Why pace of play has slowed to a crawl, and a dozen ways to fix it
Do players and managers realize how much they have slowed the pace of action in a baseball game? That thought hit me like just another 97 mph fastball from just another fungible reliever as I watched one of the least appealing half innings in the history of the sport last week.
It happened in the top of the eighth inning in a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets at Citi Field. A half inning with no runs, no hits and just three balls put into play took 21 minutes, 44 seconds.
Chew on that some more: It took almost 22 minutes to play a scoreless, hitless half inning in which only three balls were put into play. (It took 4 hours, 9 minutes to play the whole game.)
The half inning was so tedious that it inspired me to take on a mission. Everybody complains about the pace of play in today's game, what with all the strikeouts, pitching changes, mound conferences and so much time between pitches. But it occurred to me that the players and managers don't even realize how much they have slowed the game in such a short period of time. So the Dodgers and Mets inspired me to define it for them.
Baseball clubs have adopted the term "actionable intelligence" from the military. It defines how analytical experts must distill all the big data available in the game today to useable, bite-sized chunks for the player. So here is my "actionable intelligence" for those wearing a major league uniform today:
In just 10 years you have added 29 minutes, 11 seconds of dead time per game while scoring 13.3 percent fewer runs.
Does that get your attention? It should, because you don't need to go back to pre-cable, pre-DH days to measure the deceleration of pace of play. How the game is played has changed drastically in a short period of time. The two biggest causes have been:
1. The marked improvement in run prevention methodologies (detailed scouting information, defensive shifts, increased velocity, increased use of specialized bullpens, etc.).
2. The utter disregard players have for pace of play.
First, a necessary disclaimer: Baseball is more popular than ever. More people consume baseball in more ways than ever before, and player salaries, ticket sales and television rights fees reflect these flush financial times. The health of the business of the game is robust. The worry for the next commissioner, however, is that these customers are not engaged enough and not young enough. The task is to keep the game attractive to the casual and young fans while honoring the expectations of the core fan.
Adding 29 minutes of dead time and less action doesn't help. Much is written about length of games, and indeed games are getting longer. According to baseball-reference.com, 27 of the 30 teams are averaging three hours or more to play a game. The average time overall is 3:08.
That's not good, but length of game is a bigger problem with the media than it is with the fans. Complaints about games taking too long generally come from media people who'd rather be somewhere else than the ballpark.
The bigger problem is the pace of game. You can enjoy a game that takes 3:08 or longer if the pace of the action is good. But in 2014 the pace of the action never has been worse in baseball history.
Again, you need only go back 10 years to see how quickly the problem has escalated. The average time of game in 2004 was 2:48. But let's focus on the more viewer-centric aspect: How often do we actually get to see some action? Let's look at the raw data to compare:
Pay close attention to that last line. In just 10 years the time in between balls in play has increased 18 percent. What does that mean in actual dead time? You have to wait an extra 32.4 seconds today to see a ball put into play than you did only 10 years ago. Multiply that extra time by the average of 54.04 balls in play per game, and that's how you get the added 29 minutes, 11 seconds of down time over the course of an average game.
That's why pace of game is a bigger priority than length of game. The Dodgers-Mets game may be an extreme example, but pick any game any night and you see players dawdling without umpires or baseball officials doing a darned thing about it.
The average time of the 15 Memorial Day games was 3 hours, 11 minutes.
On May 10 in a game between Baltimore and Houston, a seven-pitch at-bat between pitcher Ryan Webb of the Orioles and infielder Marwin Gonzalez of the Astros took five minutes, with most of the time wasted with Gonzalez walking out of the batter's box and Webb stepping off the rubber and the mound.
On May 21, a "confrontation" between Cleveland pitcher Josh Outman and Detroit catcher Bryan Holaday took only five pitches but lasted almost three minutes. Here are my notes from that at-bat: "Holaday swings and misses. Holaday steps out and adjusts the Velcro on his batting gloves. Holaday swings and misses. Holaday steps out and adjusts the Velcro on his batting gloves. Ball low. Holaday steps out and adjusts the Velcro on his batting gloves. Outman steps off the rubber. Foul. Holaday steps out and adjusts the Velcro on his batting gloves. Groundout."
Do players even care about all this wasted time? I asked one of the "slowest" hitters in baseball, Danny Espinosa of the Nationals. I spoke with Espinosa last week in Pittsburgh and told him he ranked second in baseball in taking the most time between pitches, 27.5 seconds, or just one-tenth of a second behind the worst offender, Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies. Espinosa, after complaining how the game is being overrun by analytics, sounded surprised to hear the news, if only because he was surprised anybody tracks such information.
"How do you explain it?" I asked him.
"I wear contacts," he said. "They dry out sometimes."
I told him I could see the importance of making sure you actually could see a 95 mph fastball, but surely dry contacts would not account for a delay between every pitch.
"I like to take my time to prepare myself," he said. "I want to make sure I am focused and not rushed."
"Well, don't the umpires ever say anything to you?"
He said it so matter-of-factly and just looked at me blankly as if to say, "So?"
