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October 22, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Four Hours of TV, 10 Minutes of Action

by Steven Goldman

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As compelling as the action of some post-season games have been, the slow pace of the contests has revived cries for a sped up game, with Peter Gammons and Buster Olney suggesting, respectively, that trips to the mound by coaches and managers be banned and the imposition of a pitch clock. It is easy to sympathize with such requests. None of us are getting any younger, and baseball is asking a lot of us by demanding that we devote more time to a single game than it would take to watch a David Lean epic (“Doctor Zhivago,” 3: 17; “Lawrence of Arabia,” 3: 36) or undergo any one of numerous intensive surgical procedures. If you went under for kidney transplant surgery (average time: two to three hours) during the first inning of Wednesday’s Rangers-Yankees game in the ALCS, the doctors could have woken you up in time for the seventh.

Keeping your patrons prisoner in the stadium for four hours might do great things for concession sales but damages the sport as a whole; the lack of watchability is alienating to devoted fans and newcomers alike; who among us who isn’t already committed would volunteer to sign up for a sport that requires the same investment of time that it would take to watch one-third of a season of “Mad Men” on DVD? Those of us too devoted (addicted?) to baseball have become so inured to the ennui engendered by slow games that we have developed coping mechanisms, ways we utilize the many dead spots so that the loss of time doesn’t sting too badly. I watch most of my baseball in my living room, adjacent to my kitchen. There is enough of a gap between batters and pitches that, if I rise from my seat directly after a batter reaches base, I have time to fix myself a generous snack, pour a drink, and return to my seat before another pitch is thrown. If there’s a pitching change involved, I can make toast points.

The Gammons and Olney solutions are extreme only in light of the fact that not all existing remedies have been exploited. By this I mean the rule book. This postseason has brought the usual arguments about the umpires, and how many errant calls they make. This is missing the forest for the trees. Admittedly, they are large and important trees, but the number of missed calls is dwarfed by the number of times that some very basic, game-quickening rules are not enforced. If baseball is to speed up the games, it might begin by reminding umpires, managers, and players of the existence of the much-neglected rule 6.02(b):

The batter shall not leave his position in the batter’s box after the pitcher comes to Set Position, or starts his windup.

PENALTY: If the pitcher pitches, the umpire shall call “Ball” or “Strike,” as the case may be.

 The rule book contains some clarifying commentary on how the umpires should react to a batter who is playing the ol’ waiting game with the pitcher. You know, one where the pitcher steps off, the batter steps out, and so on, ad infinitum, to no useful purpose. Basically, if the batter asks for time, the umpire is supposed to tell them to f#$% off:

Umpires will not call “Time” at the request of the batter or any member of his team once the pitcher has started his windup or has come to a set position even though the batter claims “dust in his eyes,” “steamed glasses,” “didn’t get the sign” or for any other cause. Umpires may grant a hitter’s request for “Time” once he is in the batter’s box, but the umpire should eliminate hitters walking out of the batter’s box without reason. If umpires are not lenient, batters will understand that they are in the batter’s box and they must remain there until the ball is pitched.

This rule is never enforced. I haven’t counted, but it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to say that at least once a game a batter steps out while the pitcher is in mid-delivery. This is in blatant violation of the rules and as a bonus comes with an injury risk for the pitcher if he suddenly stops his delivery. Note that the commentary on the rule is self-contradictory. “Umpires will not call ‘Time’ at the request of the batter… Umpires may grant a hitter’s request for ‘Time.’” Yes, the conditions are different, the former referring to when the pitcher has come set as opposed to what should be the brief time between when the batter has stepped in and the latter to when the pitcher is getting his sign and coming to a set. Eliminating that qualification, and making 6.02(b) a blanket rule with no exceptions, would help speed up games considerably.

Olney’s pitch clock would likely be necessary to solve the other half of the problem, the Steve Trachsel-itis that occasionally grips pitchers, not to mention the compulsive need that some catchers have to visit the mound and relay signs and other instructions in person. While pitcher-catcher communication is important, a visit to the mound by the catcher could be counted in the same way that a trip by a manager or coach—you get one freebie, then you have to make a change.

The pitch clock  is not a novel idea. If the former umpire Ron Luciano is to be believed, the idea was tried and sabotaged—by the umpires—according to his 1982 book The Umpire Strikes Back:

At various times throughout the 1970s the commissioner’s office decided to speed up baseball games by enforcing a twenty-second rule. This gave pitchers only twenty seconds to deliver the ball from the time they received it from the catcher, and over the course of a two-and-a-half-hour game easily save three or four minutes. The second base umpire was supposed to be the official timekeeper. The penalty for taking more than twenty seconds was to have an automatic ball added to the batter’s count. Now, this was a rule absolutely guaranteed to cause problems—what happened if the batter stepped out of the box after eighteen seconds had elapsed? What if the fans were watching a scoreboard clock running two seconds ahead of the umpire?—and nobody wanted to enforce it. …[T]he infraction was only called when the umpiring crew had to catch the last flight out of town that night.

