MLB Pace of Play Revisited

Beginning this season, the MLB implemented "pitch clock" rules, in an attempt to increase pace of play (Photo Credit: Colorado Rockies)

Beginning this season, the MLB implemented “pitch clock” rules, in an attempt to increase pace of play (Photo Credit: Colorado Rockies)

Last year, I provided my thoughts on the MLB’s supposed pace of play issues and how the sport should exercise caution before implementing new rules. The MLB expanded instant replay use last season, as umpires could review close safe/out plays at any base and fair/foul balls anywhere on the diamond. Prior to the 2014 season, umpires could only review home run plays.

As a result, the average time of game in 2014 exceeded three hours, the first time it had ever eclipsed the three-hour mark. After average length of games initially peaked at 2:54 in 2000, games typically averaged between 2:45 and 2:52 between 2000 and 2012. In 2013 and 2014, though, the games had rapidly increased, peaking at 3 hours and 2 minutes last season. Furthermore, the minutes between balls in play steadily increased from 3.0 in 2006 to 3.5 in 2014.

Instant replay certainly contributed to the rise in the average game length, with several long and lengthy delays during the course of several games. Nonetheless, in an era when most youngsters have become increasingly impatient, the longer length of games screamed trouble for the sport. To compound this issue, scoring has steadily declined from the steroids era, as MLB teams have collectively averaged almost one fewer run per game than in 2000, when teams scored a record 5.14 runs per game. Higher scoring contributed to longer games in 2000, but slugfests have occurred much less frequently in recent times due to MLB’s harsher penalties for performance-enhancing drugs.

As other team sports have continually adjusted their rules to INCREASE scoring – NHL moving goal line back, NBA calling more fouls for hand-checking, and NFL instituting illegal contact after five yards past the line of scrimmage – the MLB has not changed its game at all. Other leagues have tried to appeal to casual fans, many of whom do not play that particular sport, by showcasing more offensive prowess; current MLB players have not reached the high level of consistent power exhibited during the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa/Barry Bonds days.

MLB scoring and home run output has declined since Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 (Photo Credit: Chiu/AP Photo)

MLB scoring and home run output has declined since Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 (Photo Credit: Chiu/AP Photo)

Unlike almost every other major team sport, baseball has long lived by a timeless clock, which makes the sport unique. Out of any major team sport, baseball remains one of the only ones to ensure that every winning team must out-produce the losing team. When teams in football, basketball, or hockey have a huge lead towards the end of a game, the game’s outcome has largely been decided. In baseball, every team has a chance to win all the way until the final out, no matter if that team is far ahead or behind.

The lack of a timed clock and the breaks between each pitch allow almost everyone, old or young, to easily follow the entire game. Thus, many fans in attendance bring their own scorecards to the game, so they can precisely follow the action.

These rules and overall structure of the baseball diamond have remained the same for well over a century, which has allowed people to refer to this sport as America’s pastime. Tradition has separated baseball from seemingly every other sport, and commissioner Rob Manfred emphasized that the MLB maintains its core foundation before proceeding with any new rule changes.

Prior to the start of the 2015 season, Manfred and an organized committee – including former MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark and Mets GM Sandy Alderson – identified new policies to speed up the game:

• Batters must keep at least one foot in the box between pitches throughout their at-bat
• Between-inning countdown timers of 2 minutes and 25 seconds after the conclusion of the previous half-inning (for locally televised games) and 2:45 for nationally televised games will be held to ensure play starts without too much delay; pitchers can throw their first pitch any time within the final 20 seconds of the timer
• Pitchers can throw as many warm-up pitches between innings as they would like before the timer reads 30 seconds, when pitchers will be instructed to stop and get ready for the play; exceptions will apply for pitchers or catchers who made the last out of the previous inning
• Walk-up music will end with 25 seconds remaining on the timer, when batters must start approaching the box
• All between-innings entertainment and grounds crew work must be completed with no less than 40 seconds remaining on the timer
• Managers can signal instant-replay challenges from the dugout instead of the field
• Instant Replay Reviews shall last for no longer than 1 minute and 30 seconds
• Players who do not adhere to these rules will be subject to a $500 fine per violation

So far, the changes have paid some dividends, as MLB games have lasted approximately eight minutes shorter than in 2014. This year, the average length of time between pitches is 22 seconds, which roughly equals the league’s pace in 2012 but is nearly a full second faster than the 23-second pace last season.

MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark and commissioner Rob Manfred have tried to implement new policies in order to speed up the game (Photo Credit: Matt King/MLB)

MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark and commissioner Rob Manfred have tried to implement new policies in order to speed up the game (Photo Credit: Matt King/MLB)

Last season, only ONE team (Seattle Mariners at 2:59) played regular season games at an average pace of under three hours, while 10 different teams – led by Tampa Bay at 3:19 – played games that lasted at least 3:10. This season (through August 24), 16 teams have played games that have lasted under three hours while no single team’s average length of game has exceeded 3:10.

