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May 18, 2016

Rubbing Mud

Babies, Bathwater, and the Pace Of Play Conundrum

by Matthew Trueblood

Pace of game (or time of game? It’s so unclear which problem the various hand-wringers want to solve, and there’s imperfect overlap when it comes to the solutions to each) is in the news again. The average length of an MLB game this season is three hours, some seven minutes longer than at the same point last season. This, everyone seems to agree, is a problem.

On Monday night, before I saw the Rob Manfred quotes that made it clear this would be a major topic of discussion this week, I sat on my couch, sorting socks and watching the Dodgers play the Angels. It was already past 11:30 Central time when I turned on the game, so I was mildly surprised to find that the top of the seventh inning was just beginning. Apparently, though, I had missed the quick part of the game. Pedro Baez was on the mound for the Dodgers, and pretty quickly, he began laboring. That’s not new. Of the 355 pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings this season, Baez takes longer between pitches (an even 30 seconds) than all but two. The issue was particularly pronounced on Monday, though, because Baez was really up against it.

Due for the Angels in that frame were Yunel Escobar, Kole Calhoun, and Mike Trout. Those are three very good hitters, and it’s easy to get in trouble against them. In particular, with Trout’s power lurking, it’s very dangerous to let the bases fill up. Thus, Baez went straight after Escobar, getting two strikes, then a foul ball. Escobar took two pitches, then, one close to the strike zone, one well outside it. Then he fouled off two more Baez offerings. On the eighth pitch of his plate appearance, Escobar got a pitch he could handle and lined a single to center field.

Calhoun didn’t wait so long. Amid a handful of pickoff throws aimed at holding Escobar close and a few step-offs by Baez or times out called by Yasmani Grandal, Calhoun worked a 2-0 count, then grounded a single into right field. Now runners were on the corners with nobody out, and Trout was coming to the plate, with the Angels already leading by one run. Baez responded really well, though. He got a called first strike on a slider, then doubled up, fooling Trout into swinging through it for strike two. The third pitch was a fastball on the outer edge at 98 miles per hour, and although Trout stayed alive, Baez looked to be in command.

Still, between every pitch, he was shaking out his right arm (don’t worry, he does that a lot, he wasn’t hurt), waiting for the throw back from Grandal at the foot of the mound, then circling to the back, removing his glove, hitching up his pants, rubbing the ball, touching the bill of his cap, sometimes wiping his brow, then heaving a deep breath, climbing the mound, surveying the runners, toeing the rubber, eyeing Grandal carefully, accepting his sign, and coming slowly set, still intent upon disrupting the runners. Vin Scully felt obligated, after that 0-2 foul ball, to note that “Baez has been out there 11 minutes, and he’s thrown just 14 pitches.” Scully would give a similar count later, when the pitch total was into the 20s and the minutes total was getting close.

Baez missed with the next two pitches, a fastball at 99 (but markedly off the outside edge) and a bad slider, up and away. The count even, he went back to the heat, and missed, catching the heart of the zone. Thanks to his sheer velocity, though, Trout merely fouled that one off, too. On the seventh pitch, Baez froze Trout on a low fastball, his fastest yet, a true 99 and (if you believe Brooks Baseball) right at the knees. It was called a ball, though. On 3-2, Baez overthrew his slider again, hitting 91 on the radar gun but missing high. Trout walked, loading the bases for Albert Pujols.

By comparison to the gas he was throwing to Trout, Baez’s first pitch to Pujols was a let-up, a fastball at the knees at 97.7 miles per hour. Pujols grounded cleanly through the middle, singling home Escobar and Calhoun, pushing Trout to third. It was a good pitch; it was a bad result.

As Baez went to work on Shane Robinson (who would try to bunt twice and strike out on the third pitch), Scully offered another comment: “To me, when you see a pitcher take as much time as Baez, it seems to me that it’s a lack of confidence. Taking too long to make up his mind, make a pitch and go get the hitter.” As he said it, Grandal called for time, just as Baez came set to pitch. That’s way off the mark, though. Baez wasn’t lacking confidence. If he lacked anything, it was carelessness, recklessness. He had a very difficult task before him, so he slowed down, weighed his options, kept tabs on the runners he was still hoping to keep from coming around to score. He’s habitually slow, and he only slowed a bit from his usual pace, all in the name of marshaling his mental and physical resources. I find fault with the assignment of value to pace, in this context.

