Let’s Pick Up the Pace

Earlier this week, colleague Nicolas Stellini made an impassioned defense of the traditional intentional walk, which is endangered according to a Jayson Stark ESPN report. We know MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has made quickening the game’s “pace of action” one of his priorities, and Stark reported that MLB has proposed two rule changes to the MLBPA: raising the strike zone above the knees and transforming the intentional walk to an automatic one.

But it’s unclear whether these two measures, if implemented, would result in a brisker pace of play. Eliminating the traditional intentional-walk process would have little effect, as Stark notes:

“In an age in which intentional walks actually have been declining — there were just 932 all last season (or one every 2.6 games) — that time savings would be minimal. But MLB sees the practice of lobbing four meaningless pitches as antiquated, so eliminating them would serve as much as a statement as it would a practical attempt to speed up the game.”

The growth of the bottom of strike zone has also been a focus of the commissioner, who is concerned with the record levels of strikeouts and the fewer and fewer balls put in play. They’re reasonable concerns, as there is a lot of standing around in today’s game. From Stark:

“The change in the strike zone, however, could have a much more dramatic effect, MLB believes. Its intent is to produce more balls in play, more baserunners and more action at a time when nearly 30 percent of all hitters either walk or strike out — the highest rate of “non-action” in the game’s history.

Changes to the strike zone, however, could and likely would have dramatic effects and unintended consequences. The change would reduce the strike zone by an estimated 34 square inches, which according to Jon Roegele’s excellent research, would reduce the strike zone by 7.2%.

A smaller strike zone could result in fewer strikes, more pitches, more hitter’s count, more baserunners and more methodical pitchers anxiously stepping off the rubber and taking tours around the mound to ponder their next pitch sequence. Baseball’s strike zone shrunk for the first time in the PITCHf/x era last year, according to Roegele’s research, and run scoring and game times were up. While more balls could be put in play, it’s not clear – at least to me – that the game’s actual pace would improve and overall game time would decrease. After all, more run scoring usually means longer games and more calls to the bullpen.

Baseball was on the right track in 2015 when it announced its first wave of pace-of-play rule changes, including the most significant one: requiring batters to keep one foot in the batter’s box between pitches unless there was a foul ball or wild pitch or one of several other exceptions.

And to compel behavior to change, violators of the pace rules were to be fined. MLB was really just electing to enforce a rule that already existed, 6.02b, which states “The batter is not at liberty to step in and out of the batter’s box at will.”

There has been a log of focus on the mound in efforts to hasten play. And there are some egregious violators of pace decorum, with Pedro Baez and Junichi Tazawa representing the two pitchers last season who required 30 seconds (a full TV commercial!) between pitches. Pitch clocks, controversial in a game without a timer, were implemented in the minors last year and Manfred eventually wants the 20-second clocks in the majors. Clocks, of course, would help quicken the pace.

But I found in 2014 that much of the game’s pace and time-of-game issues were perhaps more so attributed to the batter than the pitcher. As an experiment, I put a stopwatch on every batter who stepped out of the box with two feet during a Pirates-Cardinals game and this is what I found during the 3-hour, 37-minute, nine-inning affair that included only 10 combined strikeouts: 190 times a batter left the batter’s box after a pitch. The total time spent out of the box: 39 minutes and 51 seconds.

That’s a lot of dead time. Perhaps it explains, in large part, why the average time of game has increased from 2 hours and 25 minutes in 1963 to 3 hours and 8 minutes in 2014. Maybe we should blame Mike Hargrove for those hours spent at the stadium and in front of the TV that we’re never going to get back:

Said Bud Selig to a group of reporters at PNC Park in 2014: “A guy gets in the batter’s box, ball one, and now he’s adjusting all this crap he has on. And I’m thinking to myself watching the game, ‘What is he adjusting? He hasn’t swung the bat.’”

But in 2015, the one-foot-in-box change seemed to have an effect. As the seconds between pitches had increased to a PITCHf/x-era record 23 in 2014, up from 21.6 in 2008, the seconds between pitches declined to 22.1 in 2015. While a 9/10 of a second difference from 2014 to 2015 pace doesn’t seem like much of a pace change, that’s about 200 hours of savings over the course of the 710,000 pitches thrown in a season. Quickening the pace to, say, 20 seconds would reduce more than 400 hours of dead time per season.

But after the rule change’s initial success in 2015, when the time between pitches was reduced by a second and game length reduced by eight minutes in the first month of the season, MLB and the union immediately began to talk about relaxing fines and limiting punishment to only the most serious offenders. Last season, the game’s pace slowed to 22.7 seconds per pitch, the second slowest pace in the PITCHf/x era.

It doesn’t require much of a leap to wonder if the slowing of pace in 2016 was tied to a lack of vigilance in enforcing batters to remain in the box. After six minutes were trimmed from average game times in 2015, down to 2 hours and 56 minutes, the average game reached three hours in 2016. There are many MLB hitters who do not want their between-pitch routines disrupted, but it’s unclear whether they are really providing any benefit.

Speeding up the game is understandably a focus as baseball tries to better reach and capture younger audiences. The average length of an NBA game is 2 hours and 20 minutes. For what it’s worth, the official NBA Twitter account has 24.2 million followers as of this afternoon. MLB’s account has 6.7 million.

Baseball must pick up its pace to keep audiences engaged in a world where attention spans are increasingly challenged and shortened. But to speed up the game, baseball does not necessarily need new rules – a pitch clock would help – or new strike zone, it simply could begin by better enforcing an existing rule: having batters keep a foot in the box.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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sideshowraheem
Member
sideshowraheem

Eliminating batters stepping out of the box with each pitch would be a big step in the right direction. Watch older games from even the 1980’s and you dont see players step out as often and as for long.

If they really wanted to speed things up they’d shorten the time period for breaks between pitching changes. That would go a long way.

Then they could work on all of these damn mound visits.

hittfamily
Member
hittfamily

I love how Bonds wouldn’t even bother to look at the third base coach. He knew no hit and run or other hijinx was happening with him in the box.

jianadaren
Member
jianadaren

Ban the third base coach.