You may not believe it, but there was a time when a Major League Baseball game could be played in under three hours. Sometimes, games were even completed in just over two hours. I know. I saw it happen many times.
While the way baseball is played has changed little over the years, how it’s managed has turned what were once leisurely-paced games into endless, boring slogs. Analytics, video analysis, appeals, and other strategic shifts have led to longer at-bats, more pitching changes, and longer games. Strike-outs have soared, offense has plunged, and baseball games now take longer than ever. And that doesn’t even mention the stupidity and annoyance of the now-requisite “walk-up music.”
As attendance is flagging and TV viewership is dropping, Major League Baseball’s competition committee recently approved some rule changes to address those pace-of-game issues. While they won’t go into effect until next season, they’re designed to improve and speed up the flow of games. But will they work? Let’s look at each new rule and see.
The Pitch Clock
The addition of a pitch clock is in response to the extended time taken by both pitchers and batters between actual pitches. Pitchers will now have 15 seconds to begin their throwing motions with the bases empty and 20 seconds to pitch with men on base. Pitchers who don’t begin their motion before the clock expires will be assessed a ball. Batters who fail to be in the box and “alert to the pitcher” after eight seconds will be charged with a strike by the umpire.
In addition, pitchers can now step off the rubber twice per plate appearance for either pickoff attempts or any other reason. A pitcher who steps off more than twice will be assessed a balk unless an out is recorded on a runner.
The pitch clock and step-off limits have been tested in the minor leagues and the results have been dramatic. According to MLB, minor league game times went from an average of 3:04 to 2:38 with pitch timers in use. But with every major league game televised and requiring more, longer commercial breaks, the results of a pitch clock in the big leagues may not be so dramatic.
The Shift Ban
For the longest time, Ted Williams was the only hitter in baseball history who merited having opposing players shift to one side of the infield during his at-bats. Williams was such a strong pull hitter that opposing managers would often shift the shortstop to the other side of second base to narrow Williams’s gaps and dare him to hit to the opposite field. However, as analytics revealed more tendencies of modern-day players, managers began employing “The Shift” more often, especially against left-handed batters.
Now, MLB has effectively banned the shift by requiring two infielders between first and second and second and third. In addition, all infielders will now be required to be standing on the infield dirt when the pitcher steps on the rubber. The rationale behind banning the shift is to create more offense by allowing more ground balls to turn into base hits. However, in an age where some batters strike out at the same ratio they get on base, banning the shift may not juice offense.
Enlarging The Bases
The cynic in me says that increasing the size of bases from 15” square to 18” is a crass attempt by MLB to sell more advertising space. However, the stated rationale is to reduce collisions, and the potential for injury, at first base. MLB also noted that larger bases, together with limitations on pickoff moves, could increase game action by encouraging more stolen bases.
As athletes are bigger and more athletic than in the past, hopefully, larger bases will reduce the risk of collisions between fielders and base runners. And a larger base means fielders will have more base to block from would-be base stealers. But will an additional 3” of base actually encourage more steal attempts? I wouldn’t be too sure.
While the baseball traditionalist may howl in protest at these unorthodox new rules, they can only help what has become a painfully dull, analog game in the fast-moving digital age. But whether they’re effective and help increase attendance and viewership remains to be seen. Like the analytics and over-analysis that are causing the problems, the effectiveness of the new MLB rules won’t be known until we see the data.
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