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MLB Can't Wait Any Longer to Fix Its Pace of Play Crisis

"In the next five years [baseball will] either be the national pastime or a niche sport."

Willy Adames stepped to the plate to bat against Julio Urías. His job: find any way to get on base, which would bring the tying run to the plate for the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6 of the 2020 World Series. If he failed, their season was over, and the Los Angeles Dodgers would be world champions. What happened next provided a fitting end to not just the game, but also another season in a decade of baseball’s declining entertainment value.

Urías was the seventh Dodgers pitcher in the game and the fourth Adames saw in four at-bats. He started Adames with a 95 mph four-seam fastball at the top of the strike zone, the popular antidote to a generation of hitters trying to launch the ball as they cast for home runs. Predictably, Adames swung underneath the ball and missed it. It was the 35th time last year Adames tried to hit a high fastball. Not once did he get a hit.

After stepping out of the batter’s box to adjust his batting gloves, Adames looked at a fastball over the plate for strike two. Down to his final strike, he looked at another fastball for strike three. Game over.

Over the final 26 minutes of play, viewers saw only two balls put into play. Over the three hours, 28 minutes it took to play the 8 ½-inning game, they saw 32 balls in play, or one every 6 ½ minutes. They saw more pitchers (12) than hits (10). They saw 27 batters strike out, or 42% of all plate appearances. That is, if they saw anything at all.

It was the least-watched World Series Game 6 (ditto for Games 1-5) and the least-watched clincher. Even allowing for the pandemic and presidential election that grabbed attention, and the rise of streaming as a viewing option, all of which cut sports ratings in 2020, the ratings could be more canaries in a darkening coal mine.

Baseball has slow-played itself into an existential crisis.

“It’s the greatest crisis the game faces,” says a league executive. “In the next five years we’ll either be the national pastime or a niche sport.”

Says a club executive, “If we don’t make big changes, I’m worried about baseball as an entertainment business. We have great athletes. The game doesn’t show it.”

“There is definitely a disconnect in the game,” says agent Scott Boras. “We have to get rid of the idea that it’s about probabilities, because that was never about the fan, was never about the strategies of the game that are most relevant to what we’re looking for as the most appealing game.”

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Over the past decade baseball has given fans the antithesis of what it takes to compete in a crowded battle for consumers’ increasingly fickle attention: less action over a longer period of time. The decline of baseball’s entertainment value has accelerated since 2015 as the explosion of analytics has replaced athleticism with a “thought contest” in which mountains of information favor not just run prevention but keeping the ball out of play.

Last season it took an average of 3 hours and 7 minutes to play a nine-inning game–despite fewer hits per game than any season except 1968 and 1906-09. More than time of game, however, pace of action is the cancer that is eating baseball from within. Players dawdling and hitters unable to put the ball in play are worsening problems.

Just since 2011, players take 2.6 seconds more between pitches, which has added 13 minutes, 17 seconds of pure dead time to a game. When they do commence with actually playing the game, players put the ball in play on only 15.8% of the pitches, down from 18.3% only 10 years ago. And because the goal of pitching has become avoidance of contact, not just getting outs–a passive-aggressive game with more breaking pitches–there are 14 more pitches in a nine-inning game than there were a decade ago.

More pitches. Less contact. More dead time. It adds up to 259 pitches per game without the ball in play, up from 239 just 10 years ago and 213 from 1988, when pitch data began. In 2011 fans waited on average three minutes, 18 seconds to see a ball put in play. Last year the wait was four minutes.

To treat the ravaging illness of slow play, MLB and the players association have given little more than lip service and Band-Aids (i.e. automatic intentional walk, a cap on mound visits, three-batter minimum). MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has decided it is time for surgery. He held three weeks of Zoom meetings with owners in November and December to rally them around a commitment to improve the entertainment value of the game. Sources familiar with those sessions said many owners changed their position from debating the merits of ideas, such as outlawing defensive shifts, to “let’s try them.” Manfred hired former Cubs president Theo Epstein and former player Raúl Ibañez to help study and quantify ways to improve pace of action. The proposals will be presented this year to the union as part of negotiations toward a collective bargaining agreement.

Cody Bellinger throwing on grass

“I think there is a very strong consensus among ownership that alterations in the way the game is played need to be made for the benefit of our fans,” Manfred told SI. “I expect that is going to be an important topic in our discussions in a new basic agreement.”

Tony Clark, executive director of the players association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The problem has become so urgent that owners are ruling out almost nothing. Last week the league announced a flurry of rule changes that will be tested in the minor leagues this season. The changes are precursors to the type of significant adaptations MLB would like to broker with the players association and begin in the majors as early as next season.

