Forget free agency, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The most important person this baseball offseason is commissioner Rob Manfred. He punted on the chance last offseason to exercise his power to implement pace of action procedures (i.e., a pitch clock) out of deference to a players association that was chapped about a slow-developing free agent market.
Among the developments that are slowing baseball games to a crawl: the proliferation of electronic surveillance. Many clubs now have as many as six high magnification cameras installed in their home ballpark specifically designed to steal signs from opponents.
Here’s how quickly things have changed, according to a Dodgers source. Three years ago, if you walked into the Dodgers’ video room behind their Dodger Stadium dugout you would likely have found Zack Greinke pouring over video of opposing hitters, looking for any edge he could find to match up his stuff against their weakness. This year, if you walked into the same room you would have found a small army of 20-something analysts in polo shirts and slacks pouring over video from the in-house cameras, like the security room at a Vegas casino. Most teams train their cameras on the catcher, the pitcher (from several angles), the third base coach and the dugout.
These cameras are not used for training purposes. They are used expressly for stealing signs and deciphering “tells” from pitchers.
“We’ve reached a point,” said one club executive, “where the attractiveness of the sport as an entertainment option has been lost in the quest to find every incremental edge. And video has changed things rapidly. I’m increasingly thinking something has to be done.”
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Catchers now have to give multiple signs even with nobody on base—and they have to give signs for what sequence they are using before giving the actual signs for the pitches.
The first thing Manfred should do is order all in-house surveillance cameras eliminated.
“I’m all for that,” said one big league manager. “The big market teams have an advantage there. Now everybody is suspicious—and teams are suspicious because they’re pulling the same tricks they’re worried about the other guy pulling.”
Analytics have changed the game—not better, not worse, just different—and most of the advantage from data is on the run prevention side. There is a reason getting a hit in the majors is harder than any time since the DH was added in 1973: pitching never has been harder to hit. Pitchers have learned to throw harder and spin the ball better. Teams have learned that spreading the work among more pitchers is more effective than asking starters to pitch every fifth day three times around a lineup for 250 innings a year.
Now what? The market this year won’t be any better for 30-somethings and defensively-challenged hitters. And the time between balls in play continues to expand.
Baseball has tremendous young stars and strong teams in New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. It is the content king of sports, with more than 2,000 games and reaching more people around the globe in more ways than ever before. But it has an image problem. The pre-eminent national narrative about baseball these days is its laggard pace. Manfred can let it fester, or he can absorb the animosity of the union, which doesn’t appreciate telling players how they should play baseball.
This is not an argument about shifts, governors on pitching changes or every silly idea somebody has about changing the structure and strategy of the game. Most ideas, anyway, would produce as little effect on how you watch baseball as did the limit on mound visits or the automatic intentional walk.
This is about the dawdling between pitches. Full stop. If we can have the same game but only quicker we will all be better off.
This postseason should have convinced Manfred that the game needs a jolt. I understand that with more on the line and only the better pitchers in play you’re going to see a slower version of regular season baseball. I get it. But not like this—not with the electronic surveillance adding to the gaps in action.
Here’s what I found when I looked back on the 33 postseason games:
• Bad luck, baseball: Only one of seven series went the full complement of games.
• Hitting is getting worse: The overall batting average was .218 – the third straight postseason it dipped, starting from .227 in 2015.
• Pitchers throw harder: The average four-seam fastball was 94.7 mph – up from 93.2 in the regular season.
• Pitchers spin the ball more: They threw 29.3 percent breaking balls – up from 27.3 percent in the regular season.
• Strikeouts outnumber hits – by a lot: The ratio was 1.29:1, up from a regular season rate of 1:1.
• Defense is less important: The ball was not put in play in 37 percent of plate appearances.
• Games take 43 minutes longer: The average game time was 3:47.42, up from 3:04 in the regular season.
• Marathons are becoming more common: A record 23 games took more than three and a half hours to play. Three years ago there were nine. Four nine-inning games took four hours. In the entire decade of the 1990s there were five.
• The bottom line: The average time between balls in play was four minutes, 39 seconds. You could listen in their entirety to “I’m Waiting for The Man” by Velvet Underground (running time: 4:35) or “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin (4:24) waiting for a ball to be put in play.
I love an extra-inning game as much as the next guy. World Series Game 3 was a treat, and we’ll always remember Nathan Eovaldi just as we remember Bill Bevens. But when you’re asking viewers to watch 125 hours of baseball in October (to be precise, 7,514 minutes for those of you scoring at home) there’s going to be a fatigue factor when you ask fans to devote three hours, 47 minutes on an average basis.
Boston pitcher David Price, one of the slowest-working pitchers in baseball, typifies the perspective of players.
“You’re taught ever since you were a little kid to be able to slow the game down and now baseball wants to speed it up,” he said after World Series Game 2. “I don’t care. I’m taking my time. I know I’m slow.”
That’s what Manfred is up against. A player doesn’t think globally, doesn’t think about entertainment market forces or shorter attention spans or easy access to diversions not baseball. Price’s job is to get the next hitter out. “I don’t care” is a common mindset when it comes the pace of doing that job. But it is Manfred’s job to care.