Editor’s Note: This is the second in a 10-part series commemorating baseball’s new commissioner with advice for his tenure. To read more about this series, click here.Incoming Commissioner Rob Manfred is inheriting an enterprise that, while vigorous and strong, is not without its troubles. Some arose during Bud Selig’s tenure without being addressed, such as the growing incongruity of MLB’s blackout system in an era of streaming video. Some were tackled and began moving toward resolution, like PED policy—though Selig’s complicity in letting that problem become as bad as it did is a matter not of whether, but of how much.
There is one matter, though, that was a problem when Selig became acting commissioner, and has grown unchecked into something approaching a crisis. The game on the field is taking too long, longer than it needs to, and much longer than it used to.
I admit I’ve been a pest about this matter before, complaining about it when doing recaps of postseason games that kept me up way past my bedtime. I felt a touch guilty, and tried to restrain myself from going into full-fledged rants. No longer. It’s time to commit to being a pest, for the good of the game.
Some fans don’t see longer games as a problem. I’m not likely to convert those of you to my stance, but if I avoid ranting in favor of cogent argument, I hope you will avoid scorn (or clicking to some other site) in favor of not throwing vegetables while I stand on the soapbox. You will find, however, that a lot of people are inclined to agree with the guy on the soapbox.
The problem of longer games has been chronic, but recently has grown acute. From 1992, when Selig became acting commissioner, until 2012, the average length of a baseball game went from 2:54:21 to 3:00:10, a gain of somewhat less than six minutes. (Granted, the progress was a zig-zag, not a straight line.) From 2012 to 2014, it lengthened to 3:07:47, a gain of over seven and a half minutes. That adds up to over 13 minutes added to the average game length during Selig’s tenure, almost four-sevenths of that in the last two seasons alone.
There’s another way to look at the seismic movement of the last two years. For certain years, I counted up the numbers of games that took no longer than 2:30 while going at least eight and a half innings (meaning not shortened for rain or other reasons). I also tallied the games that ended in nine (or eight and a half) innings that took at least 3:30 to play (which excludes extra-inning contests).
|Long and Short Games|
The short category outnumbered the long by almost five to one just 22 seasons ago. That ratio is now one-half to one, and the main inflection point came in the last two years. Short games are becoming a thing of the past, supplanted by trials of the spectators’ patience. I was about to call them “marathons,” but with the current marathon record having just fallen under 2:03:00, those classic tests of endurance are quick compared to baseball these days.
The entire problem of longer games cannot be laid at Selig’s feet. In research I did on another story, I came across a reporter in a 1913 newspaper lamenting how long baseball took those days. With distressing and growing frequency, game times would reach or even exceed … two hours.
Were he alive today, he might gladly transfer to the paper’s obituary department, thinking it’d be livelier.
So people have been complaining about this matter for over a century. Maybe it wasn’t really a problem then, but since his day, the game has gotten over 50 percent longer. To say this increase hasn’t gotten us to the point of a problem, or worse, borders on absurdity.
Longer games would be forgivable, even laudable, if there were 50 percent more of a game to watch. There isn’t. Granted, a hundred years ago we were in the Deadball Era, offense systematically smothered. Fans would have accepted a longer game if it came with more action—and did. The offensive explosion that attended the rise of Babe Ruth provided just that. Yet note above that in 1939, with the offensive revolution still burning, games had only gotten 10 minutes longer than a quarter-century before. The cost to the attention span was reasonable.
We have no such justification for subsequent lengthening of the game, especially the most recent spike. Offense today is not burgeoning but retreating, to the point where it may soon need official attention (especially the soaring strikeouts). By the previous example, we should expect games to get shorter, but they’re getting longer, swimming fast against the current. Dare we wonder how long they’d be if the high-offense game of 10 and 20 years ago came back?
Some will ask why we should care about this. Why is taking three hours to watch a baseball game intrinsically worse than taking two hours to watch it? You’re still getting the whole game. In fact, you’re getting more leisure time for your money, in ticket prices or cable subscription fees—and if it’s on free TV, you’re practically stealing from the league. It’s a pastime: why are you upset about it passing time?
This notion ends up corrosive to baseball. The bigger your commitment of time to a leisure activity, the less actual leisure there is in it. It moves closer to being a duty, one to be borne, or shirked. The longer the game, the more you’re tempted to duck out midway and get back to other things, or just peek in when you estimate it’s close to the end. You’ll end up caring less about the results, less about the process (meaning the playing), less about the game.
