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A Modest Proposal to Speed Up the Game While Improving It

July 12, 2017
 In the Comments section of my most recent article, Matt Goodrich pointed out a solution to the problem of slowed-down games that I’d like to endorse at length: Matt asked what if "some really quick pitcher came up and was super successful by rushing the batter and everybody adopted the strategy and suddenly games are taking 2 hours[?]"  I’ve probably written in passing about the quick pitch before, but I’ll do it again because I think it really gets to the heart of what’s wrong and what’s right about baseball. What’s wrong is games take forever, and forever gets a little longer every year. (Currently, every team but one is playing games averaging over 3 hours; the exception is the Padres, whose games average 2:57.) What’s right is that, for all the inherent slow pace of games, when action comes, it comes fast, and we get to see world-class athletes make lightning-quick decisions. When a ball is hit to the outfield, for example, the outfielder doesn’t get to hit the pause button, consult with a few coaches, plot out various alternate paths to the baseball, choose the best one, communicate with his fellow outfielders as to their opinions on which of them is best suited to catch the ball and which to back up the catch, etc. He just sees and hears the ball crack against the bat and instantly takes off in pursuit. A fraction of a second’s delay is usually described as "a slow jump" or "a poor read."

So why should that outfielder, when he is a batter, get to step away from the plate for a year and a Tuesday after each pitch? To contemplate the moon, smoke a cigarette, read Life magazine, perhaps? Seems to me the batter gets a tremendous advantage over the pitcher by getting to consider that last pitch’s location, speed, movement, to adjust his batting gloves, helmet, socks, jock, to stretch his neck, back, legs, to consider the new count and what changes that makes in the pitcher’s strategy or in his own….

It's axiomatic that pitchers will want to "work quickly, throw strikes, and change speeds." (I seem to recall this as the tripartite philosophy of some Orioles pitching coach, as quoted by Jim Palmer, in some book by Tom Boswell.) But if they’re prevented from working quickly by the umpires allowing batters to call time instead of reserving that privilege for themselves, pitchers’ repertoire of techniques gets reduced by a third. Of all the rules-changes that have been proposed, the easiest and the most effective wouldn’t be a rules-change at all, just a strict enforcement of the rule about who gets to call time out.

Or maybe a radical enforcement of a rule that has been allowed to fall into disuse would constitute a de facto change in the rules. What I suggest would be not only to enforce the rule allowing the umpire to decline the batter’s suggestion of calling for "Time Out," but to allow batters to request "Time Out" only rarely, under emergency conditions, and with significant penalties for excessive requests. In effect, what I’m calling for is to compel the batter to stand within the batter’s box for the entirety of each at-bat.

If he steps out without the umpire’s permission, which will be rare, the pitch will count, be it strike or ball. To allow for the event of an actual emergency, such as a cinder in the batter’s eye, or a cracked bat  or a ball fouled off the instep of the batter’s foot, or something of the sort, each batter would be allowed to call "Time Out" himself—once per game. The second and subsequent "Time Out" requests will be met with a penalty of a strike being called. (If you think two free "Time Out"s per game is fairer, knock yourself out.) Otherwise, the batter stays within the confines of the batter’s box for the entire at-bat. This not only quickens the game’s pace but adds to the athleticism on display, which we all want to see more of.

This small but significant enforcement of the rules will have, I think, a gigantic effect on not only the pace of the game and the athleticism, but also on the strategy. It obviously creates an inducement for the pitcher to throw his next pitch almost as soon as he gets the last one returned to his glove, thus eliminating most of the tedious shaking off of signals, fussing with the rosin bag, strolling to the back of the mound, and so on between pitches. The pitcher and the catcher will need to develop a pre-game plan to pitch to each batter, and will need to stick to it in order to "work quickly."  Some pitchers will thrive under these circumstances, others won’t.

But the largest change will be in which batters thrive under these circumstances, and which batters don’t. Those who don’t will be the less skilled batters, those who either need 30 or 45 seconds to figure out what kind of pitch they might expect next, or those who lack the ability to recognize certain pitches as they come up to the plate. Smart hitters, and hitters with great pitch-recognition skills or great instincts, will be rewarded, while those who need some extra time to figure out their strategy—well, they’re fresh out of luck. "B-b-but I wasn’t READY!"??? As my Boy-Scoutmaster used to say, "It’s ‘Be Prepared,’ not ‘Get Prepared.’"

