Friday May 7th, 2010

BOSTON -- Two years before umpire Joe West deemed the Red Sox' and Yankees' slow play to be "pathetic and embarrassing," as he did in early April, Major League Baseball had already made increasing the pace of gameplay a priority.

New rules have been implemented -- among others, batters may not step more than three feet out of the batter's box and pitchers must deliver the ball to home plate within 12 seconds when the bases are unoccupied or else the umpire can call a ball -- and a listing of them is posted in every clubhouse.

MLB has been tracking length-of-game data in a weekly internal email for a couple years, touting decreases in average game time as "improvements." A recent communiqué noted that major-league games averaged 2:52:37 through the season's first three weeks, which was two minutes shorter than games during the same time frame of the previous year, and that 25 of the 30 clubs were playing games that averaged less than three hours.

There are, of course, two primary outliers: the Red Sox and the Yankees. The two storied clubs -- who resume play in a three-game series starting tonight at Fenway Park -- do, quite clearly, play longer games than everybody else. It has becoming increasingly apparent since the intense escalation of the rivalry of 2003 and was especially prevalent last year. In 18 meetings during 2009 the two teams averaged 3:39 per game, 20 minutes longer than any other matchup and 40 minutes longer than the league average. Their first three games of 2010 averaged 3:38.

Not that long rivalry games are necessarily bad. Says Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher, "People come to see the Yankees. People come to see the Red Sox. They want to be at a game like that. They don't want to be at that game for only two hours."

Commissioner Bud Selig is quick to point out that there is a difference between length of game (the time from first pitch to last) and pace of game (the dead time between activity on the field), though the two go hand in hand.

Though the issue is most prominent in games played between Boston and New York, the pace of plays slows down anytime either team is involved. The Yankees and Red Sox ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in average time of nine-inning games last season, clocking in at 3:08 and 3:04, respectively, so all teams -- especially in the American League -- get a taste of slow play.

Of the 16 uniformed personnel interviewed on this subject -- from Red Sox to Yankees, batters to pitchers, managers to benchwarmers -- no one seemed to be concerned about playing a longer game and generally came to a consensus on a few explanations.

• Both teams have very patient lineups. A key offensive strategy for both clubs is to tire out the opposing starter by taking pitches. Since 2003 no team in baseball has seen more pitches per plate appearance than the Red Sox (3.90), and the Yankees rank sixth (3.83).

Since '03 the Red Sox have seen at least 150 pitches in 56.2 percent of their games and the Yankees in 49.2 percent of theirs; the other 28 major-league teams have averaged seeing that many pitches in just 38.5 percent of games.

"I think some of it has to be credited toward the offenses because they do work the counts as good as anybody," says Braves starter Derek Lowe, who was a Red Sox from 1997 to 2004. "I know when I played with them the goal was to get the starter out as soon as possible, so you just take pitches and take pitches and then they'll beat the bullpen. If you look at their histories, it works pretty good."

In the last six-plus seasons the Red Sox have a .580 winning percentage and the Yankees' is .602, but those percentages increase to .659 and .706 when the teams see at least 150 pitches in a game.

• Both teams have very potent lineups. The All-Star-studded batting orders fielded by each club require delicate pitching, often by utilizing the collective efforts of the bullpen. Managers are prone to deliberate a little longer before making a decision on which pitch to throw or which reliever to use.

The star power of the lineups also leads to a higher use of the bullpen. Since 2003 the major-league average is that teams use at least three relievers in 29.3 percent of games. In Red Sox-Yankees games, however, there were at least three pitching changes 69.4 percent of the time, more than double the league-average rate.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who managed the Yankees from 1996-2007, notoriously loved matching his relievers up against key opponents, typically erring on the side of making a pitching change.

"It's that you take so much time deciding how you're going to pitch somebody or what you're going to do here because the rivalry is so intense," Torre says. "Every game was like a season, and you had to win that game. You really never thought about 'maybe tomorrow.'"

• The games are inevitably on national television. In a weekend series nearly every Saturday afternoon game is on Fox and the Sunday night game is on ESPN.

Commercial breaks between innings of local telecasts last 2:05; breaks in nationally televised games last 2:25, so a game that ends in the bottom of the ninth has an additional 5:40 of commercials.

"That blows my mind," says White Sox starter Mark Buehrle, a notorious quick worker. "They're trying to speed up the game, and then they want more TV timeouts."

Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee says the length and pace of games is really only "an American League question" -- having the pitcher bat often leads to fewer baserunners and using the sacrifice bunt often means more one-pitch at bats -- but he says national TV can slow down even NL games. "I can't recall ever playing an under-three-hour game on ESPN," he says.