In fact, the MLB’s fastest-paced team is ironically the league’s highest scoring team in the Toronto Blue Jays. Through August 23, Toronto has scored 670 runs, 85 more than the next closest team. Combined, the Blue Jays have scored/surrendered 1,176 runs, the most in the MLB; yet, Blue Jay games have averaged only 2 hours and 50 minutes, thanks to two of the quickest-working pitchers in the league in Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey.

Like the trend between 2004-2014, lengths of games have almost no correlation to the number of runs scored in a game. While non-extra inning games still require each winning team to record 27 outs, external factors such as long at-bats due to several foul balls and pitchers checking runners on base add to lengthy games. In addition, crowd noise certainly can have a major effect on pitchers.

Look no further from the “Empty Stadium Game” played earlier this season on April 29 between the White Sox and Orioles following the Baltimore riots. While the civil unrest prevented fans from entering Camden Yards, both teams played a regular-season game with standard procedures – walk-up music, 7th-inning stretch, national anthem, etc.

That game featured a total of 10 runs, 15 hits, 2 walks and 227 pitches; it took only 2 hours and 3 minutes to complete. Even factoring in the between-inning stoppages and the notoriously slow, lengthy delivery of Baltimore starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, it only took 123 minutes to complete 227 pitches. To put the “Empty Stadium” game into perspective, it took 2 hours and 31 minutes to finish a Giants-Padres game on April 10, which featured just one run, 10 hits, 7 walks, and 223 pitches.

Sure, each game contains different circumstances that potentially cause longer delays, but without any sort of distractions, players just focus on the action. Thus, the pressure of the moment has certainly contributed to the “pace of play” issue. Over 40,000 fans watched the Giants-Padres game listed above, and towards the end of many close games, pitchers will often take a little extra time to ensure that they make the right pitch.

The "Empty Stadium Game" between the White Sox and Orioles was played at a blistering pace (Photo Credit: Baltimore Orioles)

The “Empty Stadium Game” between the White Sox and Orioles was played at a blistering pace (Photo Credit: Baltimore Orioles)

After all, the MLB’s official rules state that when bases remain empty, a pitcher must throw his next pitch within 12 seconds of his previous pitch. However, with runners on base, pitchers do not necessarily need to rush their pitches. They can “pay attention” to the runners on base to give themselves a little more time in the moment. This certainly contributes to the added “dead time”, especially at the end of close games as crowd anticipation continues to rise.

In the big picture, though, the new pace of play rules have not significantly altered the game, exactly how Manfred envisioned this playing out. Game times have returned to the mid-2000s levels, so the length of games has just merely halted the continuous trend of slower games. First and foremost, the commissioner must protect the game’s integrity and make sure to avoid changing a game that has prospered for 150 years. After all, the league recorded its seventh-best attendance total in 2014, when average games lasted longer than ever. People continued to show up to the ballpark in large quantities – collectively over 30,000 fans per game league-wide – and revenues have soared to unprecedented heights. This year, even more fans have come out to the ballparks, largely due to the on-field resurgence of big market teams such as the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, and Chicago Cubs.

If fans continue to show up to the stadium in large quantities, the commissioner should continue to only make minor adjustments to pace of play. The added wildcard team has already allowed several more teams to contend for a playoff spot, boosting overall fan interest in more ballparks. A league-wide average of over 30,000 fans per game for 81 home games indicates that people thoroughly enjoy the baseball stadium experience even in the technology boom era. Combine the fact that MLB games regularly attract the strongest local TV audience during the summer months and baseball remains extremely healthy.

However, Manfred and his team must continue to do a much better job in appealing to the youth, which can level out some of the disturbing national TV audience numbers for the sport. Out of the four major sports, baseball has the oldest viewers, with half of the national TV audience aged 50 years or older – part of the decline in audience has to do with late start times for several games in the East Coast. Furthermore, having some marquee players like Brandon Phillips and Anthony Rendon publicly complain about the sport’s boredom does not help the league’s status in the country. When prominent players criticize the actual sport for what it is, the league must take notice and act accordingly.

In addition, the impatient culture of the millennial generation has impacted youth participation for baseball. According to an investigative study published by the Wall Street Journal and the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, youth participation in baseball has declined at an alarming rate. The implementation of more youth traveling leagues and one-sport specialization has contributed to this phenomenon, but ultimately, the league must have a strong youth support foundation to continue to thrive in the future. In most cases, youth involvement in a certain sport has a direct correlation to interest levels with watching the highest levels of that sport.

