By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s late February now, which means the pace of play in Major League Baseball is obviously hitting the sports news cycle. It’s become an annual rite of spring: the smell of the fresh cut grass, the sound of the ball popping in the leather, that sweet crack of the bat, and the endless debates about how baseball games can be shortened.
In case you missed it, here are the “rule changes” for 2018:
–Teams are now limited to six mound visits per nine innings. That includes coaches talking to pitchers as well as catchers going out to the mound. Umpires can grant catchers an extra visit if the umpire “believes there has been a cross-up between the pitcher and catcher.”
–MLB will more strictly enforce the 2:05 breaks between innings for local broadcasts (2:25 for national broadcasts). That also applies to pitching changes.
–New communication lines have been put into place to expedite the process of a team challenging a play. Teams’ replay rooms will have slow-motion camera angles available, and staffers will have a direct line to the dugout to allow managers to more quickly decide if they should challenge a play.
And that sweeping change right there … wow. That ought to shorten games by at least 250 seconds next season. Could be huge.
The intentions may be good, but the ratio of “number headlines generated from this news” to “actual impact on the game” is just way off. These changes are just late-February PR. The games in 2018 will be damn-near identical to games in 2017, games in 2016, and games in 2015.
And now, here are one man’s thoughts about MLB’s pace of play “problems.” You can take them or leave them for whatever they are worth. My qualifications for opining are the same as yours: I watch hundreds upon hundreds of hours of baseball from April through early November, and along the way, I develop some thoughts.
–My initial reaction whenever I hear people discussing this “dire need” for baseball to speed up its play is one of disgust. My solution? Keep baseball the exact same. Heck, let’s slow it down a little just to weed out the people who don’t really care much for the sport. Go and watch “Slamball,” you dang whippersnappers. Let’s allow those who enjoy baseball to continue enjoying baseball, and let’s bid a hearty adieu to those who don’t enjoy baseball. It’s really no sweat off my back if Bobby America chooses to watch “Stranger Things” instead of a Tigers-Rangers midweek May matchup. I’ve got no skin in the game, and I’ve got nothing to lose. Hey, maybe I’d be able to get some better seats, too.
I recognize, though, that that’s not exactly “big picture” thinking. I understand that as a business, MLB needs to appeal to as large an audience as possible. It needs to show growth and it needs to appeal to a younger audience if it wants to sustain those big-bucks TV deals and keep the advertising dollars rolling in. That’s what business in America is all about, baby! So, yes, I do accept the fact that some changes can and will be made.
–The big story this year seemed to be that there was no rule about adding a pitch clock. People seem upset that there’s no pitch clock. I think people are infatuated with the idea of a pitch clock, because it makes so much sense. But in practice, I don’t think it’s even close to being as effective as many hope.
I’m not a big-time minor league guy, but I did go to a Sea Dogs game last year and I saw the pitch clock in action. The most bizarre rule regarding the pitch clock is that if runners are on base, then … pitchers … can step off the mound … and reset the clock. So … yeah. Cool.
It’s also not entirely useful to implement such a mechanism in the minors. Again, I’m only watching a small handful of minor league games per year, but in my experience, those aren’t the players who commit the commonly maligned actions that impact pace of play. Batters generally step into the batter’s box quickly, and pitchers generally receive the ball from the catcher and get back to work. There are exceptions, obviously, but generally you’re not seeing too many guys big-league their way through minor league games.
All of that being said, the pitch clock in the minors does not at all ruin the experience, as many old-timers worry. If you’re not looking for it, you don’t even really notice it. And the clocks apparently did shorten up the minor league games by a few minutes. So I’m not wholly anti-pitch clock, but I’m not entirely convinced that a pitch clock is the savior that baseball needs.
–You know what would actually help the game? If a pitcher attempts a pickoff of a runner who’s standing only a few feet from the bag in a clear attempt to just waste everybody’s time? Incarcerate that pitcher. Send him to prison. Seven days in jail. There’s no better deterrent.
–If you’re older than, say, 27 years old, then you clearly remember the heyday of Nomar Garciaparra. During his rise to stardom, he was ripped mercilessly on the radio, in the stands, on TV and in print for his laborious routine of adjusting his batting gloves between every pitch. It was a very big deal! It made people very mad. How dare this man do this on my time!
But if you ever go back and watch a Nomar at-bat in an old game, he looks like someone who might have the shortest between-pitch routine in MLB if he were playing right now.
Just watch (25:18 mark, in case technology fails us) between the 1-0 and the 2-0 pitch here.
Garciaparra takes ball two down and away, steps out of the box with his front foot, adjusts his gloves, then steps back into the box. It all takes less than six seconds.
Compare that to a David Ortiz at-bat from the 2013 playoffs. He takes a ball down and away, then goes for a walk, taps his spikes, spits, adjusts various elbow pads and body parts, fills out a few squares on his Sodoku puzzle, undergoes his annual physical examination, logs some receipts for his expense report, steeps a cup of tea, and then digs back into the box. It all takes 15-20 seconds.