The umpires have been rendered somewhat more accountable than they were in Luciano’s day, and it’s just possible that if confronted with a similar rule today, they might choose to enforce it. Yet, the pitch clock might be an unnecessary and intrusive addition to the game. Instead of adding this football-style distraction, a simpler, albeit riskier possibility is to empower the umpires to dictate the pace of the game. Just as each home plate umpire establishes his own version of the rulebook strike zone at the outset of every game, let the second base umpire be responsible for controlling the pace. There need not be a stopwatch or an oppressive scoreboard clock, but only a healthy awareness on the part of the umpire to see that a fidgeting pitcher or a wandering batter is slowing the game and a willingness to do something about it. Rather than interrupt an at-bat to add a ball to the hitter’s count, the ball could be given to the next batter, so the hitter after a time infraction would begin with a 1-0 count if the pitcher was at fault, or an 0-1 count if the hitter was in error. This would have the pleasant side effect of subjecting the team rather than any individual player to a penalty, and would encourage clubhouse policing of the laggards.

So long as the umpire made pitchers aware that the 20-second rule would be enforced and batters were similarly persuaded that stepping out for any reason short of a cerebral hemorrhage would not be tolerated, an individual umpire could be as rigid or as flexible as game situations seemed to dictate. If Joe West wants his games allegro, more power to him. Another, less rigid umpire, might choose to have some flexibility based on game situations. Bases loaded, top of the ninth? The pitcher can have an extra few seconds to figure out what he wants to do; the batter can get his signs right. The rest of the time, it’s get in and hit, get set and pitch.

As Bill James once observed, baseball used to have a clock. It was called the sun, and a large part of the umpires’ job was to keep the game moving so it was completed before the sun went down. There are many, many stories in the long history of baseball before lights of players and managers trying to slow down a losing effort so that darkness (or rain) would wipe away the score. The umpires made liberal use of ejections to keep the things moving, lest the offending team make a mockery of the game. It was both a practical consideration and a gesture of respect for the game. With these changes, or any changes to keep each game from becoming an archipelago of small islands of interest lost in a vast sea of tedium, Major League Baseball could make a new gesture of respect, this one to the fans.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Time,  Umpires,  Umpire,  Rule Changes,  The Call-up

24 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

hessshaun

My guess is that the managers would argue the 20 second infractions enough times to recoup that 3-4 minute time span.

Good read, and I agree it needs to be sped up. Lest not forget, the quicker the game, the less time McCarver and Buck get to talk.

Oct 22, 2010 09:38 AM
rating: 4
 
Richie

There are probably a dozen small, non-intrusive things baseball could do to speed up the game. (just send IBB hitters right to first, only one free pickoff/step off attempt per runner, no 'fake' pickoff to 2nd or 3rd without throwing, along with all you mention) Baseball clearly doesn't want to. So the problem isn't "what to do", but "convince baseball to do the friggin' obvious".

I always figured hidebound 'tradition' was at fault. It just never occurred to me how much more baseball makes off of concessions the longer they keep us there. I think you may have nailed it.

Oct 22, 2010 09:42 AM
rating: 1
 
cfinberg

Call me neuroleptic, but I look forward to the longer games. I grant that I was weaned on Sox-Yanks matchups so I'm pretty much inured to the commitment of an evening to baseball. I also reject to the imposition of a clock because, as hessshaun already pointed out, there would be unforeseen consequences. Not to mention that the savings of 4 minutes hardly seems worth the heartache.
I don't see how baseball can be effectively sped up without rendering it a different sport. Besides which, part of its beauty is its irregularity. Be it the dimensions of the fields, the wealth and commitment of the franchises, the application of the rules by different umpiring squads, or the lack of a clock, the lack of definition makes it what it is.
Oh, and I certainly don't think that TV-friendliness is a valid reason to change anything, ever. Baseball's survived this long mostly unchanged, and millions upon millions of people still love it. Invoke replays if you must, but other than that leave it the hell alone.

Oct 22, 2010 10:12 AM
rating: 0
 
Mountainhawk

Ah, keep baseball just like it's always been, America's 20th century pastime.

Want to shorten half the games? Dump the DH. You aren't a baseball player if you can't play the field.

Oct 22, 2010 17:51 PM
rating: 0
 
djardine

Much of the intransigence to change is wrapped on the hoary old cloth of "tradition."

"It's a tradition! We will continue to do things the same way we have always done them. The wrong way."