• Limiting the shift: In Double A, infielders must be positioned with both feet on the infield dirt. No longer will you see the second baseman stationed in right field or the shortstop in shallow center. MLB announced it may require two infielders to be positioned on either side of second base in the second half of the Double A season.

• Encourage base stealing: In Triple A, bases will increase from 15 square inches to 18, returning a premium on speed and athleticism in an environment that will better promote base stealing. Guided by percentages, teams will not return to base stealing until the success rate of attempts improves.

In High A, pitchers will be required to step off the rubber for pickoff attempts, a change also designed to incentivize stolen bases. Left-handed pitchers currently can more easily discourage stolen base attempts because they are permitted to pick off with their foot on the rubber in mid-delivery.

In Low A, pitchers will be allowed a maximum of two pickoff throws per batter. A pitcher may try a third pickoff attempt but if the runner returns safely a balk will be called. MLB announced it may limit the maximum pickoff attempts to one per plate appearance depending on the performance of the rule.

• Automatic strike zone: In the Low A Southeast leagues, MLB will use the Automatic Ball-Strike System to assist home plate umpires and standardize the size of the strike zone.

• Pitch clock: In the Low A West leagues, a timer will be implemented to enforce limits on the length between pitches, half-innings and pitching changes.

Among the changes that were not announced but have been discussed informally:

• Bone conduction headsets for pitchers. To combat sign-stealing paranoia that slows the game, catchers would call a pitch by pressing a button on a wristband. The pitcher would hear the sign–say one buzz for a fastball, two for a curve–through a headset with small plates that attach near the temple areas. The plates deliver sound through the skull and jawbone directly to the cochlea.

• A 17-second pitch clock with runners or without. Batters would not be granted a timeout once the clock reaches 10 seconds, except for emergencies such as an eye irritation.

• A cap on rostered pitchers, such as 11 or 12, to encourage fewer pitching changes and longer outings, which returns an emphasis on the craft of pitching (a diversity of ways to get outs) over the short bursts of power pitching (emphasis on strikeouts).

Said Boras, “Fans want action. They want movement. The goal should be driven toward quality of play, not quantity. The greatest way to increase pace of game is to get rid of the shift so that hitters can be rewarded for barrel management. There’s so much swing and miss if they go to the plate and the only reward is the home run. We want athletic players. We don’t want refrigerators at first base and second base.”

Major League Baseball’s internal surveys show that fans enjoy doubles, triples and stolen bases more than most events. What they hate the most, the surveys said, are pitching changes and dead time. They are getting less of what they like and more of what they hate.

Last season set per-game records for highest strikeout rate for a 15th straight year (23.4%). It also set per-game records for most pitchers (8.9), most hit batters (0.92), fewest sacrifice hits (0.14), and length of nine-inning games (3:07). Batting average last season (.245) and stolen bases the past two seasons (0.94 and 0.98) sunk to their lowest rates since 1972.

Referring to a sporting event as “a chess match” used to be an homage to the strategic intricacy of a game. But a baseball game has become all too literally a chess match: two men (pitcher and batter) facing one another in a narrow space with no action. The television viewer sees pitch after pitch with as little movement as pawn moved to E4 across his wide-screen, hi-def TV. The timing could not be worse.

The internet has rewired our brains. We crave movement. A 2014 study by Leo Yeykelis in the Journal of Education discovered that people using personal computers switch their attention every 19 seconds. Skin conductance measurements revealed that arousal was highest at the point of the switch and declined after. It is a self-sustaining loop called the “attraction mechanism.” The study found that 75% of on-screen content is viewed for less than a minute.

The math doesn’t work for baseball. The sport asks people to wait 24.9 seconds between pitches, and four minutes between balls in play, when our attention shifts every 19 seconds. Football, basketball, hockey and soccer don’t have the same problem because there is near-constant motion across the screen. There is no “chess match” visual problem.

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In football, for instance, the rise of no-huddle offenses and rampant substitutions satisfy our urge to see motion across the screen. Cameras pan across a wide swath, adding to the trough of movement on which our eyes must constantly feed. Baseball is seen in a 60-foot, six-inch tunnel with movement often limited to hitters stepping out of the box and pitchers taking deep breaths and shaking off signs. The pitch where nothing happens–ball/strike, fastball/breaking ball–has become the repetitious anchor of a television broadcast.

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Manfred’s Zoom meetings with owners identified two levels of change needed to make the game more entertaining: the pace at which baseball is played and the style of how it is played. One is a problem of time and the other is one of motion. They are connected. Owners came to an agreement that baseball is too dependent on home runs and strikeouts.