• The Red Sox and Yankees simply take their time to get ready. Their hitters seem more likely than most to step out of the box and adjust their batting gloves between pitches. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter steps out of the box after almost every pitch. Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz frequently tucks his bat under his arm and spits on his hands between pitches.

Their catchers are more likely to run to the mound to talk to the pitchers. The Yankees' Jorge Posada, for example, visited starter CC Sabathia eight times in one innings of World Series Game 4 last fall.

And the pitchers, given the theater of the rivalry, may mull each pitch call a little longer. Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz, for one, conceded he sometimes considers each pitch a second longer against the Yankees.

"As a pitcher you want to slow the game down, so it doesn't speed up too much," Buchholz says. "And the at bats are going to last longer because there might be a little more focus going into it."

The cumulative effect of all these rituals and rites of readiness equals a slower pace and a longer game.

"When they get together," says Angels starter Joe Saunders, "it's 15 trips to the mound, stepping out of the batters' box, adjusting everything after each pitch, looking for signs -- and I like to work quick -- so when hitters take their time, I'm on the rubber usually ready to go. If you look at every other team in the big leagues, besides those two, everybody knows it's going to be at least 30 to 45 minutes quicker."

• The strike zone may be a little smaller in Boston and New York. This reason doesn't have a publicly available data set to support it, but it is certainly the opinion of several pitchers that the box dividing balls and strikes noticeably shrinks at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.

"When you're a Baltimore Oriole going into those places, good luck getting a call," says reliever George Sherrill, now with the Dodgers after two seasons with the O's. "They try and tell us it doesn't happen, but you can just watch a game and the strike zone may be a little tighter for you."

Simply the stage of a nationally televised game -- such as most Sox-Yankees games -- might have an impact, too, as the umpires know that ESPN, Fox and TBS all review pitches with a strike zone superimposed over the screen. Each network has a different name for its zone technology, but essentially all three use multiple camera angles to generate dozens of images per second in locating each pitch in relation to the hitter.

"On national TV there is so much emphasis on K-Zone and QuesTec, you know what I mean?" says Lowe, invoking the name of ESPN's strike-zone gauge and of MLB's old measurement system. "The umpires know they're going to be on TV, so sometimes I think the strike zone gets even smaller because they know every pitch is going to be analyzed three ways and sideways whether it was a strike or not."

And, of course, star power still has its benefits, as the well-known hitters on each team at times seem to get a more favorable strike zone than everyone else.

"You've got A-Rod standing in the box," Buchholz says of Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. "He might get the benefit of the doubt on a close call. There are pitchers like that too. Hitters say whenever they face [Roy] Halladay they've got to swing at anything close because it seems like he gets that extra inch or two off the plate. You earn that right, and A-Rod's earned it."

• The players and managers aren't the ones complaining. And they are thus less inclined to speed the game up, knowing what it takes to get their focus. A sampling of comments show the strong opinions shared by the participants, even those used to playing quick games.

"We're here from 1 o'clock every day, working out and hitting in the cage just to prepare for one game, so who cares how long one game takes?" asks Rangers right fielder Josh Hamilton. Adds Angels center fielder Torii Hunter, "It doesn't matter if it's five hours, I'll play the hell out of baseball. I just play the game. It doesn't matter to the players."

More than one player pointedly asked what time the umpires arrive at the ballpark.

So, what's next? League spokesman Pat Courtney says the official playing rules committee continues to research the issue further, though no changes are close to resolution. Likely areas of investigation include limiting the currently uncapped number of visits a catcher can make to the mound each inning and restricting the number of times a hitter can step out of the box.

Most players share the view of Rangers starter Rich Harden, who thinks such legislation micromanaging the game is unnecessary.

"The [new] rules might be even more of an annoyance," Harden says. "There are certain times when I might want to step off. When I'm doing that and trying to regroup, I don't want someone trying to speed me up. If you have a rule for pitchers, then you should have one for hitters, [but] I think it's better if we don't have any rules."

The participants don't seem to mind and, given television ratings and demand for tickets, the fans -- in Boston and New York, at least -- don't either. That means the umpires are the only aggrieved party, or at minimum, West is, but his prior comments will undoubtedly spare him from working a Red Sox-Yankee game anytime soon.

And so for now the focus can return to the actual games.

"Man, I show up to play ball," Swisher says. "I don't care if I'm here for five hours or I'm here for a game for two and a half hours. This is what I love to do. It's the only place I want to be."

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