Oct 22, 2010 10:14 AM
rating: 1
 
Paul Mahler

Don't you think this is largely a media-created issue? The Giants/Phillies played a 2:39 game early in the series, but would Game 4 have been any better if it had been 5 minutes shorter? And what about the postseason TV breaks - the local radio broadcasters for the Giants had to fill a 30 second gap each half inning waiting for play to resume while TV commercials ran. While the umpires should keep the game moving, in today's ADD induced world, it is nice to be at a baseball game, or watching a baseball game, where there is time for conversation, reflection and in general, relaxation.

Oct 22, 2010 10:20 AM
rating: 2
 
deckholm

I do agree that some in the baseball media are making a bigger deal about this than they should (a pitch clock? Really?)... but being as hardcore a baseball fan as any you will find I do wish some of these games would move faster than a glacier. I can not think of a 9 inning game during the regular season that felt as slow as the last 2 games of the ALCS (4:05, 3:48). Between the endless commercial breaks... the 2-3 catchers to the mound visits per full inning... The pitching coaches... the relief pitchers walking around the mound after every pitch... the hitters "re-adjusting" after every pitch.. It does start to get old. It's so slow Fox seems to be plugging products between hitters several more times than usual.

Enforce the rules that are already in place (including the full strike zone) and don't be bullied by your broadcast "partners" for additional downtime when the playoff start. So, like a lot of things in baseball, consistency is key.

Then I wont have to answer "I don't know" to questions like "Why is he walking around the mound after every single pitch?" or "Does he really need to tighten his batting gloves again? He didn't even swing."

Oct 22, 2010 14:00 PM
rating: 2
 
Patrick M

The long breaks between innings are a huge part of this, and I don't see any eagerness on MLB's part to shorten that, as that will negatively impact TV revenue.

I'm also a proponent of requiring relivers to face 2 batters, with exceptions for injury and always allowing a new pitcher to start an inning. (Thus, you could bring in a reliever to get the third out of an inning, and then start the next inning with a new guy.)

Oct 22, 2010 10:23 AM
rating: 0
 
SC

While shorter breaks might negatively impact revenue (or it might not, if demand for advertising time during baseball games is constant, lowering the supply of advertising time would allow MLB to raise the price of time) in the short-term, it's the long-term that's the concern.

If baseball loses 10% of its fan base (because fewer kids become fans, because more casual fans tune into other sports) that's going to hurt revenue (in terms of gates, concessions, merchandise, mlb.tv subscriptions, etc) far more significantly that any short-term reduction in TV dollars.

Oct 22, 2010 11:09 AM
rating: 3
 
newsense

This won't help fans attending the game but I DVR games and start watching them 60-90 min later, skipping over mound visits and breaks between innings and hitters. I catch up to real time by the end. Is this sacrilege?

Oct 22, 2010 11:10 AM
rating: 1
 
Shaun P.
(676)

I'd say no. DVR is certainly one of my coping mechanisms, especially during the regular season. Fast forwarding at the lowest possible speed is also a great way to not have to listen to inane commentary from the announcers. My problem is that if I'm watching via DVR, I can't participate in game threads at my blog of choice.

I'm all for a faster game, particularly when MLB's TV partners almost insist on starting many postseason games at 8PM Eastern (or later).

Oct 22, 2010 12:59 PM
rating: 0
 
harderj

No, not sacrilege. I used to love that my Panasonic VCR (Reggie Jackson, spokesperson) had 2x speed, which was perfect for following everything at a watchable speed (like the comment below). That VCR's long gone.

I don't get FOX, so have been watching MLB postseason, muting it, and listening to the Giants announcers on KNBR. The audio comes through first, so I look up if something interesting happens.

But arguably the most interesting was watching a "compressed" game on MLB.com the day after, without knowing the outcome other than ESPN's having said "Lincecum's hair was on fire" (it was the first playoff game he pitched). The cool thing was you pretty much get everything, including replays which I have not found on postseason tv, and there is noise, just not announcers. So you hear ump and player utterances, crowd noise, the ball hitting the bat, but no inane (or brilliant) commentary. Enjoyed it.

It's so hard on the East Coast when playoffs roll around...

Oct 23, 2010 09:25 AM
rating: 0
 
jetson
(660)

Can they enforce the blocking the plate rules while they're at it, too? And the actual strike zone? Just for starters.

Oct 22, 2010 12:36 PM
rating: 2
 
bflaff1

It's not really the length of the game that's the problem. After all, lots of people would enjoy an epic 14-11 game that took 4 hours to play. Long games are fine if things are going on.

Rather, the problem arises because the game gets bogged down by loads of timewasting, as if someone's calling a time out after each and every pitch. Stepping out of the box to do a Nomar tic routine and stepping off the rubber is excruciating, especially when a particular pitcher (*cough* Burnett *cough*) looks like he's perfoming a 40 item mental checklist before he throws to the -- oh wait, it's a toss to first... and now he's back to square one. Gah. Frequent mound visits from the catcher only seem to crop up in the playoffs and only with certain teams, so I hardly see much impact from trying to regulate it with a rules change.