The big winner in this scheme will be us, the fans. We will need to pay closer attention to the game on the field, of course, because an active play might develop three or four times per minute, and the winners on the field, overall, will be the pitchers, which is also a goal devoutly to be wished, if we are also interested in seeing home runs and walks coming down, and pitch-counts being lowered. No need to loosen the winding of the actual baseballs, or move fences out, or store the balls in a deep-freeze, or anything of the sort. Simple giving the pitchers the power to control the pace of the game, and to use that pace as another arrow in their quiver, should suffice. In addition to quick-pitching (most of the time), the pitcher would be able to make the batters feel uncomfortable as they stand in the box waiting for the pitcher to decide to begin his motion. Power to the Pitcher, right now!

My model for the batters’ getting one automatic "Time Out" per game is the managers’ challenge, which has worked out, near as I can tell, almost perfectly: managers are prevented from abusing this privilege by the codicil stating that they can lose it only by challenging incorrectly, forcing them to self-police specious challenges from ones where they’re pretty sure they’re going to win the challenge. Batters won’t be able to abuse the "Time Out" if you limit them to one per game. I don’t believe they would even use up one per game, for fear that they might genuinely need one in a later at-bat, or in extra innings. You would see a lot of one-time "Time Out" requests used in the eighth and ninth innings, as batters run out of "later at-bats." In any case, it makes sense to have a slower pace at the ends of games, as strategic decisions play a greater part in the outcomes of the games. After all, why would batters in the early innings deliberate carefully between pitches of what will eventually be a blowout win or loss? Better to save them up in case they’re needed at the end of a close game. If the score is tied or close in the final innings, that’s the time to slow things down and carefully consider each pitch and each swing.

Managers’ challenges, by the way, show a lot of individual disparity, both in the frequency and the success rate, which surprised me a little when I looked it up: Don Mattingly currently trails in the frequency category (only 4 successful challenges this year) and in the success rate (those 4 represent only a 25% success rate) but Joe Girardi is looking pretty good, leading the majors in success rate (73% as of this morning) while Jeff Banister (he of the 1.000 lifetime MLB batting average) has challenged a MLB-leading 38  times, with a pretty good 60% success rate.  In fact, Girardi, or the Yankees, has done consistently well in challenging calls since this rule was instituted in 2014—he’s been at or near the very top of the success rate all four seasons this rule has been in effect. My impression is that the managers’ challenge-system is a huge success, for all the complaining I hear about the time it takes to confer with the umps in Chelsea, I’m sure net time is saved preventing all the ruckus and dustups of managerial arguments which had little to no effect on umpires’ decisions, though there were those in 2013 who predicted that challenges would slow down games and still not get the calls right.

I think a similar success can be achieved by a strict enforcement of the "Time Out" rule. It would make baseball more a game of athletic skill—the burden it would place on batters, to be able to stand in the batter’s box, ready for a pitch at any moment, is a burden inherent to the game: letting the batters decide when time is in and out has crept into the game increasingly and surreptitiously over the years,  but it is clearly a violation of the rules, as written.

One thing that has disappeared from the game over my lifetime is the disincentive for batters to dig in. Bill remarked recently that the ethos of the game has changed in that taunting or showing up of opponents has declined sharply in the last few decades, but one way it hasn’t is that batters are permitted to make themselves extremely comfortable before every pitch, to a degree that used to offend most pitchers. Not only are the batters’ helmets, batting gloves, etc. sitting very comfortably on each pitch, but batters have been permitted to call time out even while they’re standing in the box. At the very least, superstars have been granted this special dispensation: I’ve ranted before about Mike Piazza and Derek Jeter having been allowed to dig their spikes in precisely their desired placement in the box while simultaneously holding up their rear hands, like a stop sign impeding the umpires’ ability to declare the ball in play until the superstar says he’s 100% ready to face the pitch. A few decades ago, that would have been an invitation to the pitcher (if "talk to the hand" had even been permitted) to throw a brushback pitch. The most colorful way a pitcher has expressed his views of such a tactic is "You’d better dig yourself a nice deep hole, because I’m going to bury you in it!", shouted from 60 feet away.