Baez made a mistake to Johnny Giavotella, finding the middle of the zone with a slider. That slider hummed in north of 90 mph, though, so Giavotella only flew lazily to center field. Joc Pederson caught the ball (281 feet away, per Statcast) and tried to fire home to get a tagging Trout. The odds of doing so were slim (Trout is fast, after all), but reduced quickly to none when the throw was high, wild, and up the third-base line. Pujols took second base, as he had tagged up to do in the first place, anticipating a throw through to the plate. The Dodgers appealed, though, and the first-base umpire called Pujols out for leaving too early. Mike Scioscia called for a review. After a short time on the headsets (and an easy review of the case via split screen, for those of us watching at home), the umps reversed their decision. Baez would need to get one more out.

Carlos Perez avoided being that out only by a stroke of luck. He broke his bat on an 0-1 dribbler to Baez’s left, but no one was able to make the play in time to retire him. Jose Alvarez then batted for himself, and managed to make contact, bouncing an 0-2 pitch back to Baez to end the inning. It was past midnight my time.

Here’s my question: What do you, who call yourself a baseball fan, so hate about that sequence that you demand change? What’s wrong with baseball played at exactly that pace? In that inning, there was a pitcher with electrifying stuff trying valiantly to get three or four very good hitters out. There were very poised takes of close two-strike pitches, lightning-quick emergency swings that kept endangered at bats alive, and good execution by the batters on relatively few mistakes. There was aggressive baserunning. There was (almost) a play at the plate. There was a missed call that replay rectified, whatever it might have cost (and it was only a couple minutes, in this case, but if it had been five, what of it? Give me the right call, and I’ll take the extra five minutes to warm up some nachos, or run to the concession stand and buy some). There was even, for those of you who are into that sort of thing, the absurdity of a relief pitcher taking a plate appearance and seeing a 98-mph fastball.

Slow is, in a vacuum, a judgment-free adjective. Slowness is not a sin. Baseball is a slower game than basketball or football. Nearly all of its games will be longer than most basketball games, and a fair number (though a minority) will be longer than an average NFL game. This is not a problem; this is an immutable characteristic. Baseball played faster is not better; it’s barely baseball. Slow things can be fun. Baseball is slow (in this very macro sense; remember that fast humans still sprint all over the field in response to redirected projectiles traveling over 100 miles per hour a solid 35 or 40 times per game) but fun.

Maybe the problem is that too many people expect an immersive experience whenever they watch a sporting event. If that’s you, stop expecting that. Stop wanting that. We have a national addiction to sports that is probably totally unhealthy. There are 162 games in every team’s MLB season, and 82 in each NBA team’s, and at some point, it became acceptable to plan on watching all of them, dissecting all of them, blogging about all of them, reliving all of them. More than that, it became natural to want to watch them with as few interruptions as possible, both inside and outside whatever device we’re watching. People fire off an angry tweet if their MLB.tv feed cuts out, or if it even lags too much and they find out about some play before they see it. People complain about pitching changes and mound visits and pickoff throws and step-offs and step-outs.

None of this is the behavior of a healthy person. If a game is worth sitting down and watching in an obsessed, absorbing way, as Max Scherzer’s showdown with Noah Syndergaard last night was, as playoff games and pennant-race games are, then the few extra minutes afforded by a pitching change ought to be a welcome bathroom break. The 15 extra minutes of total game time ought to be 15 extra minutes spent enraptured by the suspense, the fun. If a game isn’t worth that—if it’s mid-May and you know the outcome of the season could eventually hinge on who wins this game, but recognize that the odds against that are overwhelming—then don’t expect to be hooked in the whole time. Pick up the game late, or turn it off and walk away. Sort socks while you watch. Read; write. Balance your checkbook. Pick the radio over the TV and do the dishes.

Baseball is fun because there’s a game nearly every day for six months. I can’t stress the corollary enough: The fun part about that is that you don’t have to watch all of them, or even the entirety of the games you do watch. Baseball should be pleasant white noise sometimes. When tense moments like the top of the seventh in Los Angeles Monday night happen, it should be a bit more, and then you can choose whether to invest yourself fully into the action (considering the moments just past and the moments to come, glad of the natural stoppage because it presents an opportunity to do so more thoroughly). If you’re irritated by the lapses in action, maybe that game just isn’t worth the level of attention you’re trying to give it. Skipping the rest of that game would be a good choice. Skipping a game or two altogether is always a good choice, really. If you’re determined to make baseball faster, maybe baseball is the wrong game for you. It will always be slow, and when it’s no longer slow, it will no longer be baseball.

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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