continues to be something that MLB is looking at, and there are various ideas either on the table or floating around that they’re considering as ways to speed up the game. The MLB Players Association must agree to any changes to the game before they are implemented. The CBA agreement has a clause that allows for these changes to be discussed and put into play at any time during the current agreement, so hold on to your pants, y’all, changes are likely coming.
Raise the Strike Zone
This issue has been put in front of the MLBPA for approval, and they’re currently talking to players about how they feel about it. Since 1996, the bottom of the strike zone has been defined as “the hollow beneath the kneecap.” Stats show that umps are increasing how often they’re calling the low strike, so raising the bottom of the zone 2 inches to the top of the knee would definitely impact the game. The desired result would be more balls being put into play, which would lead to more action and excitement for fans. Fun fact – 30% of hitters either walk or strike out in today’s game, which is the highest rate in the history of the game. To be honest, I’m kind of indifferent about this change. While shrinking the strike zone would make it a little harder to strike out players (and we all know that strikeouts are sexy), putting balls into play could help keep the game as a whole moving. I don’t dislike long 13 pitch Jayson Werth at-bats, so either way is fine with me. I think this will be hard to get player consensus on, however. I imagine hitters would be happy with this change, but I’m sure pitchers won’t be. I’m curious to see what happens with this one.
The Intentional Walk
Right now, if a manager wants to intentionally walk a batter, the pitcher lobs four balls to the catcher before the batter takes his free base. Along with that raised strike zone, the MLBPA is also speaking with players about how they feel about eliminating that formality and just having the batter take 1st base after the manager indicates that’s the plan. This I have a problem with. You want to save some minutes? Rather than this change, let’s instead remove the need for a player to round the bases after hitting a home run. The ball left the yard, so what’s the point? Sure, technically you have to touch all the bases and the plate to score the run, but technically you have to throw four balls to put a guy on first. If we’re going to ignore one technicality, why not the other? And, seriously, nothing is worse than watching the other guy do a slow home run trot in your park.
Ok. That’s obviously ridiculous, but it’s how I feel about getting rid of throwing the four pitches. First, statistics show that use of the free pass has been on the decline, and just 932 were issued last season (that’s 1 every 5.2 games). Eliminating actually tossing the four pitches wouldn’t do much to save time, since this isn’t happening all that often, and it doesn’t take very long to do it. So what’s the point? Second, eliminating this would impact the game. Usually, those four pitches occur without incident. However, every so often, something goes awry. (HI, AARON BARRETT! I’m looking at you! And no, I haven’t forgiven you for your inability to execute an intentional walk!) Even though it doesn’t happen often, it does happen, so I think this is something that needs to stay in the game. And, again, at the end of the day, it’s not really saving time, so just leave it alone.
Limiting Mound Visits
This is something that is being discussed with players, but not something that could be imminent like the change in the strike zone and literal free pass on an intentional walk. This is an issue they’re feeling players out on, and it is one that would likely come with a bunch of complex rules like we saw with the whole “can’t leave the batters box” rule change. The idea here is to limit visits to the mound – from anyone. The catcher, other players, coaches, and the manager. I didn’t see any articles about any specifics regarding what this would actually look like, probably because they haven’t gotten that far yet. This is probably a rule change I could get behind. We all know some of those visits are used just to stall for time to allow a reliever to get warmed up, so it would definitely impact when a pitcher could be pulled, but overall, this change could be good. I know I’ve been at games where the catcher repeatedly runs out to the mound, and after a hot minute, it gets old. We’ll have to see if this idea gains any traction over the next year or so.
The Pitch Clock
No. There is no clock in baseball.
Ok, so there is the between-inning clock. But that’s not really part of the game, so there’s still no clock in baseball. Ok, so there’s a pitch clock in Double-A and Triple-A and the Arizona Fall League, but… ok, so that is a clock in baseball, but I don’t like it. Thankfully, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark isn’t a fan of the pitch clock, so I think it would be hard to push that through him to get players to ok it. This is not something currently on the table (thank God), but it is something that’s been discussed. A lot. The silver lining of leaving the pitch clock out of the majors is that new guys will be used to it from the minors, so maybe things will naturally speed up just a little without the need for an actual clock. (The exception to this is the Dodgers’ Pedro Baez. That man needs a clock. Good gracious.)
Much farther down the list is changes to how relievers are used in the game. Various ideas have been thrown out to address this – limit the number of pitchers on the 25 man roster, limit the number of mid-inning pitching changes, and state that relievers must face a minimum number of batters. A lot of people I know work themselves into quite a tizzy over this one, thinking that the end result with be pitchers staying in games longer than they should, which would result in injury. That is definitely not the point of this. Tweaking this part of the game is something I could really get behind. Nothing is more frustrating at a game than sitting through a 2 minute 20 second pitching change only to have that guy throw 2 pitches and then see the manager walk back out to the mound and bring in another guy. 2 minutes and 20 seconds later, we’re finally back to baseball. That ends up being about five minutes of dead time with about 45 seconds of baseball. Not cool, y’all. Not cool. Asking a reliever to face a minimum of two batters would greatly help this, and shouldn’t be detrimental to the pitcher. Limiting the number of mid-inning changes that can be made would have the same result of shaving off some time. New pitcher A can just face this one batter, but the next guy you bring in has to face the rest, or whatever it would be. I like this change less because you could run into the problem of a guy being out there way past his prime should he fail to do his job on the first two guys he faces, and now suddenly they’ve batted around and we can’t pull this guy out of the game because we’ve used all the mid-inning changes we’re allotted. Limiting how many guys you have in the bullpen also seems risky to me. Fewer guys equals more work for the ones you do have, and that seems like an injury risk during a 162 game grind. That being said, I was disappointed to see that there wasn’t a limit to the September call-ups in the new CBA. That is getting ridiculous, and seeing 4 pitchers in an inning got real old, real quick. Manfred is also willing to explore other ideas to speed up pitching changes, like looking at how long the guy has to get his butt from the pen to the mound (Coffey time, yall!), and how many warm-up tosses he gets from the mound (does he need these? He just spent time warming up in the bullpen).
Somehow, the drag of instant replay is not something that comes up while discussing pace of play. This boggles me, because there is nothing I hate more than replay and all the time it takes. Yes, not every game involves the use of replay, but when it does happen, it’s a major buzz kill on the game. Since we’re likely stuck with replay forever, I think there needs to be some changes in how it’s used. First, I don’t think a team should get to see the replay before deciding to challenge or not. The ump makes the call based on real speed, you should have to do the same thing. If you think the call was wrong, and your player is motioning like the call was wrong, challenge it. Do it old school. Sure, you won’t win as many challenges, but at least we won’t have to wait the 30+ seconds for the guy in the clubhouse to get his hands on the slow-mo replay so he can begin looking at it. Second, there should be a limit on how long MLB gets to look at it in NY. If it takes you 47 minutes to make the call, then it’s too close, you’re just guessing, and the original call should stand. Let’s move this along, shall we? You don’t need to see it a million times. Third, managers shouldn’t be able to sweet talk the ump for a review once they’re out of challenges. At that point, it should go back to old rules where the ump used replay extremely sparingly. Or, we could get rid of replay all together and go back to the good days of managers arguing with umps. Yes, it takes longer, but hot dang I miss that kind of action. Sadly, I don’t think any of these changes are on the horizon.
With the discussions of a reduction in the strike zone and eliminating the pitches in an intentional walk being actively talked about, we’ll have to see what changes, and if any pop up during spring training before the season gets underway.