February 15, 2017
A Day of Rest
Word on the street is that Major League Baseball, in its infinite wisdom, and with its spotless track record of measured, smart reforms that anticipate the many possible consequences, is ready to make fairly radical changes to the game itself in the name of improving pace of play. Starting extra innings with a runner on second base is on the table. A change to the strike zone (specifically, a raising of it) is on the table. The four-toss intentional walk is all but doomed.
The first and third of those reforms are aimed at decreasing the sheer length of games, which is not really the primary problem the league is trying to solve. Games take longer than they did even 10 years ago, and the frequency of games ending in under two hours and 45 minutes has fallen by nearly half during that time, but there hasn’t been nearly that degree of increase in games lasting longer than three-and-a-half hours.
More importantly, the main driver of increased game length has nothing to do with the game on the field. It’s more and longer commercial breaks. Every break takes a full minute longer than the equivalent break in the early 1990s. If the average game length has increased by 30 minutes over the last 25 years, you can reasonably assign about two-thirds of that to extra beer ads. If MLB is serious about making games shorter from end to end, they’ll give back some TV money and shorten those interruptions in the action. (They aren’t serious about it and won’t do that.)
The real issue pace-of-play hawks are and should be focused on is the pace of action, and that’s what the proposed reshaping of the strike zone gestures toward fixing. The theory behind it is that raising the zone will increase hitters’ willingness to swing and increase their rate of contact when they do swing. Whether or not that would work, we’ll probably never know, because the players are overwhelmingly unlikely to accept this idea. What I feel sure of is that the league has not undertaken a serious study, or even a sufficiently rigorous thought exercise, to determine what unforeseen consequences that kind of change might have.