The brushback pitch would also be enhanced as a tactical weapon. This is seen, perhaps, as an undesirable re-innovation of a tactic that we have, in our climb towards civilization, left behind, but note that I wrote "brushback" and not "deliberately hit batsman." Pitchers might be inclined to throw the inside fastball a tad more if it would both keep batters from digging in and disturb their firm footing at the plate.  Every pitch following a brushback would be a race between the batter regaining his footing and his equilibrium, and the pitcher getting off a quick pitch.

If we want to cut down on the number of home runs (and I do) it seems logical that some of them must result from the batters’ extreme comfort at the plate, which I would argue is actually a high degree of comfort contrary to the rules, which state that when the umpire calls "Play Ball" action must commence, and that action doesn’t stop until and unless the umpire calls "Time Out."

There will still be home runs, there will still be hits, but they will come off the bats of those batters prepared, like Batman, for any circumstance.  Very likely, what we will see as a result will be batters reaching out for any hittable pitch they can punch to the outfield grass, and not necessarily a pitch they can belt over the fence. An added advantage to this quickened game would be a possible improvement in fielding, as defensive players will need to be more alert.

Does this make the game harder to play? Yes, yes, and yes, all around—but who says the game’s goal is maximum comfort for the participants? On the contrary, the whole idea is that the games are demanding and stressful, despite which the best athletes in the best shape will emerge victorious.

As Matt noted, a new type of skilled pitcher may emerge from this enforcement of rules: a pitcher physically capable of firing pitch after pitch, at an accelerated rate, more quickly than most batters can cope with.  They’ll soon learn how to cope, while the game speeds up and improves considerably. Of course there are many other ideas for speeding up the game (reducing the numbers of throws-over to 1B, limiting the number or kind of pitching changes, etc.) but this is the only one I've found that would cut down by many minutes the length of games, improve the quality of competition, while requiring no change in the rules as written.





COMMENTS (28 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider
I do find that the length of game bothers me less when I'm at the game than when watching on TV, probably because you can focus on other things at the park. I don't have much trouble paying attention when I am at a game, but on TV, the down time is just boring. On the other hand, living in the DC area, I have several times had to leave early to catch the Metro home. That's partly Metro's fault for not staying open later, but there is really no reason that a game starting at 7 shouldn't be over well before 10:30-11.

As someone else said, though, it's not really the length of the game so much as the pace, which becomes glacial especially later in the game. I endorse a lot of the proposals here and agree with some of the commenters that the blame lies on both the hitter and pitcher. Pitchers often take forever to get the sign and throw and hitters spend too much time out of the box.

But there are other issues too, for example, the number of pitching changes. I have been a strong advocate for years of changing the rule so that a relief pitcher has to face at least two hitters. That would largely kill the LOOGYs and would save at least some of the interminable pitching changes. Some of the other things can't really be changed easily; e.g., the lack of foul territory in ballparks so that fouls usually go out of play; hitters working deep counts (which is obviously good baseball, but results in longer games). And the ability of almost every hitter to hit the ball out makes pitchers-except the really good ones-reluctant to challenge hitters and get quick outs. So many of the pitchers feel the need to nibble and it's sort of understandable with balls flying out of parks like they do today. It used to be primarily the Yankees and Red Sox who would play these endless games with hitters working every count deep; now it's pretty much everyone.
9:53 AM Jul 28th
I agree with Mike137. The mystery is why haven't the umpires already been given the task of keeping the game moving? Should have been done years ago. In the 1970s, we had two players who were polar opposites: Jim Kaat, who, during his years with the White Sox, used a quick pitching technique with some success. His opposite was Mike Hargrove, aka "The Human Rain Delay," who mastered the art of the extended ritual between pitches. It's as though the players took a vote and elected Hargrove to be their standard bearer for ensuing decades.

I find the commercials between innings to be unnessarily long. I think it's been estimated that commercial time has increased the length of games by ten minutes over the last 30 years or so. This could easily be remedied, without loss of ad revenue. The solution: Cut down on the number of ads promoting the team or the network. On Orioles and Nationals broadcasts, these ads take up half of the commercial breaks. Not exaggerating.

