Culture

Major League Baseball to Institute Rules Changes to Speed up Game

In baseball’s glory days of the 1950’s and 60’s, the average time of a major league baseball game was less than two hours. I remember one classic pitcher’s duel between two Hall of Fame pitchers — Ferguson Jenkins of the Cubs and Bob Gibson of the Cardinals — that lasted one hour and 20 minutes. Gibby won that one 1-0. He pitched a two-hitter, Jenkins a three-hitter.

Today, games last on average over three hours. Some analysts believe that this is a primary factor in the decline in popularity of the sport on TV, although overexposure of the game is almost certainly a close second.

With no one on base, a pitcher has 12 seconds to deliver the ball from the time he receives it from the catcher according to Rule 8.04. Umpires rarely enforce it, which means that when there are baserunners, the game slows to the approximate speed of a sloth coming down a tree for it’s midday meal.

And the effect is cumulative. A few extra seconds given to each batter (usually more than 30 for each team) adds up over the course of a game.

Recognizing that over the last few seasons, even some 9 inning games are approaching 4 hours in length, Major League Baseball and the player’s union have come up with a few rules changes that they hope will speed up the game.

● Managers must make instant replay challenges from the dugout, rather than the field. This should eliminate the on-field delays that occurred in 2014 while managers chatted with umpires while waiting for coaches or video coordinators to recommend whether a play should be challenged.

● Hitters must keep one foot in the batter’s box between pitches, unless an established exception occurs. It’s not clear how many exceptions will exist, but during a trial run in the 2014 Arizona Fall League, those conditions included foul balls, foul tips, time being granted by the umpire, and wild pitches.

● Play will resume promptly once television broadcasts return from commercial breaks.

● Timed pitching changes.

Penalties for all violations will start in May and will include minimal fines, not balls, strikes. The idea is to change players’ habits, not penalize them. As with replay, rules will be adjusted as needed during the course of the season.

“Players are willing to consider certain things relating to improving the game,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said. “Players are always interested in doing that. But they are always sensitive to making adjustments that will adversely affect the game. They love it, respect it too much to try and reinvent the wheel in such a way that will damage the game.”

With a number of pace-of-play measures in effect — including a pitch clock, which MLB won’t implement for 2015 — games at the test location for the 2014 Arizona Fall League (Salt River Fields at Talking Stick) were 10 minutes shorter, on average, than AFL games the previous year.

It’s no secret that if the league were really interested in speeding up the game, they would do something about speeding up play when men are on base. Here, the need for speed is offset by genuine and time honored strategies that are an integral part of the game. There is talk of limiting the number of times a pitcher could throw to first (or any other base) to keep the runner close. This is a silly idea because after the allotted throws, a runner would be able to take a lead halfway to second base. Deep six that horrible idea.

What about preventing a batter from stepping out of the batter’s box with men on base? This would affect one of the great “inside baseball” mind games played between pitcher and batter. Pitcher goes into his stretch and holds the ball…and holds it…and holds it…trying to mess up the batter’s concentration. To combat that, the batter will call time and step out of the batter’s box. It may slow the game but it’s beautiful to watch the wheels turn in each man’s mind.

There are other rules changes that could be made that would speed up the game:

* limit the number of pitching changes, or mandate that each pitcher has to face more than one batter.

* MLB could reduce the number of permissible mound visits by managers/coaches

* limit the frequency of pitcher-catcher conferences.

* MLB could start a timer between plate appearances and penalize any player who postpones the next pitch.

The pitcher is the main culprit in slowing down the game and these changes, along with a few others, would have the cumulative effect of speeding up the game. Again, a few seconds less between pitches and between outs would take a healthy slice of time off the clock and bring the length of a baseball game back to a reasonable time period.