April 10, 2017

The problem is not the length of games.
The problem is the length of time between pitches.

Baseball is a great game. Its action is unsurpassed. Unfortunately, you don’t know when it’s going to occur. For example, consider this; a 10-pitch at-bat with no one on base ends in a strike-out. The ball is not put in play. Most fans would not consider that “action.” The at-bat took 5 minutes. That’s a long time with no action.

On the other hand, fans know action is seconds away in football because there’s a play-clock, and basketball because there’s a shot-clock. Hockey and soccer are non-stop action. Even golf attracts a decent television audience because someone is always hitting a ball.

Besides baseball fans not knowing when the “action” will occur, too often, the game comes to a grinding halt as the batter steps out of the box, and the pitcher walks around the mound. Twenty seconds, 30 seconds, even a minute goes by before the next pitch. The problem is not the length of games. The problem is the length of time between pitches when nothing is happening. It’s BORING.

This downtime is a big reason baseball is not connecting with young people. They see the game as a deliberate, methodical chess match between the pitcher and the batter. That’s not a good thing. There are at least 10 and often as many as 13 players (depending on how many runners are on base) involved in every pitch, but the game is disproportionately dominated by two of them – the pitcher and the batter.

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Major League Baseball was thrilled with the 2016 World Series between the Cubs and Indians. It was exciting and had solid TV ratings. But let’s not kid ourselves, it drew extra attention because the Cubs had not won a World Series in 108 years. It could be another century before that scenario presents itself again. Plus, there is this sobering number –19,650 – the Indians average attendance last year, less than half the capacity the ballpark was built for, despite the team having a great year.

Major League Baseball proudly points to September 28, 2011 as a remarkable night in major league history. It was the last day of the regular season. Six games were played that had implications for the postseason. Of those 6 games, only one was a sellout. The other ballparks had thousands of empty seats.

The Major League Baseball Players Association doesn’t think the game needs fixing. It would be interesting, though, to find out if players watch games they are not involved in? Do they watch games after they retire? Former White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, who played hockey growing up, was asked by Chicago sports-radio which he watches more of in his retirement – hockey or baseball? “It’s not even close. I don’t pay attention to baseball till after the Stanley Cup is over.” That’s June!

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred is right. It’s time for a pitch-clock (at-bats, innings and games will remain timeless), but 20 seconds is too long. Look at your watch. Sit there and do nothing for 20 seconds. That is a lot of downtime. Most pitches are thrown within 20 seconds now. I’m afraid fans will not sense a quicker pace if the pitch-clock is set at 20.

Major League Baseball should gather a couple teams of former minor leaguers and test several pitch-clock scenarios. Start with 20 seconds. Test all the way down to 12 seconds. The pitcher has X seconds to be into his throwing motion. If the pitcher’s not ready it’s an automatic ball. If the batter’s not ready it’s an automatic strike.

Many traditionalists, of which I count myself, don’t see the necessity for change. ‘Baseball is America’s pastime, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Baseball was America’s pastime when it had no competition. That hasn’t been the case for decades. Now all the seasons overlap. In the spring, Major League Baseball plays 2nd, 3rd, 4th fiddle to NCAA March Madness and NBA and NHL playoffs. As pennant races heat up in August and September baseball faces stiff competition from college and pro football.

It’s a myth that baseball has been without change. Besides the designated hitter (DH), raising and lowering the mound and adjusting the strike zone, there was a time when:

  • the batter instructed the pitcher where to throw the ball
  • it took 9 balls for a walk, then 8, then 6 before settling on 4
  • a fair ball that reached the stands on one bounce was a home run
  • a batted ball that curved foul was a strike no matter how far it went beyond the playing field

Put the focus on the action, not the inaction. Baseball is anything but boring. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s violent. When ESPN or Fox promotes their baseball coverage they show things like a double being stretched into a triple, a middle infielder airborne to finish a double-play, a first baseman diving to stop a smash down the line. They don’t show the batter strolling from the batter’s box to the on-deck circle for more pine tar.

If something isn’t done to reduce the time between pitches baseball risks becoming irrelevant to all but a dwindling core of obsessed fans. They won’t call a press conference or send out a press release. They will just stop coming. Many already have.

When Mark Buehrle pitched his perfect game for the White Sox in 2009 he seldom took more than 10 seconds between pitches, often as few as 7.  Has anyone ever complained that Mark Buehrle works too fast?

And to those who say the “chess match” between the hitter and the pitcher is great for the game, when is the last time you watched a chess match?

by Bill Grimes, member Society for American Baseball
Research (SABR), publisher,