“We have to get away from short-term reactive thinking,” said one source familiar with those discussions. “We need to take a step back and ask, ‘Five years from now, what is the most enjoyable, marketable version of baseball?’ That probably means something different to everyone, but we all agree there needs to be more action, we need to play at a quicker pace, there is a certain strikeout rate we should shoot for, and there should be more stolen bases and athleticism.

“I honestly think every player, general manager and owner should watch games from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Each pitch is as natural as taking a breath, not the synthesis of information.”

Mike Trout walking on a field

How did we get here? How did baseball turn into an SAT exam with all the math and reading going on? Catchers read wristbands to know what pitch to call. Pitchers pull cards out of their cap to examine the sign system. Fielders pull cards out of their back pockets so they know where to play. Players in the dugout are watching video on tablets. Coaches pull out stopwatches to work math equations regarding a stolen base attempt. Managers have their heads inside thick binders of information to decide what to do.

Baseball must find a way to bring the game back to the 1980s, which may have been the apotheosis of its aesthetics. Nine-inning games in the 1980s took two hours, 39 minutes. There were only 10 or 11 strikeouts per game, not 17 like today. Winning teams had a diversity of styles. One year the Cardinals won the World Series with the fewest home runs in baseball, and the next the Tigers won with the most. World Series games in the 1980s drew three of the four biggest audiences ever. (The other was in 1975.) Baseball was so popular it was Hollywood gold, with the releases of The Natural ('84), Bull Durham ('88), Eight Men Out ('88), Field of Dreams ('89) and Major League ('89).

In the 1990s steroids took root, placing greater emphasis on size and home runs. Just as baseball began to acknowledge the open secret of PEDs, analytics grew from an evaluation tool into the working manual of how baseball should be played. It made a science of risk aversion in baseball. The 2002 Oakland A’s, lauded in Moneyball as game-changers, finished last in stolen bases among the 30 teams and had little to no use for signs from the third-base coach, Ron Washington. They didn’t bunt, didn’t play hit-and-run, didn’t steal.

The manager of that team was Art Howe. When A’s president Sandy Alderson hired him in 1996, it marked a drastic shift in the power structure of the game.

“We’re not hiring you for your philosophy,” Alderson told Howe. “We are hiring you to implement our philosophy.”

Analysts instructed managers to play the game in the manner of card-counters in a casino. It was strictly percentage baseball. Every event, like a card turning over, simply informed the next move based on large sample size math. Home runs were face cards. Strikeouts were just another out. Players were no longer players but “assets,” like cryptocurrency, with a designated numerical value, usually in terms of Wins Above Replacement.

When Epstein resigned as Cubs president last November he acknowledged how analytically-driven front offices made the game harder to watch.

“The executives like me who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize in individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game in some respects,” Epstein said. “I mean, clearly the strikeout rate’s a little bit out of control and we need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more and give fans more of what they want.”

Baseball’s entertainment value began to decline precipitously in 2015. That’s when the bandwidth of information exploded. Military-grade laser technology introduced Statcast, which tracked every movement on the field down to the spin rate of a curveball. Owners turned over the keys to their car to men from elite universities with little to no playing background who were wizards at processing data. They were master card counters. They hired roomfuls of quants with advanced degrees to mine the data for the most incremental of advantages.

In the tech world there is an old rule of thumb called Moore’s Law, in which the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years. Starting in 2015, a version of Moore’s Law applied to the amount of data in baseball. This data dump quickly slowed the game to a crawl.

You don’t need to go back to the 1980s to see a different version of baseball. Just since 2015, a nine-inning game takes 11 more minutes with two more seconds between every pitch. The rate of at-bats that end without the ball in play–home runs, strikeouts and walks (the so-called Three True Outcomes) and hit by pitches–increased 16%, to 28 such events per game.

“One thing I hope the commissioner does is look hard at the rules and not allow the general managers to dictate the direction of the game,” said one club president. “I actually think front offices are more conservative than the players.”

GMs used data to grab power. As data has grown so has its use and influence. It began as an evaluative tool, then also became a determinator in how the game is played, and in the past five years also has become a training tool. In pitching and hitting “labs” players tweak the angles of their pitches and swings with scientific precision. By chasing home runs, hitters accept more swings and misses. By chasing swings and misses, pitchers throw fewer fastballs (though the ones they do throw are harder) and take more time between pitches. Pitchers take their time because they have more information to process and because they throw with maximum effort knowing they are not expected to pitch deep in a game.

San Diego righthander Yu Darvish is an example how the time between pitches is expanding to allow for more thought and more recovery. When Darvish joined MLB in 2012, he threw a pitch every 25.4 seconds. By 2019, it was up to 29.4.

