Pace of Play and Robo Umps

Image Source: 2012 NESN Blog Post – Robot Umpires, Enhanced Replay Technology Are Dream of Many, But Will They Ever Be Reality?

As I lay in bed watching game highlights on MLB Network,  I find myself marveling at just how beautiful the game of baseball really is. Pace of play, robo umps and roofs on stadiums to eliminate rain delays are all debatable points. Technology in baseball could solve all three if you think about it and improve overall game times.

The smells of the ballpark, the sounds of the crack of the bat and the pop of the glove, and the sights of the game combine to make a few hours sitting in a cushy seat one of the most special experiences that tantalizes the senses in a way that can only be described as pure perfection.

Ok. Maybe I’m just a little stuck in the rut of the Dark Times of an off-season with an incredibly cold stove, but baseball is pretty amazing. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for some tweaks and improvements — though. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has made no secret of his desire to make changes that would help move the game along at a slightly faster pace, and he has continued to engage the players’ union in conversations around pace of play. Unfortunately, those talks haven’t been particularly productive.

Initiatives put into place in 2015 included requiring batters to keep one foot in the batter’s box between pitches, and the average game time dropped by six minutes. In 2016, however, the average game time was back up to a full 3 hours. So last offseason, Manfred began pushing for more changes to be implemented. The players pushed back, and Manfred and union chief Tony Clark fired verbal shots at each other through the media in what was an overall ugly and childish affair that included Manfred threatening to unilaterally implement whatever changes he wanted regardless of how the players felt. Everyone eventually put their big boy pants back on and returned to the table to discuss the issue, but the only changes that were put into place were the pointless elimination of actually throwing the four pitches for an intentional walk and putting a 30 second timer on managers being able to call for a challenge. Players agreed to have ongoing discussions to find solutions to speeding up the game, however only one such meeting happened (in DC with the Marlins and the Nats). The average game time ballooned to a record 3:05:11 in 2017, and Manfred is now a man on a renewed mission.

Pace of Play Revisited in 2018

MLB sent the union revised proposals about a pitch clock and mound visits which took into account player concerns with what they were given last off-season. Unfortunately, due in part to ongoing player concerns with the proposals and in part to anger over the stagnant off-season, the players rejected the revisions. This gives Manfred the power to impose the original proposal, regardless of how the players feel. The owners would have to vote to approve it, but everything I’ve read indicates that they would so. Manfred has stated that he would still like to work with the players to come to a compromise, however it sounds like he is determined to implement some version of these ideas, so the players are going to have to give somewhere in order to prevent the original plans from becoming rule for the 2018 season.

Ken Rosenthal from The Athletic spoke with several players following their rejection of the revised proposal, including Jerry Blevins, Daniel Murphy and Max Scherzer. The players agree that something should be done regarding pace of play, and they would like to see the game drop back below 3 hours. However, they voiced concern regarding penalties assessed for violations of the pitch clock. If the violation is the fault of the pitcher, a ball is added to the pitch count; if the violation is the fault of the batter, a strike is assessed. The players Rosenthal spoke with felt that could alter the outcome of the game, and nobody wants to see that. I have to say, I agree. I would hate to lose a game because a runner is walked home because the pitcher on the mound takes a second too long, and the ball penalty results in ball 4 in a bases loaded situation. What a horrible reason to end up with a loss (or, really, a win. I wouldn’t want a Curly W that way, either.)

I can already hear some of y’all saying “the game is perfect, nothing needs to change.” While in theory I agree, something does need to be done. Despite soaring revenue, baseball is at risk because young kids aren’t getting roped in. Manfred believes that shaving off some game time is the answer to the problem. I’m less convinced. The average length between pitches last season was 22 seconds. I don’t believe shaving a few seconds off of that will make a bored kid suddenly find baseball riveting. I also don’t believe having the average game time sit at 2:51:17 (or any other similar number) will have kids flocking to the sport in droves, because it’s really those extra 14 minutes that had previously done them in.

Football’s 60 minutes of clock time takes 3+ hours to play and only has 15 minutes of actual action. Pace can’t be baseball’s only issue. That said, game times have been steadily increasing, and I think it’s an issue that should be addressed now, rather than wait until we have a 4-hour game on our hands. So – what’s the best way to go about fixing it?

I’m not a fan of the pitch clock. Yes, there has been some success with it in the minor leagues, but the time-saving is minimal, and I hate the idea of a game being decided because of a pitch clock penalty. And, at the risk of sounding like some stuffy old fan, there is something about the mental game between the pitcher and the batter that is part of the fundamental fabric of baseball. I do support the idea of a clock for how long a new batter has to get in the box to begin his at-bat. I’ve actually suggested that before, so I’m 100% going to take credit for that if MLB implements it. I’m also fully in favor of limiting mound visits. Nothing kills the vibe of a game more than the catcher running out to chat with the pitcher for the 37th time in an inning (hi, Cubs, I’m looking at you here). However they want to police that, I’m okay with it. Teams should have their ish together enough to know what the game plan is for a pinch hitter, or be able to change signs with some kind of signal. While we’re at it, umps need to actually enforce the 30 second rule for the mound visits that do happen. We have pace of play rules, let’s actually use them, shall we?

