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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.

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tearecrules
2/14
I think the elephant in the room for "pace of play" or "length of game" in any of the US professional sports leagues is television (NFL, I'm looking right at you). I'm sorry, but pitch clocks, pitching change time limits, etc are nibbling around the edges. If MLB wants the game to go faster they need to deal with their broadcasters larding up the screen time (ESPN, I'm looking right at you now).
kcshankd
2/14
IMO what kills a game's pace is the endless string of pitching changes after the 6th. Give a manager a max # of pitching subs, let's say four. You get four pitchers per 9 innings. If a game goes into extras, you get one extra substitution every two innings. There will have to be an injury exception, so with this caveat: if you pull a guy b/c he is 'injured', and he doesn't go on the DL, you get 3 subs for the next week. I'd also end the replay coordinator role - a manager can immediately challenge a close play determined by his own eyes, not those of the video guy in the clubhouse.
tearecrules
2/14
This would be a great way to find just how much power the LOOGY Looby has within the MLBPA.
Grasul
2/14
Is there any substantiation at all for the second paragraph?
euqubudhp
2/14
As the paragraph admits, the idea is too new for rigorous poll numbers to surface. But already the idea has seen serious editorial backlash, and given the relative absence of complaints about extra innings length before last week (as opposed to, say, beer prices or ticket prices or blackouts), I don't think it's an entirely unsafe proposition.
tearecrules
2/14
Extra baseball is exciting; both teams get their chance and it doesn't end until a complete extra part of the game has been played. If they must change the extra innings rules in some effort to shorten the time commitment I'd recommend going to a home-run derby after 3 extra innings. Treat it like a shootout in hockey or soccer.
Tarakas
2/14
I do not mind extra inning games--I have never seen them as a problem. But the steady increase in the length of baseball games has caused them simply not to work for me. I like baseball, but I simply don't have the time it takes to watch a game on television too often. I certainly can't devote the time it takes in a week to play a whole post season series.
bhacking
2/14
Exactly. It's a good article but for this fan and many others that I know the length of time IS the key problem in the game today. I'd suggest this is clearly the case for fans under the age of 30.
asekoonce
2/14
The pitch clock proposal would do little to change the length of the games. The primary reason games are so much longer now is the length of commercial breaks between half innings. My (admittedly unscientific) calculation is that the increase in commercials has added at least two minutes to each half-inning break since I first started watching games in the 1960s. For a full 9 inning game, that's an extra 34 (=2x17) minutes. If the Powers That Be want shorter games and they are not going to have shorter breaks between half innings, then a restriction on pitching changes is probably the only way to make it happen. That, or go back to the higher mound and larger strike zone of the 1960s: fewer base runners would definitely mean shorter games.
tearecrules
2/15
Yup. It's that time every half inning that drags out the game. Watching on TV it's not necessairly clear, but when you're at the game there's a good 15-30 seconds each half inning where it's clear the players and umpires are in position, but the action doesn't start because they're waiting for the broadcast to come out of commercial. That happens, what, 16 times a game?
TheRedsMan
2/15
Game length has increased first and foremost because the way the game is played has changed. MLB wants to fix the problem without doing anything to undo or counteract those changes. Stop granting players timeout whenever they want (batters, baserunners, pitchers/catchers) and enforce delay penalties with balls and strikes. Stop having managers be the bottleneck in the replay system (booth reviews). Greatly reduce the mid-inning pitching change by requiring at least 3 batters faced. Limit managers to 1 mound visit per inning (if that... 3 per game?). Sure, I'd love to see shorter commercial breaks. But I can deal with doing something else for 3 or 4 minutes instead of 2. What I can't take is sitting there watching the crowd or watching players mill around waiting for the pitcher to decide he's going to pitch again or the batter adjust all 17 pieces of protective gear he's wearing. Just play the darn game already. This can be fixed and it's not complicated.