The biggest story of the offseason has been the storm that continues to brew between Major League Baseball and the players’ union, manifesting itself in a whole training camp’s worth of free agents that have yet to be signed. The discontent between the two sides has spilled into a matter that has flown under the radar somewhat this offseason: pace of play negotiations.
Rob Manfred believes baseball has a pace of play problem and cites the ever-lengthening average time of a game, up about 20 minutes from 15 years ago. Last month, it seemed like MLB was going to unilaterally implement a 20-second pitch clock after the players’ union rejected Rob Manfred’s original pace of play proposal.
However, we have now learned what pace of play changes will be implemented in 2018; they include limiting non-pitching change mound visits and set times for inning breaks and pitching changes. While reducing mound visits may seem like a good idea on the surface (Who wants to waste 30 seconds of their evening just to watch Jose Reyes reassure Matt Harvey he’s doing a good job, smack him on the bum, and walk away?), there are two big issues here. Firstly, it doesn’t seem like there will be real consequences for violating this rule. And secondly, it doesn’t actually address the problem.
Grant Brisbee wrote an excellent article comparing two very similar baseball games, one from 1984 and one from 2014 in order to truly pinpoint where extra game time was coming from. Seriously, quit reading this right now and go read that if you haven’t—the 1984 game is a Mets game!
From his fun experiment, he concluded:
Based on one unscientific deep dive into a pair of similar games, though, the biggest problem with the pace of play is, well, the pace of play. Pitchers don’t get rid of the ball like they used to. Hitters aren’t expecting them to get rid of the ball like they used to. It adds a couple minutes to every half-inning, which adds close to a half-hour.
The obvious fix for this would seemingly be the aforementioned pitch clock, which baseball is still interested in implementing, but not right now.
MLB’s latest pace-of-play proposal, per sources: No pitch clock in ‘18. If games are 2:55 or longer, 18-second clock for ‘19 with no runners on base starting May 1, with ball-strike penalty. If in ‘19 games are 2:50 or longer, additional 20-second clock with runners on in ‘20.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) February 1, 2018
There is, of course, a problem with the pitch clock, too. The players hate the idea. And they haven’t been afraid to say so.
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Cubs pitcher Jon Lester. “I think it’s all terrible. The beautiful thing about our sport is there is no time. Fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game. ... If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event.”
Chris Ianetta agrees. “It fundamentally changes the way the game is played. And I think that’s one of the biggest things we were against.”
Max Scherzer has a slightly more practical argument. He believes that a pitch clock will be ineffective. “The pitch clock doesn’t seem to solve the problem, in my opinion,” he said. “When I talk to minor leaguers, they talk about how you can just call time at any time and it can reset the clock. Or you can just step off and it resets the clock. So if the pitch clock is really not going to accomplish what MLB’s overall, arching goal to speed up the game.”
In a follow-up to his original piece about the length of baseball games, Grant Brisbee wrote about the effect a pitch clock might have on players’ psyches, and therefore, the game itself. Baseball players are creatures of habit and altering their routines with something like a pitch clock has the potential to create chaos, without actually having an appreciable impact on the length of a game.
Call me an old (wo)man yelling at a cloud, but I find myself agreeing with these players. One of the beautiful things about baseball is that it is not played on a clock. It is what sets it apart from other sports. A pitch clock changes that fundamental aspect of the game. And don’t even get me started on putting runners on second base in extra innings.
While a pitch clock may just be another thing we all get used to that fades into the background, baseball continues to focus on all the wrong things when it comes to issues facing the sport. Instead of listening to fans, they seem to be catering to Joe Average Sportsfan, who will probably think baseball is boring with or without limits on mound visitations and pitch clocks. They just want to be able to say they tried, don’t enforce the rules they’ve implemented, and chip away at the edges of the problem without addressing the heart of it.
Baseball’s real problem is that it wants to have its cake and eat it, too. It wants to point to the Moneyball and beyond era, move forward with technology and advanced sabermetrics, but won’t accept the fact that the increased specialization in baseball that comes from having the data will result in more pitching changes and double-switches. It wants baseball games to be faster, but promotes offense by juicing the baseball and shrinking the strike zone. You want more baseball games that last less than three hours? Give pitchers back the low strike, unjuice the baseballs, or raise the mound. The effect of any one of those things would outweigh the impact of every other suggested action combined. Baseball is forever chasing a game that is both expedient and full of dingers. I would argue that such a game is not the nature of baseball.
And I’m fine with that.