I spent a lot of time at Pfitzner Stadium with the P-Nats last year for TalkNats, and those games move significantly faster (without the pitch clock, thank you very much). Looking back at my scorebook, a huge glaring difference between those games and MLB games is number of pitchers used. Granted, some of that is because the focus in a minor league game is player development rather than game outcome. However, each pitching change within an inning comes with a lengthy commercial break. MLB tested the idea of shorter commercial breaks during two games that aired on MLB Network last season, and both of those games actually went longer than 3 hours and 20 minutes. Two games is not a valid sample size in my opinion, because a million things could have contributed to the lengthy game time. However, additional commercial breaks for more pitchers adds a ton of dead time, regardless of how long the commercial break is. I’m curious if there’s a significant difference in average game time from April-August vs September, as expanded rosters seem to come with significantly more pitching changes. I continue to believe that altering how relievers can be used would help speed games up in a meaningful way. Something as simple as making a reliever face at least 2 batters could make a big difference.

Another difference between minor league and major league games is the amount of discussion that happens. In addition to the lack of mound visits, there is little squabbling with the umpires. Disagreement over calls are voiced, but not in the same time-consuming, dramatic way it happens in the big leagues. While there are various reasons for this, it is a factor that contributes to game length. I’ve heard some people say that changing to robo umps would help eliminate some of this arguing, and I can see the thinking behind that. You can’t yell at pitch track for striking you out like you can with the man standing behind the plate. I personally don’t mind some arguing, but it does eat away at time. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard that robo umps aren’t really any more accurate than human umps. They’re just different. So, this change isn’t something on the horizon, but it’s an interesting one to think about.

Replay is another often-cited reason for increased game length. In chatting with Rosenthal, players indicated that they still feel replay is a huge time suck that kills the pace of play. Last year’s 30 second rule seemed to be an improvement, but I agree with the players on this one. MLB, however, doesn’t seem overly convinced. I read that they’re making slow-mo readily available in all parks, however the replay guys in the clubhouse still have to wait for the camera guys to get them the video, which, of course, takes time. Then they have to look at it, before calling to the dugout to say whether or not there should be a challenge. I still believe the challenge call should be based on what was seen at real speed without a replay, since that’s what the umpire has to go on to make his ruling.

MLB feels this would lead to ill-advised challenges. As long as we’re not giving teams more challenges, I’m not really sure why that would matter. And, as I will yell about this any time I’m given a platform, there needs to be a tweak to what is actually challengeable. I maintain that a baserunner losing contact with the bag for a fraction of a second that’s only visible on super slow-mo replay is not a reason for that runner to be out. It is not what the spirit of replay was intended for, and it’s not the result of anything the player did wrong, nor is it something he can correct. It’s basic physics, and it’s unavoidable. If you beat the tag and don’t slide past the bag, you’re safe. It’s that simple. These types of reviews seem to take an extraordinary amount of time, so eliminating them should help speed things along.

Again, though, I don’t believe shaving 15 minutes off of game times is going to make a significant difference in making baseball appealing to young kids. I think Manfred and MLB are hyper-focused on the wrong area. While pace of play discussions are valid so we don’t suddenly find ourselves with four hour games and wonder what the heck happened, other initiatives need to be equally as important. To paraphrase Bryce Harper, let’s make baseball fun again. Who doesn’t like a good bat flip or some excitement from the players following big plays? Let’s increase community initiatives to help find a new audience of fans. Teams should allow fans into the ballpark earlier so they can see their home team take batting practice. There are lots of other things that could be focused on, and I think MLB would be wise to expand their view.

With spring training fast approaching, we should have an answer to whatever new rules are coming pretty soon. I only hope that the players are able to find a compromise with the league, otherwise we run the risk of brewing discontent, which will only lead to bigger problems down the road.


Despite having the power to unilaterally implement the originally proposed pace of play changes, Manfred would still like to get the players on board. MLB submitted a new proposal to the players for consideration. There will be no pitch clock in 2018, and if the average game time drops below 2:55 (a big ask, as this is 10 minutes faster than last year’s average), there won’t be a pitch clock in 2019, either. If game times don’t fall below that mark, an 18-second pitch clock will be put into place for 2019 when there are no baserunners, and ball-strike penalties will be in place starting on May 1. If this change doesn’t get the game to drop below 2:50, a 20-second pitch clock with runners on will be added in 2020. MLB has withdrawn the proposal for the in-between batters clock of 30 sec, and mound visits would be limited to 6 per game. As for challenges, it’s already been established that super slow-mo replay will be going into every replay room. The sides will discuss over the next two years the idea of reducing the 30 seconds managers have to call for a challenge, as well as the number of challenges available each game.