And let’s not forget the barriers raised against younger fans, at least in the east of the country. Games in the regular season that start shortly after seven will generally end after 10, too late for many kids to watch to the end. With the World Series beginning an hour later, the situation grows worse for what is supposed to be the showcase of the league. These problems would still exist with the game at two and a half hours, but every little bit helps. Or hurts.
As I implied, this isn’t such a problem for kids on the West Coast—assuming they have the patience to stick with the whole game in the first place. Perhaps the MLB offices have dispassionately calculated that what they lose in the East, they gain back in the West by sneaking a piece of the Series (and other playoff games) into prime time for more ad revenue. That equation might work for the present, letting executives move on to the problem of fan demographics growing older, without seeing the connection.
There. That soapbox moment is over. Wasn’t so bad, was it?
Having properly bemoaned the problem, it’s time to discharge the responsibility that comes with complaint: figuring out a solution. Fortunately, others are already working in that direction. Perhaps the most notable of them aren’t even in Organized Baseball.
The Atlantic League, an independent baseball league operating mostly in the Northeast, grew concerned about the lengthening times of its own games. The league average in 2013 was 3:02, almost the same as the majors*. The league was facing patrons, especially those with children, leaving in mid-game because it had just gotten too late.
* For those inclined to blame television for ever-lengthening major league games, a group in which I hover on the edges, this is a sharp counter-argument. The Atlantic League isn’t stretching out between-inning breaks to cram in more TV commercials. Radio might be another matter, but that doesn’t contribute nearly as big a piece of overall revenues, even for the minors, so the tail probably isn’t strong enough to wag the dog.
Rather than wait for the established leagues to act so it could follow their lead, the Atlantic League blazed its own trail. It formed a Pace of Play Committee, chaired by ex-Houston Astros president Tal Smith, which solicited suggestions from fans and media as well as its own members. The league came up with a list of six measures, later trimmed to five, that it began implementing in games on Aug. 1, 2014. The measures were:
- Limiting teams to three “time-outs” a game for mound visits by managers, coaches or players, those time-outs limited to 45 seconds each. Pitching changes are not included, and an extra time-out is granted for the 10th inning and every third extra inning thereafter.
- Automatically awarding an intentional walk upon the signal of the manager or catcher, without the need to throw four wide.
- Limiting warm-up pitches at the start of an inning, or when a reliever enters, from eight to six.
- Directing umpires to apply and enforce Rule 6.02 (restricting batters “stepping out”) and Rule 8.04 (requiring the pitcher to throw within 12 seconds when bases are empty).
- Encouraging umpires to exercise their power to control the pace of play (and to call the book strike zone).
The rejected measure would have mandated a substitute runner for a catcher who reached base on offense, so he would not waste time putting his equipment back on when the inning ended. This idea echoes the old-time tradition of “courtesy runners,” who could run for a hurt or shaken-up player without requiring him to come out of the game. To the regret of catchers’ knees everywhere, the committee considered this a bridge too far, though it may be considered again in the future.
With many curious eyes observing, games in the Atlantic League promptly became brisker. In the first month under the new rules, average game time fell to 2:53, nine minutes quicker than in 2013. The proportion of regulation games lasting three hours or longer fell from 42 percent to 26, and regulation games lasting no more than 2:30 rose from eight to 22 percent. Major league baseball hasn’t seen that last level for a couple of decades.
The Atlantic League is not declaring victory and stopping the reforms. The Pace of Play Committee has more than a dozen proposals still in some level of consideration, and the 2015 season may see several of them adopted. With a couple, though, we didn’t need to wait.
Around the end of the Atlantic League’s season in late September, Selig appointed his own Pace of Game Committee, headed by Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz. As further indication that the matter was getting serious attention*, MLB tried out some rule changes of its own. Not in the majors, but in its own convenient substitute for an experimental lab, the Arizona Fall League.
* One may reasonably argue that a committee isn’t necessarily serious, but I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt.
AFL games in late 2014 featured the automatic intentional walk, along with a requirement for batters to keep at least one foot in the batter’s box between pitches, except on foul balls, wild pitches, and a couple other exceptions. A subset of games, played at Salt River Fields, added some more radical changes, most of which involved an import from the worlds of football and basketball: the play clock.
A pair of clocks on either side of home plate was used to count down time between innings (limited to 2:05), time during pitching changes, and most notably, time between pitches. Pitchers were given 20 seconds, whether or not anybody was on base, between receiving the ball and coming set. (Technically, they could hold the set as long as they wanted before pitching.) This differed from the Rule 8.04 requirements, showing that MLB was emulating but not aping the Atlantic League’s changes.
