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April 27, 2001
Speeding Up The Game, Dilbert Style
(Ed. note: BP co-founder and starting second baseman Gary Huckabay launches a new column this week. Look for 6-4-3 here at Baseball Prospectus Online every Friday.)
When it comes to any organized endeavor, there are a number of things that can cause a much-deserved sinking feeling in the pit of one's stomach. In baseball, the list of these things can include some items not found in traditional or new-line businesses. The three worst words in baseball might be "Doctor James Andrews" or "World Champion Giants," depending on your personal preferences and the context around these phrases. The mere utterance of these words may cause furious fits of apoplexy.
But what I'm thinking about today is that moment of horrible realization when your team, be it in software development, manufacturing, or a bullpen, realizes that there might not be any connection between what they're working on and the goals of the larger organization as a whole.
This kind of Dilbert moment happens to the best and worst organizations, on scales both large and small. And it's happening right now in major-league baseball. Baseball has once again identified a problem that didn't really need solving, and is undertaking a solution that will be harmless if it doesn't take, and potentially brutal if it goes as its architects envision.
For the last few seasons, there have been cries in the press, from baseball insiders and outsiders, that baseball games have gotten too long. The cries have been similar in pitch to those heard in the realm of religion. "Nearly three hours? For a ball game? This is ridiculous! Scores are too high! 7-5 games should be the exception, not the rule! When Bob Gibson pitched, by God, he could fan 15 Dodgers in under two hours!"
True or not, MLB has responded to the cries by trying to take steps to speed up games. Some of these steps make a lot of sense--having the bat boy have a second bat already in hand is an easy, logical, and effective way to eliminate a particular type of delay. Other measures are drastic ones that directly affect the quality of the game on the field, such as the most recent (and most serious) attempt to change the strike zone in an attempt to "bring some balance back," or "give pitchers a fair chance."
Let's start with the premise that games are too long, and should be shorter. Why is this important? Well, good question. One of the most common arguments brought up is adherence with the needs of broadcasters. Mark Wolfson, who has spent his career producing broadcasts for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A's, points out that "the games are longer because we've expanded the commercial time between innings. We've added 30 seconds to each half-inning, and that's nearly 10 minutes a game right there. In the postseason, which is where most people get their impressions about televised baseball, there's even more time between innings, as well as an announced starting time that's well before the start of the game--so more ads can be be shown."
If you have one goal of speeding up the total time of the telecast, and another goal of displaying more ads, that means less baseball. Even with the tweaking at the margins like enforcing allotted time between pitches, that's not a good thing.
What are the reasons for wanting to shorten baseball games? Off the top of my head, I can't see the appeal for MLB. Attendance is strong, despite the incessant shrieking from certain ownership fractions. Cries of "Attendance is flat! The world is ending!" don't really have much gravitas when prices are increasing significantly. There's not a business owner out there who wouldn't take flat volume if they could double their prices over a short timespan and control their costs. (This sentence included specifically to solicit easy targets for a future Mailbag.) Longer games mean more opportunities for patrons to purchase items at the concession and souvenir stands, and provide greater value for the advertisers who have purchased space in the ballpark. These things mean more top-line revenue to the ballclub.
It may be desirable to shorten games, but I certainly don't see it, at least from MLB's perspective. The ratings for games have not demonstrated growth, but that's a trend throughout mainstream television. In many markets, baseball games have retained a greater audience than the network affiliates as a whole, as the world slowly moves towards DirecTV and away from only five channels to choose from.
So where does the Dilbert moment come in? Right in the strike zone. On April 18, Ryan Dempster and Tom Glavine were innocent contributors to a great performance by home-plate umpire Gary Cederstrom, who allowed only one run on 8 hits in 17 innings of work. Cederstrom expanded the strike zone beautifully, allowing up to nine inches off the plate to be included in the zone, as well as at least six brand new inches above the batter's belt. Instead of being a catalyst for the confrontation between batter and pitcher, the strike zone became a safe haven for pitchers.
Cederstrom found himself performing some relatively low-level task with a stated goal of improving the game by shortening game times. The relationship between that task (enforcing the new strike zone) and its stated purpose--improving the overall health and welfare of the game--is simply not clear. Yes, it's early, and yes, the intensely boring Florida/Atlanta game is only one data point, but there needs to be a clear reason for everything that's done in an organization. Otherwise, it shouldn't be undertaken.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for a strike zone that includes the sub-nippular. But I want the 26" wide plate to be a thing of the past as part of that change. And trying to decrease offense as a way to improve MLB is completely disconnected. The game has got better players, better fans, and better exposure than ever. Sepia tones lie.
Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.