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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

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