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How MLB could learn from Atlantic League in speeding up the game

How MLB could learn from Atlantic League in speeding up the game Photo:

Baseball finally stopped talking about its pace of game problem and changed the rules to do something about it, shaving eight minutes off the average time of game virtually overnight last weekend.

One problem: It’s the independent Atlantic League that took action, not Major League Baseball.

Beginning last Friday, smack in the middle of its season, the Atlantic League, watching the same increase in dead time that plagues MLB, essentially told its players, “Enough! You’re not playing that way any more!” A seven-man committee, chaired by former Astros president Tal Smith, implemented five significant changes to address pace of play. With any luck, what happened over the weekend should be a glimpse of the future of MLB. The changes were:

  1. Pitchers must deliver a pitch within 12 seconds with nobody on base (actually, that’s simply enforcement of an ignored rule already on the books) and batters must keep one foot in the batter’s box in between pitches.
  2. Defensive teams get three 45-second timeouts per nine innings — that includes conferences between the catcher and pitcher or infielders and pitcher. Pitching changes do not count as a timeout.
  3. Relief pitchers get six warmup pitches, not eight, upon entering the game, and must complete those pitches within one minute.
  4. Intentional walks are automatic, with no need to throw four pitches out of the strike zone.
  5. The rulebook strike zone will be enforced, allowing for the high strike.

In the 13 games over the weekend, the league averaged 2:51 per nine innings, down from 2:59 through July 31, even though the 13 weekend games averaged five more pitches. More importantly, the pace of the action improved and the players realized they could actually play baseball without dawdling, re-adjusting Velcro and kibitzing on the mound every time a runner reached second or a pitcher was in doubt about what pitch to throw next. The time of game is expected to continue to come down as the sample size grows larger and players continue to adjust their habits.

“Our intent was to enliven the game and to get rid of what we can of dead time and create a better pace,” Smith said. “That’s our intent, to improve the pace. I don’t think it can be measured in elapsed time. If you have an exciting game that runs long, that’s fine.”

I especially love the three-timeout rule, and have advocated that sort of restriction in the past. Baseball is the only sport that allows its teams an unlimited number of timeouts. Players can grind the game to a halt any time they want for any reason they want. Catchers, in particular, have abused this freedom. Night after night, inning after inning, catchers stop the game to review signs or pitch selections with the pitcher or simply give the pitcher a pep talk. It has grown out of control in the past five years or so.

Likewise, pitchers have put more dead time into a game with incessant strolls off the mound in between pitches, and batters do so by leaving the batter’s box or calling time to “focus” much more often than happened 10 years ago. As I wrote earlier this year, in just 10 years, MLB players have managed to add 29 minutes, 11 seconds of dead time to the average baseball game while scoring 13.3 percent fewer runs.

More dead time plus less offense equals a product in trouble when vying for the attention of consumers with more live and on-demand entertainment options. MLB has let this trend continue unabated. At least the Atlantic League is doing something about it.

“I’m not sure the players are aware,” Smith said when asked about how much dead time they have added to the average game. “It’s pitching changes, it’s batters stepping out – all those things – and incessant trips to the mound. I watched three games at Sugarland (Texas). I don’t think the fact that we limited interruptions of play had any effect on the play. I didn’t even see a tendency to approach the mound. I think that really helps.

“I didn’t notice any change in the game or anyone disadvantaged. It does prove you can play the game at a faster pace or implement changes to make the game move faster without affecting the product. We’ll see how it goes.”

In the three games at Sugarland, Smith said, the two teams called a total of only five timeouts.

“We didn’t have any delays with infielders grouping around the mound or catcher’s visits,” Smith said. “I thought it was effective.”

Asked if the Atlantic League could serve as a kind of laboratory for MLB, Smith replied, “That’s not for us to say. I think we have the opportunity. That’s the exciting thing. We have an opportunity to do things on a test or trial basis that would benefit the Atlantic League, and other leagues might be interested in. We still want to be prudent and careful.”

Serving with Smith on the Atlantic League committee were Hall of Fame former general manager Pat Gillick, executives Roland Hemond and Joe Klein, and former big league players Sparky Lyle, Bud Harrelson and Cecil Cooper, all of whom have strong ties to the league.

As an independent league, the Atlantic League is not encumbered by contracts with a players association or umpires association. It can implement or amend rules as it sees fit. For instance, the committee initially decided to allow a courtesy runner for catchers (allowing them to put their gear on to be ready sooner for playing defense), but scrapped the idea after negative feedback from managers and executives.

Major League Baseball seems unwilling to force the players to play faster by changing rules. On the other hand, the NFL literally changes its rules every year to make it a better, updated consumer product. It now floats the idea of getting rid of the extra point, and few people care enough to be upset.

MLB has talked for more than two decades about its own pace of game problem, but with little action. Games keep getting longer, even as offense has dried up to its third-worst level since the live ball era began in 1920. Only in the 1960s (which led to the mound being lowered) and in 1972 (which led to the DH rule) has it been harder for a hitter to get on base than it is today.

The Mets and Giants on Monday played one of those typically ugly and somnambulant versions of MLB 2014: Three hours, 40 minutes to play a 4-3 game with 336 pitches and 11 pitchers. On Sunday night, the Yankees and Red Sox took three hours, 42 minutes to play the final game of a three-game series that averaged 3:34 and in which the ball was put into play an average of once every four minutes. The Sunday night game was the 304th game this season that took at least three and a half hours, passing the 2000 season for the second most 3 1/2-hour games in the history of baseball — with two months still to play! MLB is on pace this season for 440 3 1/2-hour games, annihilating the record of 349 set last year.

It’s downright scary how commonplace 3 1/2-hour games have become, particularly in light of the lack of offense. The frequency of 3 1/2-hour games has tripled in just 10 years, as you can see in this year-by-year account of what percentage of MLB games take 3 1/2 hours or longer:

Percentage of 3 1/2-hour MLB Games
 
Year percentage
2005 6.2
2006 7.0
2007 9.1
2008 8.4
2009 9.1
2010 8.7
2011 9.1
2012 10.6
2013 14.4
2014 18.3

Going back 30 years ago, to 1984, only four percent of games took three and a half hours. There were more 3 1/2-hour games by May 5 this year than in the entire 1984 season (84).

But you don’t need to go back that far. As you can see in the chart above, the problem has grown especially worse just in the past three years, as managers continue to make more pitching changes, hitters call time more often between pitches, catchers spend more time walking back and forth to the mound for various versions of hand-holding with the pitcher, and now even the consideration of issuing an instant replay challenge brings a manager on the field to stop the game.

An old problem has become an acute one. And as much as commissioner Bud Selig and baseball officials have talked about it, the problem only worsens.

During one of the many winter meetings in which MLB officials discussed pace of play, they once did go as far as to announce new “guidelines” to address the issue. As the Associated Press reported then, the guidelines included “encouraging hitters to stay in the batter’s box,” “enforcing the rule limiting time between pitches to 20 seconds [sic]” and “limiting the trips to the mound by catchers and infielders.”

The year was 1993. Selig was the new acting commissioner. The average time of game was 2:49. That was 21 years ago. The “guidelines” never became actual rules. Not much has changed since. Oh, except for this: The average time of game keeps getting longer. It is now 3:08. Hopefully everybody with a stake in the game — Selig and his successor, the owners, the players and the umpires — will be watching the Atlantic League.

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