By Leland Faust, Contributor
After the first two weeks of the 2017 major-league baseball season, it was reported that the average length of a nine inning game had increased to about three hours six minutes, or about five minutes more than last season. So it would seem that so far MLB’s efforts to quicken the pace have been a failure. Duh.
Some of the new rules affect things that consume almost no time, while leaving in place practices that when added together consume inordinate amounts of time. For example, the no pitch intentional walk saves about 30 seconds in an average game.
I certainly do not have all the answers, but I have a few suggestions which would clearly speed up play and not affect the game. Let’s start with an easy one which would nibble at the problem. We need a strictly enforced pitch clock with no one on base. The pitcher’s failure to release the ball before time expires results in automatic ball unless the batter prefers the actual play that transpired. (e.g. If umpire signaled that time had time expired while the pitcher still holds the baseball, then the batter is awarded a ball. If time had expired but the pitcher released the ball, then the batter’s team would have the choice of accepting the ball awarded on the umpire’s call for delay or the actual results if the ball was hit into play. Now someone might say this is rather draconian, but are we trying to speed up play or not?
We would also need a pitch clock (with perhaps a slightly longer limit) with men on base, both to assure that pitchers are promptly delivering the ball to the plate and to prevent innumerable throws to first base to hold a runner or to delay so relief pitchers can to warm up in the bullpen.
We need a strict limit on how often catchers can go to the mound and how long they can stay. Similarly, infielders need to be kept off the mound.
Managers and pitching coaches should be prohibited from visiting the mound. It’s usually just an excuse for the relief pitcher to warm up. The only exceptions should be for very clear injuries on a play (e.g. a pitcher is hit by a batted ball, falls to the ground, runs into another player). Alternatively we could set rules limiting the number of times per game that a manager or pitching coach could go to the mound. This number should be small (1 or 2), and the duration of the visits should be strictly limited.
Now for a big one. For each at-bat, once the batter enters the batter’s box he stays completely in. No one foot in and then backing out. No adjusting equipment (battling gloves, batting helmets, elbow guards, etc.) With a pitch clock, the batter will know the pitcher cannot delay and he can be ready without all of the fiddling around which wastes time and accomplishes nothing.
Pitching changes are a very significant source of delay. We need a strictly enforced time limit for the new pitcher to come in and face the next batter. If the pitcher wants to saunter in, all well and good, but then he gets less time for warm-up throws. Again, failure to conform will result in automatic ball calls, say one for every 30 second delay.
We should also consider having less time to change pitchers for the second or third time in the same inning. The pitcher can hustle into the game and quickly get his eight pitches on the mound. Again, I think a solution might be a fixed time limit on the duration of the interval from when the last batter either made an out or reached base and when the first pitch is thrown by the reliever. We should have the umpire call automatic balls in the event of delays. Perhaps as an alternate we could limit the duration of the mound visits both individually and cumulatively. That way a manager who gets his relief pitcher in quickly can make multiple changes in an inning while one who wants to dawdle will be limited and penalized for the time delay.
Major league baseball could also speed up the game by prohibiting the players from spitting on the field, in the dugout and everywhere else. Sure they don’t really waste a lot of time doing that, but think of all the other benefits from that rule change. No longer would players serve as a role model for a disgusting practice that is a health hazard. Spitting in baseball started when players chewed tobacco, but fortunately that is now gone. And please no excuses that these athletes need to spit this because they are running around (nowadays many managers spit too). I never once saw Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant spit on an NBA court even though they were constantly on the move.
Resistance to change is always strong for those unwilling to be flexible. Do you remember how the old guard said preventing the catcher from blocking the plate would ruin the game? Those folks, of course, were right. It did ruin the game for the orthopedists, but not for Buster Posey nor any of the other major league catchers, the base runners or the fans.
Speeding up the game is the proverbial, if there’s a will there’s a way. But we will never succeed if we are not willing to do away with time – honored traditions that can be redesigned. MLB – welcome to the 21st century.