Manfred made further concessions in this proposal, indicating that he does want the players to be in agreement with whatever changes are made. The problem is the players are focused on anything but pace of play right now. Union head Tony Clark said “as we sit here today, the first week of February, our focus is on the 100+ free agents still available. The players and (union) remain committed to the competitive integrity of the game on all fronts, including on-field rules.” TalkNats has written recently about the frozen free agent market, and we’ve all certainly noticed how cold the stove has been this offseason. Players, both those without jobs a mere two weeks from spring training and those currently locked up in long-term deals, are angry about this current state of affairs.

Several agents released statements today.

Ken Rosenthal posted a statement from agent Seth Levinson, which can be read here And the strongest statement of all came from Brodie Van Wagenen, co-head of the baseball division at CAA-Sports

Clark also released a statement this afternoon. “For decades free agency has been the cornerstone of baseball’s economic system and has benefitted Players and the game alike. Each time it has been attacked, Players, their representatives and the Association have united to defend it. That will never change.”

None of this sounds good. As Clark stated, the players are rejecting pace of play proposals because they don’t care right now about the pace of the game. They care about the alarmingly high number of very good baseball players who are currently without contracts, and they’re extremely angry about the current state of baseball. The idea of not reporting to spring training has been thrown around, and talks of a strike are everywhere.

Is this off-season a product of collusion? Hard to say, and it will be even harder for the players to prove, should they really want to make a huge stink out of it. To play devil’s advocate, one could argue that huge contracts haven’t been thrown around because teams have finally started to wise up and see that most huge contracts don’t end up panning out for the team. With the increased focus on analytics and ever-improving technology, you could say that teams are not wanting to pay guys based on the player they were, but rather the player they’re going to be, and they have better ways of predicting age-related decline. Current free agents had salaries and years in their heads based on contracts given out in recently, and some feel they have not been offered what they deem is fair market value. Well, fair market value is what the market is willing to pay you. Maybe the problem is players think they are worth more than the market now deems they are. It does seem odd, though, that all teams have magically come to this conclusion all at the same time, although there have been ample stories out there this off-season about how a lot of the current GMs think in similar ways. Adding to the players’ side of the argument is soaring profits for owners. That boom should be shared with the talent that is directly responsible for the product on the field.

Speaking of the product on the field, there’s also the problem of tanking. Seems like more teams are interested in getting the top draft pick next year than in competing for the World Series. What doesn’t help is how successful the Cubs and Astros were using this model. This would be a point that should be argued into the next CBA (and, quite frankly, is a point that you could see coming from a mile away). The potential for this has been sitting right in front of everyone, and it appears to finally be coming to a head.

Hold on to your pants, y’all. This is far from over, and a day of reckoning seems to be looming.

At the end of the day, pace of play and the frozen free agent market are two completely separate issues, however they have become entwined with each other over the last few weeks. The players are angry, they’re uniting, and they’re starting to get very, very loud. It’ll be interesting to see if Manfred imposes rule changes that the players didn’t like when presented with them last year in this kind of climate.

ArVAFan posted this comment: Steve: I think you should put up a poll as to whether we get self-driving cars first or robo-umps first! in the post Bob Davids Chapter of Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) meeting and Ghost suggested Don H. to create a poll and a post about this which Don has done with many of these notes and he created the poll.

So let’s have folks vote (poll at top of the post). For what it is worth, Don H. ordered the choices in the order I think they will happen.

Obviously Don doesn’t think that Robo Ump will happen anytime soon. There are lots of comments about how it should be possible to improve on the umpires; but no research articles or publicly available data to support that conclusion.

Lets look at the primary argument for the DH: that is adds (significant) offense. That is something that the available data says is not the case.

In 2017 the AL BA was .256 and the NL was .254. Teams averaged around 5,500 ABs. So doing the simple math: .002 * 5500 = 11. So over the course of the season, you get 11 more hits per team – or slightly more than 1 more hit every 14 games.

In 2017, AL teams averaged 211 Home Runs each; the NL averaged 196. So 15 more Home Runs over a 162 game schedule – a little less than one more Home Run every 11 games

In other words, the data and facts don’t matter. So given that, maybe Robo Ump will happen even if there are no objective data or studies to suggest it would improve the game and shorten the game time but nobody knows how significantly.

Pace of play can be tightened up in many ways, but Commissioner Manfred also has to be looking at technology to upgrade the pace of play and shortened times on the field as the greatest frustration for fans starts with rain delays as their number one pain point. Fans are also upset when their favorite team loses a game which is another popular fan gripe and even the commissioner can’t control that as someone has to lose each game proving you can’t have everything — but we do expect competent umpiring which must improve and maybe just maybe technology could help.

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