9:44 AM Jul 15th
Gfletch wrote: the length of games isn't the real problem. The real problem is down time within the game, especially (as I believe Mike137 noted), extended down time. The two culprits there are commercials and pitching changes.

I would say that there are two different problems. Extended downtime is indeed a problem that would not be solved by a pitch clock. But length of game is also a problem for two reasons. One is late game finishing times. I watched the World Series the last couple years for the first time in ages. I could do that because I retired. Late start times is part of that, both so is game length. The other reason is pace of play. Consider two innings, each with the same numbers of batters, and pitches, and balls in play, and base runners. The one that takes 10 minutes will be much more interesting to watch than the one that takes 20 minutes.

Occasional long delays contribute to long game times and slower pace of play. But 300 smaller delays contribute more. That said, I don't think rules changes are needed. Make the umpires enforce existing rules. What has been done can be done.
2:59 PM Jul 14th
I read it. I like it. I think it's worth a minor league or spring training trial.
Or just give me 50 bucks and I'll organized a Central Park league that'll do it. :-)

I agree with Mike that there are loads of assumptions in there that are debatable and some that I'd guess aren't true. But I think the idea is interesting and good.
9:00 PM Jul 13th
(typo -- should be 'by' semi-brute force)
5:06 PM Jul 13th
Steven: You're right.
Fletch: You're right. :-)

Steven, the thing is, you made it sound like it's been an inexorable continuing trend, and that that's the reason to consider whatever you're going to propose.

BTW, while the actual data do go against that, they also aren't what I thought they'd be either. They show basically a leveling off in the last few years. I thought they'd show a slight but distinct reversal. I think my idea of it came from 'hearing somewhere' that the lengths had decreased a few years ago, plus what's been the story with Yankee games, which I think have in fact shown the trend I expected.

Let's see about that.....
I don't easily find figures for average length of games so I have to do it be semi-brute force: seeing what's the approximate median game length each year on the game log on
Gonna try to do it totally accurately, to the minute.

'11 3:00
'12 3:03
'13 2:56
'14 3:05 (ouch!)
'15 3:01
'16 2:58
'17 3:17 (!!!!!)

Well, it was looking OK for me till 2017. :-)

Steven, since I think 2017 should sort of triple-count, I'm giving you the win.
5:05 PM Jul 13th
Steven Goldleaf
I think Maris is expressing his issues with "forever getting longer every year" as not being literally true. I'm sure if I would have written something like "Games are lengthening decade by decade" which is literally true, though I haven't checked, he wouldnt have complained. (About that. Probably about something else.) As noted, Gary, there are multiple issues with pace and length, but this is the only one that is literally on the books: Batters cannot call time out. They do, but that's not what the rules say. Force them to stay in the box, as the rules demand, and the game gets shorter, pitch-counts come down, and athleticism is rewarded.
3:44 PM Jul 13th
Also, though baseball writer Richard Justice "...believes that fans at the ballpark are fine with the pace of play as it is," and "...recently stated that it's the fans who watch games on TV who are complaining about length of games. The fans in attendance don't seem to mind the long games," I don't believe a word of it. On television you've got the broadcast crews to help pass the time, whether through entertaining or irritating you. If that's what he thinks, he's welcome to it, though I think he is either kidding himself or bullshitting us.
3:32 PM Jul 13th
Steven, Maris, don't let me stop you, but the length of games isn't the real problem. The real problem is down time within the game, especially (as I believe Mike137 noted), extended down time. The two culprits there are commercials and pitching changes.
3:27 PM Jul 13th
Steven Goldleaf
And how do those numbers compare to the previous decade, for example?
3:04 PM Jul 13th
Well, here are some data that I find -- also from that site:
(average game length)

'12 3:00
'13 3:04
'14 3:07
'15 3:00
'16 3:04
'17 3:08
3:01 PM Jul 13th
Steven Goldleaf

says that 2016 games were longer than before, and 2017 is even longer.

Where does your information come from to the contrary?
2:05 PM Jul 13th
Time between pitches is a bit long some times, that's true, but I can't see where it's a constant problem. Pitching changes are far, far and away the most noticeable and tedious game delays.

