Pace-Of-Play Peskiness, Part 1

By: @JaysGirlEmily

Blue Jays From Away

Tick-tock. Apparently, MLB wants baseball games to be shorter. In 2015, they introduced time-saving measures and saw a decrease in the time of the average nine-inning game, to 2:56 – down from 3:02 in 2014. The 2016 season saw average game time rise to just over three hours, and while I’d like to partly blame Mark Buehrle’s retirement for this, there’s no question that overall, games are trending longer. In the 1970s, games averaged around two and a half hours, and four decades later that number has been over 2:50 since 2010.

MLB officials made a proposal to the Player’s Association (MLBPA) for two rule changes for the beginning of the 2017 season – one which eliminates the need for four pitches to be thrown during an intentional walk, the other to raise the bottom of the strike zone from the hollow below the knee to the top of the kneecap, effectively shrinking it by about two inches. With the first workouts of Spring Training less than a week away, people are really bored, and oh boy, they’re very interested in this.

Both rule changes are, on the surface, intended to shorten the game. But I’ve got two problems with this: 1) I don’t think long games are necessarily a bad thing, and 2) I’m not convinced the proposed rules will have a meaningful impact on the time anyway.

Part of what makes baseball so great is the suspense – between pitches, between at-bats, in that split second between a runner sliding into a base and the umpire signaling ‘safe’ or ‘out’. Baseball is unique because it doesn’t run on a clock. Sometimes that leads to games being over quickly; sometimes that leads to them dragging on. It’s an unpredictable game, that’s just its nature.

Personally (and I think most fans would agree with me) that’s part of the beauty of the game. I don’t mind it at all if nine innings take two and a half, or four hours to be finished. If I wanted to watch a game that was on a clock where everyone was in a hurry all the time, I would be a basketball or hockey fan. (The February 7 episode of Sportsnet’s At The Letters podcast does an excellent job of discussing this.)

Now, I wouldn’t mind the change to the intentional walk rule, only for the sake of saving the pitcher’s arm and not making him throw the ball four more times. We might lose the opportunity for funny moments like Miguel Cabrera hitting an RBI single on an attempted IBB, or guys scoring on wide pitches that are a little too wide, or Toronto’s own Roberto Alomar stealing third.

But if MLB is really stuck on eliminating the intentional walk, I suppose I can live with that sacrifice. What I don’t understand is how this changes things much. There were 932 intentional walks in 2016, which is less than one per game. They’ve been decreasing in frequency for years. And each one takes what, maybe a minute at most to execute? Is that really such a priority?

Now on to the latter part of the two-pronged approach. We already know how brand-new Blue Jay Joe Smith feels about the strike zone rule.

If the rule is approved and implemented by the start of the regular season, hitters will have to re-learn an entire aspect of their plate discipline in a matter of weeks. I expect some would struggle with the temptation to still swing at lower pitches (*cough* Kevin Pillar) and those with excellent eyes would have to retrain themselves to evaluate pitches at the border of the zone. Then you’d also be throwing a wrench in the already-contentious issue of umpires calling a consistent zone.

Not to mention the massive disadvantage put upon pitchers who rely on breaking balls in the lower part of the zone to strike guys out. In fact, this article points out that three of the pitchers most affected by this new rule would be Blue Jays – Marco Estrada has the 8th-most called strikes in the bottom part of the zone, Smith throws the second-most pitches there among relievers, and Marcus Stroman uses that area for a good 10.1 % of his pitches, making him among the top 20 starters in that regard. These guys, and others like them, will have to drastically alter the way they approach hitters.

And even with all the confusion they’ll cause, I’m still not convinced that these things are the solution to issues with the pace of play. You could pick almost any part of the game and say it drags on too long. Sometimes you have patient hitters, and sometimes you have a Yunel Escobar who swings at every first pitch.

So why bother shaving off seconds with the IBB rule, or encouraging more walks, when there are other things you could cut down on? Mound conferences and replay reviews happen pretty much every game, and those take multiple MINUTES each. They already put a time limit on visits by managers and coaches, why not limit mound visits by catchers, too, either in number or in length?

I remember a particular Troy Tulowitzki plate appearance against Andrew Miller in August of 2015 – catcher Brian McCann made FOUR mound visits in the course of the at-bat. That can sure drag out. The entire thing lasted 12 pitches and more than eight minutes. Certain at-bats, like that one, also get extended due the number of pitches thrown. You want to make things shorter? Why not rule the third consecutive third-strike foul ball an automatic out? That’s how it worked when I played softball. (It was a dumb rule. Don’t do that, MLB.)

There are actually already rules in place saying that batters aren’t supposed to step out of the batter’s box between pitches (unless time is called). Enforcing that rule might make things go faster – as would the establishing of a pitch clock, already in place in the minor leagues – but honestly those things don’t bother me. Baseball is a high-pressure game. If a guy (batter or pitcher) feels his nerves are getting to him and he needs a few extra seconds to gather himself and zero in on the next pitch, let him have it. Players who are more focused make for better, less sloppy baseball. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all here for?

[Stay tuned for Part 2, when I’ll address an even more ridiculous suggested rule change]