That to me shows how bad baseball has gotten in terms of wasting time. And it’s not just power hitters like Ortiz who are to blame; seemingly 90 percent of big leaguers like to get in some steps for their FitBit between every pitch. Tack on an extra five or 10 seconds to every pitch, and you’re adding between 20-30 minutes of absolutely nothing to every game.
–Is there an easy solution to that? Well, not really. But here is by far my most outside the box — and potentially insane — suggestion yet. What if baseball takes a page out of football’s book and adds speakers inside batting helmets?
I know, I know, I know. I know!
When MLB pushed its new “rule” to prevent batters from leaving the box between pitches, Ortiz protested vehemently when talking to the media. He explained that he’s not just walking around for his own health; he’s actually processing a wealth of information gained from video study on pitchers’ tendencies in certain situations. Certainly, when you’re recalling what Alex Cobb generally throws in a 2-0 count with a runner on first, it might take a second or two.
But what if someone in the dugout, armed with all of this information, can quickly speak into a headset and say, “Cobb either goes with an outside fastball or a change down and in here” as soon as a ball or a strike is called. Boom, technology just sped up the game and eliminated the excuse of needing to take a Sunday stroll after every pitch.
And hey, to balance it out, put one in the pitcher’s hat, too. (Actually, give that man a helmet. The fact that the only protective gear on pitchers’ heads is a thin layer of wool is utterly insane. But that’s another story for another day.)
And of course, in a sport where sign stealing is part of the fabric of the game, you could just cut off communications after, say, 5 seconds. That way, communication would be cut off (as it is in the NFL when the play clock hits 15 seconds) before the catcher ever gives a signal. And in the case of a manager like Mike Scioscia, we don’t even need the catcher to give a signal anymore! Just let ol’ Mikey Grumpface deliver it straight to his pitcher’s ear!
This idea is actually quite terrible, but I’m glad I really played it out to its fullest extent. If you want to see somebody’s head actually physically explode in front of your eyes, send this idea to your printer and show it someone older than 65 years old.
–I’m very hesitant to give MORE power to umpires, and you should be too. I mean, have you ever seen umpires? They are the worst. The pits. They wore wristbands last year to show support for themselves … because they get yelled at sometimes. Very tragic. They are so brave!
You start empowering them to hand out balls and strikes based on weird, random occurrences that don’t involve pitch location (they struggle enough with pitch location as is), and it will beget more problems than it’s worth. I can already see Bob Davidson sticking out his chest and thumping around the home plate area because he got to call a strike on a batter whose foot had not completely re-entered the batter’s box after an unofficial count to five. (I know Bob Davidson is retired, but if you don’t think he’d find a way to get back into umpiring now that he can wield more power than ever bfore, then you’re nuts.)
–One solution that makes too much sense: Institute a minimum number of batters faced for every pitcher who enters the game. Really, if you watch enough baseball, you see that starting pitchers — aside from maybe Clay Buchholz types — are not really the problem. Starting pitchers know they have to throw 100-plus pitches, and they’re out there to last for six or more innings. They have a lot of work to do.
Really, it’s the relievers. Their entire profession requires them to wait around for 150 minutes, play catch in the bullpen, jog to the mound, and then face one batter.
That man is going to MILK IT. He’s going to take a lot of deep breaths. He is going to take his glove off, rub that baseball and then rub it some more. Is that a rosin bag? GRABBING IT! Also grabbing the brim of that hat. Gotta get that grip. Wait, what sign was that? I was too busy rubbing my fingers through my wet, curly, luscious hair.
You get the point.
Let’s do these guys a favor and simultaneously improve the product. Make it a rule so that a pitcher has to face at least two batters before coming out of the game for anything other than injury. Yeah, managers lose their right-right/left-left strategy, but it adds a new level of strategy and reduces tedious pitching changes. It’ll add drama, too. If a reliever comes in and walks his guy on four pitches to put runners on the corners with one out, now he has to get out of it instead of heading to the showers. The game becomes more of a game. It’s me vs. you, that guy vs. this guy. A real game. Guys can handle pitching to more than one batter. I promise.
–Time to come clean: I played the tough guy role in the first point in that I said “IF YOU DON’T LIKE BASEBALL YOU CAN GO AHEAD AND BUZZ OFF BECAUSE BASEBALL IS PERFECT!” But, well, even as an ardent baseball lover, I’ll still throw on a program or two in the middle of the game, and then catch up on innings three through six on the DVR. And to be honest, catching up on the DVR is probably the most wonderful part of watching the game. No commercials, no mound visits, no replay reviews. Maybe MLB should just force everyone to start watching 7 p.m. games at 8 p.m.? Man, I am really good at solving problems.
–On replay reviews, those just need to be shorter. It’s hard to find exact numbers, but in early 2016, replays took an average of two minutes. That’s too long.