The length of a game is not really a problem, not so long as the action moves along in a reasonably brisk fashion.

And you know, I don't mind a little time between pitches. It gives me a little time to think about what's going on, too, not just the batter and the pitcher.

Well, that might just be me. One other thing: given that your solution would be put in to practice, I suspect you might be regretfully surprised by how much offense is suppressed.
1:07 PM Jul 13th
As I've noted before (sometimes to your frustration: :-) I lose interest in continuing to read something when there's something wrong right at the beginning.

Does this have something wrong right at the beginning?

" take forever, and forever gets a little longer every year."

Haven't games been shorter the last couple of years (or so) than in prior years?

Assuming so, then your thing is either exaggeration or sloppy thinking, and either of those doesn't feel like a great inducement to read the rest.

Sorry if that's too rigid or something.
12:16 PM Jul 13th
Euthanize the batter the first time he adjusts his batting gloves. End of problem.
8:54 AM Jul 13th
CharlesSaeger: [i]I'm not sure lights are the reason. I checked 1947-1954, and the Cubs, the team that didn't install lights, had their average game time go up with everyone else's.[\i]

Well, I based my statement on what Bill James said recently at Hey, Bill. I am strongly inclined to trust him as a source on baseball history.

I am not surprised at what you say, since I don't remember Cubs games being quicker before they installed lights in the late 80's. And I would hardly expect the game to be played differently in one park than in all the others. But I also don't remember the Cubs starting games at 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. My guess is that they compensated for the combination of longer games and no lights by starting games earlier. But I have no idea where to find data to support that.

4:13 PM Jul 12th
Mike137: I'm not sure lights are the reason. I checked 1947-1954, and the Cubs, the team that didn't install lights, had their average game time go up with everyone else's.
2:27 PM Jul 12th
Pitchers delay the game sometimes to "ice" the batter. It's not just a retaliation against a batter who delays too long. It's a legitimate tactic if we permit it. I'm all for your proposal to limit how much a batter can delay, but there needs to be a reasonable pitch clock too. Whether it's 20 seconds or 24 seconds, I'm not qualified to say, but it can't be indefinite at the pitcher's discretion.
1:53 PM Jul 12th
Steven Goldleaf
I'm merely being logical, Mike. Now pitchers and batters have the freedom to delay the game at will. But if pitchers were allowed to quickpitch whenever the batter steps out of the box without the umpire calling for time out, then that would be an effective weapon to use against batters. Remove that ignoring of a rule that's on the books, and pitchers will take advantage of that weapon. Keep ignoring the rule and pitchers will wait around and re-establish their control over the pace of the game.​
12:20 PM Jul 12th
BobGill wrote: I may be wrong, but isn't there already a rule on the books that gives the pitcher only 20 seconds before throwing a pitch?

Yes, but I think it is 24 seconds.

The first thing to try is to impress on the umpires that they need to keep the game moving. That is part of their job, but has been neglected thanks to lights. The league has greatly improved strike zone consistency and reduced umpire autocracy. They should be able to also alter umpire behavior with respect to enforcing other rules.

Steven Goldleaf wrote: I would contend, Mike, that while pitchers do dawdle, it's strictly (or mainly) in retaliation for the batters' dawdling. Take away the tactical edge in the batters controlling the pace of the game

Do you have any evidence for either assertion?

Pitching changes and time between innings seem like big time wastes since they occur in relatively big chunks, unlike the 300 tiny delays between pitches. I submit that the same applies to batter dawdling: fewer but larger delays compared to pitcher dawdling. Also, the really obvious pitcher dawdling seems like a bigger problem than the larger amount of time wasted by a few extra seconds between each and every pitch.

Show me the data and you can change my mind.
12:11 PM Jul 12th
I think BobGill is right, these rules already exist. But they're hard to enforce so the exceptions become the rule.

The real problem is that baseball doesn't have any easy way to make the players do things faster without changing some fundamental things about the game. Some (many?) pitchers just want to pitch slowly. Some batter step out as often as they're allowed. Switching pitchers all the time is probably a competitive advantage. Longer commercial breaks are, arguably, financially advantageous.

