My friends and acquaintances know at least in a general way that I work for the Norfolk Tides, and so we talk about baseball a lot. During this past offseason, the big topic were the proposed rule changes intended to speed up play. Most of the media coverage focused on two topics. One is the automatic intentional walk rule, in which managers can signal for an intentional walk. The batter will be awarded first base without the pitcher having to throw four pitches out of the strike zone. The other is the proposal to start extra innings with runners on base, a rule perfectly suitable for low-level developmental leagues but not - and not likely to be implemented any time soon - for major-league games.
In my jobs as MLBAM datacaster and BIS scorer, I see forty or more AAA games a season. Unlike most fans, I don't have the options of changing the channel or getting up and leaving. And, I must admit, that I wish many of the games I see would end sooner. But the problem isn't that the games take too much clock time - at least in most cases. A tense, seesaw game or a well-played game with spectacular offensive and defensive plays - those games are never too long.
For me, there are two real problems with games taking too long. There's nothing can be done about the first, which is that inevitably some games are going to be boring. The last three innings of a 17-2 blowout are not interesting, and no one- probably not even Joe Maddon - wants more of that. The second problem is when there's too much dead time, with batters stepping out of the box to re-tighten their wristbands after every pitch and mound conferences after every batter.
It's striking how few limits there are on conferences. The only limit I am aware of is that a pitcher must be relieved if a manager or coach has a second conference in the same inning with a given pitcher. There are no limits on the number of conferences among players. And these conferences are the equivalent of "time-outs" in other sports in which the coach discusses tactics or designs a play. Every other sport puts a limit on time-outs.
While it is true that in baseball these conferences do not stop a running time clock in the way time-outs do in the other sports, they certainly do interrupt the game flow. That's not always a bad thing - when a team is in the middle of a rally, it's a valid strategy to go to the mound and settle the pitcher or get the pitcher focused. That frequently happens in basketball, for instance. But to have strategy conferences before every batter is overkill. No one I've talked to has ever said "I want to see more conferences among players or among players and a coach."
Before almost every college basketball game was televised, each team was allotted five time-outs per game. Televised games provided the "TV time-outs" every four minutes, but the teams were still allotted their five time-outs. Coaches hoarded their time-outs, saving them for the last minute or two of a game. And, the last couple of minutes of close games became unwatchable, as coaches called a time-out after every play and sometimes multiple times during a play. Eventually the NCAA reduced the number of time-outs and required one to be used in the first half.
I would like to see baseball start reducing the number of allowable conferences. Ideally, I'd like the reduction to apply to conferences among players only, but that's hard to enforce and, frankly, hard to devise an appropriate rule. I do have a proposal for limiting the number of coach visits to the mound.
Essentially, a team would be limited to three "visits to the mound" without being required to remove the pitcher. And, one of those mound visits would have to be in the first six innings. They wouldn't have to be the first three visits - a team could remove a pitcher after its first visit and still have the three - but once you've used your three visits, you have to relieve a pitcher if you visit the mound. (I'm flexible on adding more visits for extra innings, but I haven't thought about how to do so.)
Fewer stalls to give the relief pitcher more time to warm up. Fewer conferences to tell players what to do on a sacrifice bunt or whether to issue an intentional walk. Less dead time, and more action. And more strategy and potential controversy, too - the manager will have to be more judicious in sending a coach to talk to the pitcher. And it forces the players to play, to know what to do, rather than to be spoon-fed by coaches. I think it's time for baseball to join the other sports and limit how many times coaches and managers can talk to their players.