I don't blame Espinosa. Players' behavior has changed because the umpires, the union and MLB have allowed it to change. For more than a hundred years players never needed all this time between pitches to "prepare," but it has became the style of the day because it has gone unchecked.
When was the last time an umpire refused to grant the hitter a timeout? When was the last time anybody was fined for slow play? (Phillies pitcher Jonathan Papelbon was fined years ago for taking too much time, and last year Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera was threatened with a fine if he didn't pick up the pace.)
"You're not going to stop it until you start fining them," said one NL manager. "You hit them with a $5,000 fine and that gets their attention. I fine guys a hundred dollars if they're not on the top step of the dugout for the national anthem. Believe me, that gets their attention. They hate forking over money. It's embarrassing."
The Dodgers have been warned by MLB about their slow play. They play the slowest games in the National League (3:22). Their roster is stocked with veteran players who take huge chunks of time between pitches on the mound and at the plate. The only MLB team with a slower average time is Tampa Bay (3:27), which is 11th in the league in runs scored but has catcher Jose Molina, who drags down games with his slow play and constant meetings with pitchers.
What can be done about pace of play? We already have rules in place, but they are grossly ignored. Rule 6.02 requires "The batter shall take his position in the batter's box promptly" and is not supposed to leave the batter's box except for specified reasons. Rule 8.04 requires pitchers to deliver a pitch with the bases empty "within 12 seconds after he receives the ball."
MLB has been talking about pace of game issues for 20 years and done little about it. It's time to actually implement solutions. Here are some suggestions; not all of them need to be adopted, but it's time for action of some kind to excise some dead time from the game.
• Deputize the umpires to actually enforce the rules. MLB has to let them know they have their full backing when it comes to getting batters in the box and pitchers on the rubber.
• Keep the ball "live" as much as possible. If the pitcher has the ball and is ready to go, the umpire should not wait for the batter to dally. He should assume time is "in." Batters should not dictate when time is in.
• Fine players for slow play and announce those infractions.
• Here's one suggestion from Detroit pitcher Max Scherzer: "The pitcher cannot leave the dirt area of the mound between pitches except for after a foul ball."
• And another one from Scherzer: "The batter cannot call timeout after the pitcher comes set on the rubber."
• Install a 12-second pitch clock to enforce the 12-second rule.
• Give each team a limited number of timeouts to use over the course of the game. Baseball is the only sport that gives teams an unlimited number of timeouts. Catchers visiting the mound, pitching coaches stalling for time, infielders conferring with the pitcher . . . it's gotten way out of hand. Whatever the number -- say it's 10 timeouts -- you can divide them up any way you want. But no more stopping the game literally as many times as you want.
• Relief pitchers get two warmup pitches on the game mound, not eight. Imagine if when the backup quarterback comes into the game everybody stops and stands there to allow him to throw eight practice throws to his receivers on the field after he's been warming up on the sideline for the previous 15 minutes. Absurd, right? That's what baseball does. The average pitching change takes about three minutes (but that's not including the typical stalling for time that precedes it). We need to limit warmup pitches because a) the bullpen mounds today, unlike years ago, are virtually identical to the game mound, and b) the number of pitching changes continues to rise. Pitching changes have increased 27 percent in the past 20 years and 78 percent in the past 30 years.
• Streamline the replay system. Get rid of the charade of managers walking slowly on the field, buddying up to the umpire and waiting for a signal from the dugout on whether to challenge or not. (By the way, this farce is not included in the "official time" MLB keeps on replay challenges.) If the manager leaves the dugout, a challenge declaration is assumed.
• Also, get rid of those 20th century wired headphones -- you know, the ones that make Joe West look as if he's digging him some Glenn Campbell. Nobody wants to see the crew chief take that long slow walk from second base to behind home plate to put on a headset. Join the 21st century: go wireless, including a wireless microphone on the crew chief to actually explain the call.
And if baseball actually adopts new protocols to pick up the pace and still they are not enough, the next step would be to consider rules changes, such as:
• Placing limits on pitching changes. Have you noticed all the position players this year who are pressed into service on the mound? That's because every night managers burn through multiple relievers who face just a few batters. This nightly game of matchup relief pitching is effective -- offense dries up even more in the last three innings -- but it slows the game down further. Again, we're talking about a huge change in recent years in how the game is played. The number of times a relief pitcher was used for just one or two batters jumped 31 percent from 1998 to 2012.
• Create an "illegal defense" rule. Shifts work. They are killing hitters who pull groundballs. It is harder to get a single today than at any time in the history of the game. Just as basketball defines illegal defenses and football defines illegal formations, baseball could diminish the effectiveness of offense-stifling shifts by limiting them, such as requiring two infielders on each side of second base.
Of course, any time you bring up the possibility of changes to the game people get nervous. The default position in baseball tends to be "How can we keep it the same?" not "How can we move it forward?" There is an underlying motive to preserve the quaint myth that baseball has been the same game for 150 years. It's not true.
The irony is that baseball has changed radically just in the past 10 years with no rules changes or enforcements in place. It has grown like an untended garden, with weeds diminishing its beauty. Let's clean it up before it gets worse.