It's hard to change long-ingrained habits, especially when it means forcing people to do non-optimal things. Baseball has problems in several areas that the optimal strategy is not the most entertaining strategy.
11:24 AM Jul 12th
I may be wrong, but isn't there already a rule on the books that gives the pitcher only 20 seconds before throwing a pitch? And I'm almost certain they passed a rule a couple of years ago that says the batter can't step out of the box between pitches. The thing is, nobody enforces these rules.
10:57 AM Jul 12th
I agree 100 percent.
10:51 AM Jul 12th
Game speed issues may be less of a problem for fans in the stands, but we do have issues. Sportswriters forget that we have to go to work in the morning, so we're getting home at 11 pm after going to the game. For the writers, what they're doing is their job, so they miss that.
10:25 AM Jul 12th
Penalty strikes for batters who delay the game, and penalty balls for pitchers who do the same. And for that matter other players who delay the game, like catchers who get up all the sudden. Switching pitchers in mid-inning and more than one unsuccessful pickoff throw are also delays of game. No warmup throws for that new pitcher, either; that's what he was doing in the bullpen.
10:23 AM Jul 12th
Steven Goldleaf
I would contend, Mike, that while pitchers do dawdle, it's strictly (or mainly) in retaliation for the batters' dawdling. Take away the tactical edge in the batters controlling the pace of the game, and pitchers will no longer need to assert so lengthily their pace by stepping off the rubber so much. It's true that some pitchers are more comfortable quick-pitching than others, but they can adjust their styles towards the goal of a quick-paced game if they see an advantage in it.
9:06 AM Jul 12th
It's axiomatic that pitchers will want to "work quickly, throw strikes, and change speeds."

No, it isn't. Some pitchers, such as Mark Buehrle and pitchers influenced by him, subscribe that philosophy, but most do not.

It is the pitchers, not the batters, who are responsible for most dawdling. Otherwise there would not be such big differences in game length between quick working and slow working pitchers.

In effect, what I’m calling for is to compel the batter to stand within the batter’s box for the entirety of each at-bat. ... It obviously creates an inducement for the pitcher to throw his next pitch almost as soon as he gets the last one returned to his glove, thus eliminating most of the tedious shaking off of signals, fussing with the rosin bag, strolling to the back of the mound, and so on between pitches.

No, it would have just the opposite effect. Often, batters step out of the box in response to the pitcher dawdling. Not permitting that would give the pitcher the right to mess with the batter while the batter is confined to the batter's box.

Enforcement of the time out rule would be a fine idea if combined with enforcement of the rule on how much time a pitcher is allowed before throwing the next pitch.
8:19 AM Jul 12th
I agree with the basic premise of keeping the hitter in the batter's box for the entire at bat. I also think the pitchers should be required to step on the rubber quickly after receiving the ball back from the catcher. I have no problem with shaking off signs, picking up the rosin bag, or pickoff throws, but there's no reason to walk around the mound, fiddle with your hat, and other such nonsense. Someone in Reader Posts recently posted a link to an article (can't remember the source of the article). The author had watched a videotape of broadcasts of comparable games (same score, same number of hits, same number of pitching changes) played in 1985 and 2015. The 1985 game was played in a lot less time (I think it was about 40 minutes less; don't remember the exact number). The differences in time of game were something like 10 minutes of additional time between innings and 30 minutes of additional time between pitches. So, when discussing the issue of length of games, time between pitches seems to be the elephant in the room.

I used to play baseball in a men's amateur league, one or two games a week. Nine innings. A typical game might be 11-8 with 6 or 7 walks and 3 or 4 errors per team. Really terrible baseball. The games seemed to drag on forever. The Sunday games usually started at 1 p.m. I remember when I got in my car to go home, usually about ten or fifteen minutes after the game ended, I was always amazed that it was around 4 p.m. We were playing these horrific, error-filled travesties in less than 3 hours. I wondered at the time why the big leagues couldn't finish a game in significantly less time than that.

One side note: Richard Justice, who was a baseball beat writer in Washington, then Houston, before joining, believes that fans at the ballpark are fine with the pace of play as it is. He recently stated that it's the fans who watch games on TV who are complaining about length of games. The fans in attendance don't seem to mind the long games. That was the first time I'd heard that. I don't know if it's true, but it's probably worth investigating.

8:19 AM Jul 12th
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