(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
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
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
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.