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February 14, 2017

Cold Takes

Pace of Play Isn't Going Away

by Patrick Dubuque


As we wait out the February doldrums, Rob Manfred has taken up arms against one of baseball’s oldest enemies: pace of play. After devoting last winter to the phantom terrors of the pitch clock, and then promptly forgetting about it, an autumn spent with Pedro Baez appears to have reopened the commissioner’s psychological scars. The result: a proposal that would place a runner on second base in extra innings. The logic is to reduce game length by cutting out some of what is by definition its tightest and most compelling moments. Public reaction, thus far, has been less than favorable.

This proposal will probably disappear, and the pitch clock, which sensibly attacks the actual pace of the game rather than its length, will likely return to the forefront. Though we lack polling, time is hardly the most important issue in the game to most fans, who would rather look at public financing, minority hiring and outreach, cable blackouts, or good old fashioned ticket prices as bigger problems facing the grand old game. But however clumsily the idea gets implemented, the pace-of-play non-problem is going to get solved, sooner rather than later.

The proof is in other sports. The Game, by Ken Dryden, is hockey’s seminal autobiography, exploring a week in the Hall of Famer’s final season. Like Ball Four, Dryden’s 1977 book ventures into the locker room, but it’s less interested in humanizing its players as it is personifying the relationship between them; though each teammate has his quirks, the writing seems to tap into their collective energy, as if each player were an unknowing limb of a single creature. As the book winds down, the author goes full Melville, pulls the lens back even farther, abandons all pretense of narrative and philosophizes on the entire sport as a single life, telling the story of its development through adolescence into adulthood.

Hockey, according to Dryden, evolved imperfectly. We think of sports as refining, improving, but every now and then a sport will get stuck somewhere: a dominant strategy is discovered and exposed, and the sport must adapt itself around that change in style or eliminate it. To Dryden, hockey had this chance and failed:

Since then [the legalization of the forward pass], for nearly fifty years, the story of hockey has been speed. It was the forward pass that gave speed its chance; later it was the center red line, better ice conditions, better equipment, better training and conditioning of players, and shorter shifts that accelerated its impact. But it was speed unaccommodated, never allowed to work, because the playing patterns, skills, and attitudes of our game never changed to make it work. As a result, the major developments of our hockey--forechecking, the dump and chase, escalating violence, the slap shot, tactical intimidation, the adrenaline attitude of the game--are all logical implications in a pyramid of implications with unharnessed, undirected speed as their root.

The sport of hockey has changed a little in the 40 years since; fighting, for example, was at its zenith in Dryden’s day, and the league eventually extracted a majority of it from the sport’s culture. But the force of speed on the game—on all sports, in fact—is undeniable.

Speed, in all its permutations, begets compromise. Dryden continues:

What happens to a game when it speeds up? What happens to its patterns and skills and to those who play it? I once read an article on senility in which the writer said that what many regard in the elderly as a hopeless inability to function is often nothing of the kind. Instead it has to do with a shattering of pace. … It is no different for a game when it speeds up. Simply, it becomes harder to play. Offense, defense, team skills, individual skills; with less time for each, each must be done more quickly … And if we don’t find enough time, if the game moves too fast for its patterns and skills, it loses its coordination and breaks down.

Speed in baseball is reflected through the speed of the baseball itself, both in leaving the pitcher’s hand and the hitter’s bat. As players have grown, and the three true outcomes wrestle for baseball dominance, the volatility of offense has led to a slower game. The quickening line shifts in hockey have a parallel to the endless bullpen arms, paraded out to expend their ammunition immediately, then retreat. Eventually, this dominant strategy of waiting must run into some form of legislation.

This is the fate of all sports: not only the pace of hockey, but the introduction of the 35-second and then the 24-second shot clock in basketball, the 35-second huddle in football and then the discovered benefits of avoiding the huddle altogether. Faster pass-rushers begetting quicker passing games, athletic guards creating fast break offenses. Sports always adjust. Even the hitter in baseball has been cramped in his decision-making time by the incrementing velocities of fastballs. Only the pitcher, among American professional athletes, is given theoretically unlimited time to perform his task, allowed to size up and perform exactly to the utmost of his abilities.

But this privilege is likely doomed. Because in other sports, the fans have compromised perfection for the sake of pace, abandoned the same idealized sport that Dryden laments. Instead, the virtue is not in perfection but in performance under duress. As games have sped up, decision-making time decreases, mistakes get made. On an episode of Effectively Wild a while back, Russell A. Carleton came to the same conclusion: that the pressures of a pitch clock could result in less prepared pitching. This in itself isn’t a problem; pitching under pressure, managing one’s mental energies toward the next pitch, would just become another trait, another way that some pitchers would excel. But the actual, visible product would be diminished, no longer an ideal.

These compromises get made all the time. Playoff structure is a good example: leagues have generally expanded playoff spots to increase drama, at the cost of victory being less representative of overall dominance. Player safety often requires some level of restriction over play. The cynicist can predict these conflicts by the resulting effect on league income, in the present or future tense; the cynicist would often be correct.

But when it comes to pace there’s something deeper at play than just speeding up a game (and why reducing ad times, beyond the obvious reason, was never on the table.) Compare a first-season episode of The Simpsons, in terms of its pacing and editing, to one 20 years later. Fire up a noir film from the 40s and count off the seconds until literally anything happens. (The acceleration of film is yet another reason why Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho felt so terribly wrong in its modern trappings.) It’s not so much that baseball is slowing down than that we are all speeding up. There are those who enjoy baseball for this very anachronistic feeling—I am among them—but we as a demographic are getting older.

Manfred’s task will not be changing baseball’s pace, which he could do with the click of a gold-plated pen. It will be to manage it, to foresee the unforeseeable consequences that accompany every rule change and evolution in sport: the transfer rule in baseball, the sticking and roughing penalties in hockey that allowed the slow teams to combat the quick. Will pitch clocks create too many meatballs, or crossed signals and passed balls? Will it lead to worsening mechanics and more arm injuries? These are the questions to be asking. Because the pitch clock is inevitable, and with it someday the batter’s box clock. The bullpen cart will return, and given 200 horsepower. We won’t have time to wait.

Thanks to Pat Holden for his assistance in preparing this article.

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

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