Baseball Could Stand to Speed Things Up a Bit
The game loved by traditionalists may be too slow, too long, and too winding for many of today's young people
Baseball season is here, so once again we’re in for a couple of things: a dragged-out season (each team plays a whopping 162 times) and really long games.
To a baseball traditionalist, that might not seem so bad. The more baseball, the better! However, while having such a long season means we get a whole lot more baseball, game length is something very different.
Baseball games simply take a lot longer to play in the modern era. Fans are still getting the same amount of gameplay: between 51 and 54 outs in a game that doesn’t go into extra innings (depending on whether the home team still needs to bat in the bottom of the ninth). It’s just that obtaining those outs is taking much longer.
An SB Nation story last week by Grant Brisbee compared two games from 1984 and 2014 that were virtually identical in terms of gameplay: They had almost the same number of runs scored, pitches, baserunners, and batters.
The 1984 game lasted two hours and 31 minutes. The 2014 game lasted three hours and six minutes. In other words, it took an additional 35 minutes in 2014 to play essentially the same game.
Enter the automatic intentional walk. Instead of forcing the pitcher to lob four balls outside of the strike zone, the manager can now signal the umpire that he’s conceding the walk to the batter.
Why does it matter? A key concern among many is that Major League Baseball is having a harder time attracting younger viewers of late. You can put the blame on shorter attention spans (that’s true of everyone), or the notion that young people these days have so many other avenues for entertainment.
Even in the world of sports, younger eyeballs have turned to choices like football and MMA fighting, which give the quicker satisfaction many require in today’s digital age.
Baseball is proud of being old-school and traditionalist, but nothing survives without evolving to some degree. In a post-season game last October between the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Angels, the seventh inning alone took 66 minutes.
The game itself went over 4 1/2 hours, despite running the standard nine innings.
Which is why Major League Baseball has been pondering several changes to improve the pace of play. The most useful ideas remain held up in debate between the league and the players’ union — but there will be a few small revisions this season.
The most notable change you’ll see this year is the automatic intentional walk. Instead of forcing the pitcher to methodically lob four balls outside of the strike zone, the manager can now signal the umpire that he’s conceding the walk to the batter.
Critics of the new rule point out that intentional walks don’t happen a lot, so it doesn’t decrease game time all that much. Also, it removes the possibility of unexpected fluke plays, such as the pitcher accidentally throwing wildly, or the batter stretching out to hit an overly close pitch. But that was a shaky basis for retaining a largely useless procedure.
And teams are still allowed to intentionally walk a batter the “old” way if they wish. This just provides them with an alternative option. (In other words, it’s not much of an improvement.)
What would have made a big difference this year? Simple: a pitch clock. This would require the pitcher to deliver a pitch every 20 seconds after receiving the ball back from the catcher — much like how the offense in a football game has to snap the ball before the play clock runs out.
What would have made a big difference this year? Simple: a pitch clock.
Minor leagues have already tried out this rule, and it’s gone smoothly, decreasing the overall time of most games by about 15 minutes. That might not sound like a lot, but it definitely makes the game feel faster over the course of nine innings.
In Brisbee’s SB Nation article, he concluded that “time between pitches is the primary villain” in terms of why the 2014 game took 35 minutes longer than its matching 1984 antecedent.
The total time between pitches in the 1984 game was 32 minutes and 47 seconds. In the 2014 game, it was 57 minutes and 41 seconds. That’s how much pitchers have learned to dawdle in the modern game.
As the late, great Trey Wilson said in the classic baseball film “Bull Durham,” “You know what that makes you? Lollygaggers!”
Unfortunately, the league was unable to persuade the players’ union to play ball with the pitch-clock idea for major-league play. Those of us who would rather watch a pitcher actually pitch than slowly contemplate the meaning of life hope that clearer minds prevail in 2018.
Bob Bentz, who lives in the Philadelphia area, is a longtime baseball coach and a Phillies season-ticket holder since 1993. He told LifeZette he’s amenable to efforts to speed up the game.
“I’m a hardcore, traditional fan, but I’ve seen the declining attention spans of teens and young adults, and it doesn’t correlate with the slow pace of the game,” Bentz said. “If we want to keep those fans, baseball needs to change.”
Bentz said more effort should be put into keeping batters in the batter’s box and making pitchers deliver the ball more rapidly. But his biggest concern was with mound visits, which he called “the biggest time waster.” The MLB placed a 30-second time limit on such visits in 2016 — but that hasn’t limited the number.
“Baseball managers should have three timeouts per game, just like other sports,” Bentz said. “Three visits to the mound or three visits to talk to the hitter or baserunner — once those are used, no more stoppages.”