Oct 22, 2010 14:13 PM
rating: 0
 
jerrykenny

I think the (seemingly) endless (not to mention repetitive and aggravating) commercial breaks inserted by Seligula's "broadcast partners" are what annoys me the most. As far as the actual baseball stuff I agree with getting rid of the (seemingly) endless (not to mention repetitive and aggravating) mound conferences. Get rid of the catcher visits period or at least make them count as a visit against the two allowed before a pitcher must be removed. And limit the participants to the manager, catcher and pitcher - no more group hugs with the infield.

Oct 22, 2010 16:11 PM
rating: 1
 
dodgerken222

Before the game starts the national anthem is played. That honors America. Do we have to have the half-time show that the bottom of the 7th has become with special renditions of "God Bless America"? Let's limit that to the 4th of July and Memorial Day. There's about three minutes saved right there.
Furthermore, Yankee games will be shortened in the not-too-distant future when the human rain delay called Jorge Posada retires and takes with him his endless trips to the mound.

Oct 22, 2010 22:00 PM
rating: 5
 
benmasur3

I like Bill James's suggestion that we limit the number of non-injury pitching changes. It would speed the game up significantly, especially in the late innings of close games when the dramatic momentum is at its peak. Yes, it would be a radical rule change, but, as James noted, it is no less radical than the change in reliever usage (look at Ron Washington's 8th inning in the first game) that got us to this point.

Oct 23, 2010 07:02 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

That would have the added benefit of saving managers like Washington from themselves.

Oct 24, 2010 07:42 AM
rating: 2
 
R.A.Wagman

I would be very much in favour of implementing rules that do not change the tactical nature of the game. I wouldn't limit pitching changes, but I would limit pitching conferences - once, maybe twice, per inning. I would definitely also cut back on the time allotted to between innings. Fewer commercials, should, by nature, heighten their perceived value, right?

Oct 23, 2010 07:15 AM
rating: 4
 
harderj

Agree, especially with the point about trips to the mound. at a minimum, no more than one trip per batter, but that may not be enough. With a runner on second it can be kind of ridiculous (I think it was Posada...the announcers commented it was the "97th trip" to the mound, iirc).

Oct 23, 2010 09:07 AM
rating: 0
 
ronb626

There are several things baseball is not. And, many that it is.

1 thing it is not, is, that it is not a game of action. Not that it doesn't have action, it's just that baseball is more a game of decision and patience.

Another thing is is not, is, that it has limited appeal for those with an attention span measured in micro-seconds. Baseball demands attention. If you can't pay attention, you are not going to enjoy baseball.

And, it rewards those who enjoy a game of patience and decision. As it does those who have more evolved attention spans.

Baseball is also cloaked in tradition. In some cases, those traditions are the heart of baseball. But, in some cases, they are the problem with baseball. Things like time clocks and instant replay, probably, are not the answer to problems. Rather, in the flow of a baseball game, they are hindrances. But, there are several ways to speed up the game without hurting it. Letting batters step in and out of the batter's box, for instance. And, letting pitchers step on, then off, the rubber. Letting catchers go to the mound repeatedly. The "group huddle" when the entire infield huddles up on the mound. The manager refuting calls and the time it takes for the umpire to tell him to return to his dugout.

There are no simple solutions to baseball's problems. And, many of the ones being proposed are going to hurt baseball more than they will help.

Oct 23, 2010 11:20 AM
rating: 3
 
PeterBNYC

Good work. I agree absolutely on the absence of enforcement of the rules concerning batter time out calls. This has to stop. Also, the nauseating "re-set" time-outs to re-wrap batting glove straps, etc. If the pitcher has to throw, the batter has to bat. Period. An area where the umpires are not doing their job, probably becasuse the league offices are asleep on the issue. Catcher visits are another bad spot. Time to act.

Oct 23, 2010 15:19 PM
rating: 0
 
gjhardy

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

All baseball has to do to fix the time-of-game problem is to enforce the written upper level of the strike zone. When did you last seem an ump call a belt-high strike? No umpire will call a strike above the belt, which is probably a much greater factor in the offensive explosion of recent years than any PED.

Instant replay has revealed that umpires miss a fair number of calls. A close reading of this rule would indicate that they are missing some ridiculous percentage of their ball-strike calls as well. Either call the rulebook strike zone or change the rule; the current situation is an embarrassment if you give it any thought at all.

Oct 24, 2010 07:20 AM
rating: 0
 
Agent007

All that calling of time by pitcher, hitter and catcher drives me crazy. Put the pitcher on a time clock. Don't allow the batter to call time. I can survive the commercials, though I hate them at the ballpark (I can switch channels at home), but these constant time outs. Death to them I say!

Oct 24, 2010 15:29 PM
rating: 0
 
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