The “Hot Button” for discussion during 2014 Major League Baseball season has not been PEDs, finally. It has been, however, the pace in which the game is played today. Everyone on MLB Network or ESPN seems to have the answer in solving this “issue.” But, I’m not sure that there really is a solution that would shave more than a few minutes off the average game time.
The most common argument I hear is that the pitcher takes too long between pitches. Which might be true to some extent. However, when I watch a game, I notice every hitter has their own “ritual” when digging into the batters box. I think of Nomar Garciaparra tightening up his batting gloves after every pitch or Pablo Sandoval doing his pre-at bat dance in front of the plate. Jon Jay is guilty of taking his time between pitches as well. I understand, as a former ball player, that players need to adjust their equipment. But, it almost seems like the players do these things so they’ll be noticed. Matt Carpenter does not wear batting gloves, but he still steps out between pitches while NOT looking for a sign from the third base coach. Carpenter will take fifteen seconds before getting ready to go after a pitch. I more than understand that players have rituals. Players need to get mentally prepared to face a 102 MPH heater from Aroldis Chapman. However, do we need to hear the player’s intro-music for 30 seconds every time he walks up to the dish? Do we need to hear Jay-Z every ninth guy up?
Another somewhat pointless and time consuming act is having the manager walk all the way out to the umpire to challenge a call. Knowing that bursting out of the dugout and screaming at an umpire is pointless in most cases since replay has been introduced, you see managers casually walking out to second base to ask for the challenge. I don’t know that giving them a flag to throw on the field is the solution, but I am certain something can be created to keep the manager in the dugout and challenge the play from there. As much as the managers can speed up the game, so can the umpires. How long does it really need to take for a replay official in New York to tell you safe or out? Fair or foul? Home run or ball in play? There are probably a few minutes per game saved by just those two things. Why does the batter have to meet the 3rd base coach halfway down the line to get a play? Why not place more emphasis on knowing the signs? I realize that may happen twice a game, but it could save a few seconds as well.
These are all things that can shorten the time of a game. However, while comparing the faster paced games on the mid-1980’s to today’s game, I realized there might not be much we can do to speed things up.
What’s the biggest change in how the game is played today? The way the bullpens are used. In 1984, there were only 28 relief pitchers that made 60 or more appearances. In 2013, there was more than a 200% increase. 100 relievers appeared in at least 60 games. With lefty-lefty match ups and closers that only throw one inning, you can’t do anything about speeding up this part of the game.
We have seen a huge change in pitching over just the last decade or so. In 2003, Billy Wagner was the only pitcher in baseball to throw the ball 100+ MPH twenty five times. In 2013, a total of 8 pitchers lit up radar guns to the tune of 100 MPH. Here is my point. Strikeouts are way up. There are more pitches thrown per at bat when a batter strikes out compared to hitting a grounder or fly ball. In 1984, Major League teams averaged 865 strikeouts for the entire season. Pitchers got more outs by the ground ball than they do these days. In 2013, the average strikeouts per team was 1,224. Plate appearances take longer when pitchers are gunning for the strikeout. What is MLB going to do? Limit strikeouts? Go to a three-ball walk? I don’t see a solution.
Power pitching is not the only thing evolving. As anyone who has turned on a television in the last twenty years knows, power hitting has drastically increased. Major League clubs averaged 30 more long balls in 2013 compared to 1984. Home run trots generally take 25-30 seconds from when the ball connects with the bat before the player is back in the dugout. Besides, home runs are the big reason a lot of fans go to the game to begin with.
MLB wants to speed up the game. When, in reality, every solution I’ve heard might save only a few minutes. These arguments are being made to make it sound as if MLB is suffering. In the last 30 years, MLB franchises have enjoyed increased attendance, television exposure and revenue gained. Why the complaint? Are the pitchers going to pitch from 70 feet to limit strikeouts? Are the walls going to be pushed back to limit the long ball? No way. True fans love the strikeout. True fans love the anticipation of a 2-strike count with the game on the line, chewing your fingernails because Carlos Beltran can end your season with one swing. True fans talk about Adam Wainwright’s curveball that night like they were there. We remember home runs. Every Cardinal fan felt like a little kid on Christmas when Albert Pujols launched a hanging slider off Brad Lidge. We all remember where we were when David Freese walked it off in game 6. And every Cardinal fan still hears the voice of Jack Buck telling you to go crazy when The Wizard corked one down the line.
Baseball doesn’t need to hurry up for the true fans. We love it. I’m all for eliminating a pitching coach slowly walking to the mound and slowly walking back. Make him jog. Limit mound visits. Make the batter stay in the box. Force the pitcher to get back on the mound more quickly. Give the catcher a head-set in his helmet like a quarterback, so he doesn’t have to get signs from the pitching coach. All of these things potentially could increase the game’s popularity. Baseball is baseball. Is saving 5,6,7 minutes a game going to increase popularity? Is it magically going to be more popular nationally than the NFL? Major League Baseball is the second highest revenue generating league on Earth. Baseball is baseball. It is a perfectly imperfect game. Don’t mess it up by trying to fix it.