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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.

I feel less sure, but am willing to speculate, that it would ameliorate the particular problem it ostensibly stands to address much less than some believe. The modern game is centered on velocity and power. Changing the shape or size of the strike zone might change the run environment drastically, but I doubt that it would significantly decrease the global (strikeouts plus walks) rate, shorten plate appearances, or increase the number of interesting balls in play.

I have a different proposal. I’m by no means more certain of its efficacy, and there could be unforeseen consequences here, too. Still, I think it’s a more measured (and perhaps a more broadly useful) step. It’s also pretty simple. Here’s the rule: no pitcher can pitch on back-to-back days.

Pitching on zero days’ rest is bad for your arm. That’s a fact with which we’re all pretty comfortable, right? Relievers who pitch two, three, or even four days in a row inevitably look tired and usually lose effectiveness, and the risk of injury increases when they do that with any consistency. That alone is almost reason enough for the players to approve this kind of change. Sure, the rule would cut into the ability of closers to rack up saves, and that would marginally affect their pre-free agency earning potential, but they'd probably make back whatever they lost in that regard by being healthier and more likely to reach free agency without a cadaver’s UCL in their arms.

Obviously, however, the change wouldn't be primarily about limiting pitcher injuries. It'd be aimed at improving the pace of play during late innings. This rule would decrease the frequency of pitching changes after the starter’s departure. It would encourage more relievers to pitch multiple innings, forcing them to consider their own stamina, focus more on throwing strikes, and focus less on striking batters out. It would mean fresher pitchers in the game during the final few innings of most contests, which would probably lead to less time between pitches.

There's really no reason why a pitcher ought to pitch on consecutive days, other than the fact that it's always been done that way. That’s not to mention that it used to be done that way a whole lot less often than it is now. In 2016, 6.7 percent of all batters faced were faced by pitchers appearing in at least their second straight game. In 1996, that number was 5.8 percent. In 1986, it was 5.5 percent. In 1976, it was 4.8 percent. The increased tendency to call upon pitchers who are tired and might not have their best stuff, and then to replace them with another such pitcher as soon as a batter against whom they lose the platoon advantage comes to the plate, is a factor in the perceptibly slower pace of taut games.

I’m not in favor of explicitly limiting pitching changes within a game or inning. That level of artifice would be felt too deeply, would change the way baseball works at the most crucial points of so many games. This rule would do that too, but in a smaller way, and (this, I think, is important) in a way we already know how to conceptualize and talk about. Responsible teams consider certain relievers “down” on many nights throughout the season, protecting them from overuse by making them unavailable if they’ve recently been worked hard. This rule would just take the ambiguity out of that decision-making process.

It often seems to me that the hardest thing for those who spend a lot of time seeking pace-of-game fixes to accept is that their ideal version of the game is irretrievably lost, forever. We’re not going back to games that routinely come in around two-and-a-half hours, absent radical changes to baseball that hardly anyone could stomach. Expertly played baseball, between teams loaded with expensively developed, intricate and valuable information, by exceptional athletes who put full effort into every pitch and play, is a fast and exciting game. It’s just that that speed and excitement is confined to the time between the lifting of the pitcher’s stride leg and the end of the play (sometimes less than a second, and hardly ever more than 15 seconds).

In between pitches and batters, there’s a little more recovery and reset time required in the modern game. A delivered pitch takes a bit more out of the body, and planning out the next one takes a bit more methodical work. A good, hard swing requires a half-step out of the box, a stretch of the muscles so perfectly coordinated to maximize bat speed, and a minute exercise done to refocus the eyes. These are the marks of players who have honed their craft and tuned their bodies to ensure that they never give away a pitch, never give the opponent an inch. They take a bit more time than past generations’ less scientific, less complex, less explosive ways of doing things.

That can’t be undone. What we can do, instead, is to respond to that shift in the game in small ways, inviting players and teams to train themselves as much as possible to play a clean, energetic game, and discouraging small pieces of strategy or brinksmanship that cost more in time and hassle than they yield in win probability. The effects will be small, but positive. Better that than large effects of undetermined valence and unpredictable magnitude.

Thank you for reading

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jnossal
2/15
You said it yourself, the TV breaks are longer. MLB is trying to outmaneuver a TV time Laffer curve. Rather than acknowledge that longer TV breaks produce diminishing (or negative) returns due to reduced interest in the product as a result of longer, slower games, MLB is going to try to beat the system by changing the rules of the game itself. Good luck as ever to anyone who thinks they can defy the forces of nature and economics and not pay the price. I'll personally be appalled if fundamental changes are made to the game in order to accommodate another 30-second Doritos spot. Forget the purist aspect. MLB has already shot themselves in the foot by increasing ad time between innings. Does it not occur to them that further damage may be done by changing the game itself? That by artificially speeding up the game, they'll risk further alienation of the fan base, with a accompanying loss of revenue greater than that if they'd just cut a 60-sec spot between half-innings? Look at the NFL for how this turns out. More TV timeouts, more ads, more sponsors, but declining viewership for three straight years. Do they address the root cause of those issues? Or does the NFL instead try to gimmick the on-field product by changing the PAT rule, kickoffs, celebration penalties, out of bounds clock rules, liberalized passing rules, 2-point conversions, new OT rules, etc, etc, etc. With multiple annual rule changes, pro football today bears practically no resemblance to the game from the 1970s. Instead, NFL games have more in common with artificial made-for-TV competitions like "Wipeout" or "American Ninja". Is that what you want done to baseball?
lmarighi
2/15
I'm not sure if I want to see your proposed rule change implemented, Matthew, but I appreciated the discussion of rule changes generally, and the specifics of these proposals. Thanks for taking the time to craft a thoughtful argument.
mattyjames1
2/15
"There's really no reason why a pitcher ought to pitch on consecutive days, other than the fact that it's always been done that way" Seriously? Come on. This isn't Little League.
mattyjames1
2/15
goo.gl/lFz96Ucontent_copyCopy short URL I found 404 pitchers that threw on no days rest just last year. The main offender was Brad Hand at 29, but there's over 100 guys who pulled off the "feat" at least a dozen times. I don't know where I'm getting at with this, but I think your suggestion isn't really all that feasible. Just judging by the teams they players pitch for, it looks like every single MLB team has a guy they like to use 2 out of 3 days. I don't think the players union (or the teams) want to see that position eliminated. Maybe. Maybe...... if you were to add a roster spot this would make more sense. But to add a roster spot just for 30 more mop up pitchers that weren't good enough for the original 25 man roster seems super counter-intuitive to having more exciting games. I want MORE of Kenley, Osuna, and Betances please.
mattyjames1
2/15
I am an idiot at copy paste (and probably at other things) Thank you for the article, Matt. I did like it a lot. https://goo.gl/lFz96U
Brukruu
2/16
I like the idea, more thoughts and ideas are what we need, and boy would managers earn their money then. Things would be crazy! Say Aroldis closes the last game of a series against say the Twins (sorry Minnesota), with a three game set coming up against the Redsox with the division on the line, goin in the Bosox would know Chapman could only pitch one out of the three games! Man it would really make the managers and numbers crunchers have to think even more opening up even more analytics. Yeah maybe the idea needs tweeked, but I really think it brings old and new school baseball together. Nice work.