If you watch multiple angles of high-definition, slow-motion video, and you can’t tell within 15 seconds whether the call was “correct” or not, then you need to go with what the human being on the field called. That’s a rule that should apply to all sports, but certainly should apply to baseball. Replay review in baseball should fix the Jim Joyce/Armando Galarraga perfect game call, of Phil Cuzzi’s magnificent foul call, or Tim Welke’s historically terrible call at first base. It should overturn obvious blunders, and it should overturn calls that were more difficult to make in real-time.
But if three looks at slow-mo replays with super-zoom technology and the like can’t tell you the answer, then you need to stop searching.
–Side note: Can we also stop forcing some nerd to hold the box that allows for the communication with the replay office? That’s always just a sad sight to see, some nerd, holding a box, standing near umpires.
Get a job, nerd!
(I know he’s probably a communications expert. Whatever. We have cell phones now. They work fine. The New York office can just send the umpire a text. Hey, send it via Snapchat, put a wacky filter on it to draw in the youth, and have the whole thing sponsored. My goodness I just keep coming up with solution after solution after solution.)
–Some people want to start innings beyond the ninth with a runner on second base. These people stink. OK, maybe they’re fine people and everything, but this idea stinks out loud. Did you watch when the World Baseball Classic did this? Every inning that started with a runner on second base also ended up starting with a sacrifice bunt. The innings might have well just started with a runner on third and one out. At that point, you’re waiting for … a batter to just hit a fly ball to score a run. Wee!
That’s not fun. Let them play real baseball for a while. They’re adults, they can handle it.
Plus, every baseball fan can tell you about the one time they were a kid and they stuck it out for 17 innings one day. It’s a rare occasion, and it becomes an event. Remember in 2011 or so when Tom Werner and John Henry were handing out free hot chocolate when an early season game stretched well past midnight? It was a moment. It’s fine. If you don’t want to watch any innings after the 13th, you can go to sleep. But there’s something uniquely baseball about watching one of those 18-inning marathons. They don’t happen frequently enough to warrant the addition of some silly rules about automatic base runners.
–I feel like MLB didn’t really think through their new mound visit rule, which was instituted to speed up the game:
(Thinking face emoji.)
–The league has also focused on keeping a strict clock between innings, but what about between at-bats? We’re wasting 20 seconds as some big-leaguer big-leagues his way to the box, with some terrible country song blaring over the speakers. Let’s pick it up a little, people!
I don’t know what kind of time limit you want to enforce to get that guy into the batter’s box, but if you can shave even five seconds off every plate appearance, you can trim 5-10 minutes off the game.
–Limiting mound visits is actually a great idea. There was a Red Sox-Yankees game last year when Gary Sanchez wore out a path to the mound. It was madness. That’s not good for the sport. I understand that pitchers and catchers like to be on the exact same page, but to get back to an earlier point, this is a game. In many ways, the game has become some sort of master equation where every decision and action needs to be perfectly planned out in advance. But a rule limiting mound visits might get the sport back to being a game. Someone throws it, someone tries to hit it, and the cosmos of the galaxy can decide who wins. I’m for the mound visit limit.
I just have my doubts about how this “rule” can be policed. Much like a couple of years ago, when it became “illegal” for batters to step out of the box between pitches, I feel like the enforcement of this “rule” may be completely forgotten by mid-May.
–All of this being said, there is something to be said about the building of momentum and drama. In big moments of big games, the drama can often build like a locomotive, rumbling along, pitch-by-pitch, with the intensity growing in the spaces between. It’s part of what makes baseball so unique. You could flip on a playoff hockey game and instantly see the frenetic pace and the insane energy. But to fully experience playoff baseball and to fully feel the intensity, you have to be locked in for the entirety of an inning.
If you’ve ever attended a high-stakes playoff game, you now this. It’s heavy. It’s unrelenting. It builds. And when something happens — like, say, a Shane Victorino grand slam? There’s no way to properly describe the mayhem and the surge of raw emotion that instantly follows.
That drama is real. And all of this time-wasting that we complain about? It actually enhances the drama in certain situations.
–Lastly, what all too often gets lost in these discussions is the simple fact that baseball is not a fast-paced sport. It cannot be a fast-paced sport. Just like golf or maybe even cricket (I’m convinced that nobody understands the rules of cricket), baseball is kind of a slow sport. It takes a fraction of a second for a pitch to get from the mound to the plate, and the longest a ball is ever in the air is maybe a few seconds. No matter what you do, there’s going to be a lot of waiting around.
It’s a sport where guys sit around, sweat, spit tobacco, engineer magnificent ways to spit sunflower seeds in marvelous helicopter-like fashion, talk about nothing, spit some more, and waste hour after hour, day after day, night after night, week after week at the ballpark. That’s the sport. It’s the best.
Regardless of which minor rule changes you implement, there’s really no getting around that. It’s always kind of bubbling beneath the surface of these discussions. Baseball is baseball. People can try and try and try to speed it up. But if you want to watch it, you better set aside some time. It’s going to take a while.