Players in the AFL adapted fairly readily to the changes, or at least said so for the media. Those who promulgated the test haven’t been as enthusiastic. Press reports indicate the play clock will not be appearing in the majors this upcoming season.
The other changes, along with a modification of the replay rule to make managers decide more quickly whether to challenge a call, may have better chances. A quarterly owners’ meeting in Arizona on Wednesday and Thursday could produce the first clear indication of what reforms, if any, will be implemented for 2015.
It would be the first clear indication because the Pace of Game Committee has been notably silent since being formed. There is some irony, and hopefully no foreshadowing, that a group formed to get games moving more quickly has been taking its time making any public progress. The AFL tests were announced mere days after the committee came into being. If the committee guided this action in its first days, I’ll cheerfully eat my words, but there is room for doubt.
There is another, possibly unfair, reason to doubt much progress from this group. Two of the most grievous offenders in slowing the pace of play have been the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Even back to the late 1990s, any game between the two, especially in October, seems fated to last four hours or more. Among the seven members of the Pace of Play Committee are Michael Gordon and Tom Werner, second and third largest shareholders of the Red Sox. A third is Joe Torre, manager of the Yankees for so many late-night tussles.
But another appointment Selig made to the committee gives much better reason for optimism. It was the chief operating officer of MLB and, by the way, the commissioner-elect, Rob Manfred. Maybe this signals that Manfred is committed to bringing the length of games under control. If so, we should be seeing action on that front very soon.
I have so far limited my personal opinions in this piece to the desirability of shorter games, and some speculation on how productive certain committee members might be. Truth is, I’m plenty more opinionated than that. I’ll close with my own thoughts on the best course to take with improving the pace of the game.
One matter that’s gotten only slight attention here so far is the effect of replay. There’s no doubt it has lengthened games, though by how much is more debatable. There’s also no chance replay will be broomed for the sake of a shorter game, since there’s no chance replay will be broomed at all. One needed reform made the need for another more pressing, and baseball will have to live with that.
Fortunately, the process of working out replay’s bugs should alleviate matters. The time that replays take will probably be a bit streamlined this coming year, from experience and internal tweaks. Making managers decide more quickly whether to challenge a play would help even more. The spectacle of a manager sauntering out to chat with an ump, stalling until he gets the signal from his dugout, is an obvious waste of time. Tackling obvious problems is a hallmark for effective reform, and I trust it’ll be done here.
Confession time: I’m not a big fan of the automatic intentional walk. Usually nothing happens on them, but sometimes, as in Game Four of the Nationals-Giants NLDS last October, it does. A change that both disrupts the standard on-field actions and lowers the chance of an exciting play from slim to none injures the aesthetics of the game. I believe that even necessary reforms should seek to accomplish the most with the least disruption. The automatic intentional walk is something that should be saved for if and when other changes prove to be insufficient.
(This controversy reminds me of the tart comment, I think by Don Drysdale, that an intentional walk is a waste of three pitches. Perhaps that’s the compromise solution, in a different form. Make the pitcher throw one semi-symbolic wide pitch to complete the intentional walk, leaving some chance that it’ll get away and send the runners scurrying.)
And the way to do the most with the least disruption would be to do what is already supposed to be done. Rules 6.02 and 8.04 empower umpires to prevent stalling by batters and pitchers alike. The Atlantic League directed umpires to apply those rules, and to use their other power to control the pace of play.
That, in my opinion, is the true foundation of any effort to tighten up game times. Bill James has written that umpires once were zealous in keeping the game moving along because games faced a time limit: sundown in an age before lights at ballparks. Once lights came in and erased that deadline, umpires’ attention to game pace endured a while from force of habit, but eventually decayed to nothing.
If we want to speed up games, Plan A should be to restore the umpires’ mandate to do it themselves. It requires no rule changes, though it does require the players to accept that the umps have this authority and will use it. They’ve adjusted to this kind of thing in the Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League; they can do it in the majors.
Active participation by the umpires strikes me as the indispensable foundation for any improvement of the pace of play. If Manfred and the committee did nothing else but direct umpires to enforce those rules, and a better pace in general, we would make real progress. Probably not enough, but a year under that regime would give them a good chance to analyze how much further they needed to go, and what measures would accomplish this with the least alteration to the game.
Overly long games are a real problem, but there’s ample reason to believe it can be turned around. If the incoming commissioner follows through with his place on the Pace of Game Committee, he can get a handle on it quickly, and have a worthy accomplishment in his first year on the job. I hope it won’t be the only one.