In 2014, the average game was 3 hours and 8 minutes long and the ideal length, according to MLB Vice President Joe Torre, should be 2 hours and 50 minutes. This difference of 18 minutes, not even the length of a Simpsons episode, has become a big issue for Major League Baseball. If you didn’t realize baseball games were long, Torre, Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB are doing all they can to let you know. With all the media coverage of the “pace of play issue,” Manfred’s statements and public appearances, and with the roll out of new rules in Arizona and Florida as players report to Spring Training, it’s hard not to miss.
A “Pace of Game” committee was created and new rules were introduced in the minor leagues last season in order to test for this upcoming MLB season. With the committee’s findings, Commissioner Manfred, MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to the following three changes for this year:
1. Batters must keep at least one foot in the batters box at all times, with few exceptions such as a batter swinging at the previous pitch or the pitcher previously throwing a wild pitch. The penalty for stepping out of the batters box includes a called strike and fine of up to $500.
2. Time between half innings for commercial breaks has been reduced to 2 minutes and 25 seconds for locally televised games and 2 minutes and 45 seconds for national games. Timers will be introduced to all the ballparks that count down this time, with pitchers throwing their final warm-up pitch with 30 seconds left on the clock. Any pitchers not ready when the clock reads zero will be fined up to $500.
3. Managers can now signal for instant replays from the dugout instead of making the lengthy climb and walk to the field to consult the umpires. Managers can also verbally signal that they are thinking of challenging a call and wait for their video consultants to let them know if it should be an official challenge or not.
In regards to the first two rules, umpires are encouraged to keep games running smoothly by letting play continue and making notes to themselves for any players found in violation. League officials will speak to the violators after the game, however umpires are allowed to handle players who are “habitual violators” a little differently during the game.
On the face of it, MLB has some cause to try to speed up play. Last season, for example, was the highest average game length in the history of baseball. Or at least since Baseball Prospectus began looking at game times from archives that go all the way back to the 1950s. The average game time has been increasing every year since 2004. Another smaller but significant example is the average number of pitches each batter sees per plate appearance, climbing from 3.6 pitches in the late 1980s to 3.8 the last three seasons. Also, the average time between pitches has increased, from 21.5 seconds in 2008 to 23 seconds in 2014.
Are these new rules necessary? Although the average game last season was the longest ever for baseball, it was also the first season that expanded-instant replay was fully introduced. Even before the All Star break last year, managers challenged 606 calls, with the average replay review lasting nearly 2 minutes. It would seem that managers being able to challenge a play from the dugout could be a win. Concerning players, however, there are “pace of play” rules already found in the Major League Baseball rulebook, including rule 8.04: “When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating the rule, the umpire shall call Ball.” With Rule 6.02, MLB has already made it pretty clear that a batter can be held responsible by an umpire for excessive time. The umpire can allow a pitcher to pitch and throw a strike even if the batter is not ready.
With rules like 8.04 and 6.02 already on the books, enforcement of those rules by the umpires has been spotty at best. However, the new moves to speed up the game don’t look to blame the umpires, but instead place the full onus on the players. For example a loose term such as “habitual violator” leads one to believe a sort of “black list” will be created by the league office. It seems between instant replay and the new pace of play rules, MLB is willing to standardize violations, spur umpire accountability and risk the increase in confrontations between umpires and players. Egos, tempers and bad blood could be stirred as umpires worry about making the right calls and players worry about adjusting their gear with at least one foot in the batters box. Admittedly, this could be a worst case scenario. But is it worth it for a measly 18 minutes?
It is obvious MLB cares about the pace of games. But do fans? Surely umpires and players will take notice.
Featured Image: Via SBNation