In 2012 Darvish’s four-seam fastball averaged 93.7 mph in the first inning. Last year, bowing to a game that encourages starters to max out without having to pace themselves, Darvish averaged 96.1 mph in the first inning. But owing to data that show breaking pitches are harder to hit, even though Darvish threw his four-seam fastball harder he threw it far less often: from 33% to 15%. In that same span from 2012 to 2020, starters’ average workload dropped from 5.9 innings to 4.8, and from 95 pitches to 80.

Throw as hard as you can for as long as you can; we’ve got plenty of relief pitchers behind you. That is the philosophy of every club. That is why pitchers create more time for recovery and thought. In 2009, only 4% of qualified pitchers took 25 seconds or more between pitches (3 of 77). Ten years later, it was 43% (26 of 61). MLB believes that asking pitchers to work more quickly, with less thought process and recovery, will encourage more diverse styles of pitching.

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“Right now we’re developing pitchers to do one thing: miss bats,” said one executive. “It trickles all the way down to showcase and amateur ball. We’ve created that. If you move to a playing environment where you’re asking pitchers to do more, you have to develop the pitches to go through a lineup three or four times. Guys used to come out throwing 89 [mph] in the first inning and then in a big spot hit 94. I miss that game.”

Said one baseball operations executive, “If you’re a high school kid and you’re not hitting 90-92, you’re not on the [draft] board. They all know that.”

The typical pushback from players is that they should not be forced to play faster. This is their livelihood, the argument goes; they should be allowed to compete in ways they deem best. “I need the time,” is the common pushback, even though almost three-quarters of major league players were trained on a pitch clock in the minor leagues. Boras, for instance, endorses a pitch clock in the minors for training purposes, but not in the majors.

In 2018, David Price averaged 26.9 seconds between pitches. Among qualified starters, only Justin Verlander was slower (27.0). After the Red Sox won 2018 World Series Game 2, 4-2, in three hours, 12 minutes, Price spoke for many players when asked about the pace of play problem.

“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,” Price said. “I don’t care. I’m taking my time. I know I’m slow.”

Blake Snell leaving mound

This is not a new problem. It is the worsening of an old one. Warnings have been ignored. As far back as 1998 former commissioner Bud Selig said, “Pace of play has become a fetish for me.”

In 2010 umpire Joe West called a typically slow Yankees-Red Sox game “pathetic and embarrassing.” That same season I wrote, “The three-and-a-half-hour game isn’t a bad thing for baseball; it’s the slow-moving three-and-a-half-hour game that is the audience-killer. And if things continue to play out at the current rate, and a generation of young hitters crib from such a style, games will continue to have more and more dead time added.”

Since then the average time of a nine-inning game increased 20 minutes, from 2:47 to 3:07–with fewer hits. The increase is due almost entirely to dead time.

In 2014 Selig said, “We’re having the greatest attendance years in our history, but the fact of the matter is we live in a new era and we have to do something, and we are.”

(Per-game attendance actually peaked in 2006-08. It has declined in each of the past four seasons with fans.)

Selig named a Pace of Game committee in 2014. Nothing much happened, at least in the major leagues. Selig did introduce a pitch clock in the Arizona Fall League in 2014 and in the minor leagues in 2015. Attempts by owners to negotiate with players for a major league pitch clock have failed. When Manfred had the right to unilaterally impose a pitch clock in 2019, he backed down out of fears of worsening an already poor relationship between MLB and the MLBPA. When MLB asked that year to hold a series of seminars with players from all 30 clubs about the need for a faster paced game, the idea died after just one meeting in Washington before a game between the Nationals and Marlins.

For 10 years owners and players have kicked the can down the road. In that time nearly every meaningful indicator of the game’s entertainment value has worsened–and at an accelerated rate since 2015. Players and owners always have found “bigger” issues to address, and almost always from the transactional prism in which they view labor relations.

This year is no different. The collective bargaining agreement expires after this season. Expanded playoffs, universal DH, earning power of players early in their careers, service time manipulation and many more issues will suck the oxygen from negotiating rooms already with distrust in the air. This time, Manfred said, baseball no longer can wait.

“We need a package of changes to our game that enhances the entertainment value that is most beneficial to our fans,” he said.

At a time of deep mistrust, both owners and players will have to look beyond their usual transactional view of labor relations. It will require rare collegial agreement that the future of the game is at stake, not just the wins and losses and gives and takes of a CBA. When it comes to how baseball is positioned in the entertainment landscape, this time there are no “bigger” issues.

The can has been kicked to the end of the road. The existential crisis is here. Either baseball will look very different in 2022 or, like Adames down to his last strike, baseball will be caught looking.