Thus, Manfred must continue to balance appealing to the younger generation while maintaining the tradition of baseball. While pace of play has not impacted the actual in-stadium value, national TV audience has remained stagnant. Multiple networks combine to pay billions of dollars to the MLB annually to telecast games; both sides strongly want more people watching the games, especially the most significant ones. With that in mind, here are two more elements that the league can add or modify with regards to pace of play:

FURTHER LIMIT VISITS TO THE MOUND

Over the course of a game, a catcher, pitching coach, and/or manager huddle up at the pitcher’s mound for various reasons. Currently, the rules state that a manager or coach can only make one visit to any one pitcher in any one inning. The manager or coach cannot make a second visit to the same pitcher in an inning unless he removes that pitcher from the game. Catchers, though, and other position players can make unlimited visits to the mound over the course of a game.

That last part needs modification. A pitcher often either needs rest, a moment to relax, or advice to throw the correct pitch. Any one pitch, especially in a tie game after the seventh inning, can determine the outcome of the game, so pitching strategy undoubtedly plays a major role in the sport. Managers, coaches, and the entire infield should have the right to congregate in order to ensure the team remains on the same page, similar to timeouts in football, basketball, or hockey.

In many instances, catchers stop the game to talk with the pitcher on the mound (Photo Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports)

In many instances, catchers stop the game to talk with the pitcher on the mound (Photo Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports)

However, like the latter three sports mentioned above, the MLB should impose limits on these rules. Part of the strategy in any sport involves players making their own decisions in the spur of the moment, which includes greater preparation and synchronization between all players on the team. Pitching without people giving instructions on the mound certainly qualifies as a strategic element to baseball and requires pitchers and catchers to diligently prepare for strenuous circumstances.

Often times, several visits to the mound disrupt the flow of the game. Many fans in attendance “boo” when pitchers and catchers cannot get on the same page, causing the catcher to walk up to the mound. Fans get restless because these visits cause unnecessary delays. If the league reduces the amount of times players can speak to pitchers on the mound, similar to the restrictions placed on managerial/coaching visits, game flow will improve, which will improve fans’ interest level in the game.

UMPIRES MUST ENFORCE PITCHER’S PACE

Without compromising the integrity of the game, one simple solution for the game to flow better is for the umpires to actually enforce some of the pace of play rules. The rules are there; pitchers must deliver the ball within 12 seconds of receiving the ball when bases remain empty, and pitchers shall begin play within 2:25 (or 2:45 for nationally televised games) from the conclusion of the previous inning. If the league really deems pace of play issues as significant, the MLB must act proactively to ensure players abide by the rules at all times.

The MLB has instructed umpires to avoid confrontations when assessing these rules, which naturally has prevented them from actually enforcing these rules over the course of the game. Why have these rules then? Just so players can get a false belief that they must follow the time clock?

According to FanGraphs, several pitchers work notoriously slow compared to the fastest-working pitchers. While Mark Buehrle averages 16.4 seconds per pitch, others like Clay Buchholz and CC Sabathia average nearly 25 seconds per pitch. On average, Buehrle throws more than 12 pitches per 10 minutes than Buchholz or Sabathia. Such factors cause long at-bats to take even longer when slow-working pitchers take the mound.

Since the rule explicitly states that pitchers must deliver the ball within 12 seconds when bases are empty, umpires should actually enforce that. Pitchers take nearly double that amount of time to make an average pitch, which sounds absurd considering every inning begins with the bases empty. Even with runners on base, the umpires must ensure that pitchers constantly remain engaged in the action instead of stalling on the mound.

Without question, the league should not go overboard with enforcing additional pace of play rules, which would take the attention away from the game itself. Also, due to an alarming increase of Tommy John surgeries to pitching elbows, umpires and teams have every right to exercise caution with regards to pitcher’s pace. However, the league must draw a fine line to ensure that the game remains engaging at all times. When batters or pitchers cross that line and take too long to get situated, umpires must give adequate penalties – such as an added ball or strike – every single time that player violates the rules. Only then would players become more self-aware about maintaining a strong pace of play.

Ultimately, baseball cannot and should not change the structure of the game; the talk of a 7-inning game to shorten game times should be immediately dismissed. That would take away from game strategy and significantly alter historical baseball statistics that make the game so appealing to the casual fan.

A couple slight adjustments such as restricting mound visits and actually enforcing the current rules would likely increase fans’ sustained interest in the game. The large flock of fans currently attending live baseball games indicates that millions of people love the product as currently constructed. Now, the two biggest challenges for the MLB involve improving the national TV product and increasing youth participation in the sport. Rules that would maintain sustained action with less dead time in baseball would go a long way in generating strong interest for multiple generations to come.