13 March 2017

Another Idea on Speeding Up Games

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.


James Jones said...

How about allowing runners to advance one base for every mound visit that does NOT result in a player switch? Provide some disincentive for managers to make the walk.

vilnius b. said...

How about making players take infield practice again?
If the players did that again then maybe there would be fewer infield conferences between the players. My logic works like this: in situations where the catchers and the infielders need to know what their roles will be during certain game situations (e.g., bunts with men on first and second and nobody out), they can work on hand signals during infield practice instead of grouping together near the center of the infield.
And there's this added benefit for fans: watching infield practice can be fun.
I still remember the first time I attended a game at Camden Yards in 1992. I got there early--having given my boss some lame excuse for having to leave work--and I had the pleasure of watching as the Ripken boys (Cal Jr. and Billy) razzed each other while participating in infield practice.
That alone for me was worth the price of admission.

Unknown said...

#James Jones - I think that your proposal is too radical a change, at least at this point. I don't want to go so far as to prohibit conferences.

#Vilnius - No doubt it would be good for players to engage in infield practice, and while mandating it is conceivably negotiable and would be good PR, I don't think you can force the practice to be meaningful and there are other issues (such as weather or injury) complicating the issue.

Anonymous said...

@Joe Reisel:
If James Jones' idea is too radical, how about the alternative of treating mound visits that do not result in a player switch as an *automatic ball*?

andy said...

How about no visits once a teams starter exits the game. Makes the bullpens potentially more volatile. Maybe allow two catcher or one pitching coach visit per game that are timed.

Unknown said...

There's nothing wrong with out-of-the-box thinking, but in general I would prefer MLB to move gradually until pace-of-play is no longer an issue. I wrote this post because I believe that the "mainstream media" has fostered noise rather than light and to encourage readers to think about the issue. I'm glad to see that some readers are thinking about it.

Anonymous said...

It is not the media making up this issue. I can only stand watching recorded games now and the delays within an AB are still infuriating (I try to start watching 90 minutes after games start). There is time for fans discussing strategy and seeing the beauty of our national pastime in a game that is 2:35.

1. A batter can step out of the box anytime they want, but if the pitcher pitches, it should be called a ball or a strike (don't give batters timeout, unless foul ball hits them or some other obvious need). Batters: Get equipment that doesn't need to be adjusted on every pitch.
2. No coach visits to the mound without removing the pitcher. Ever. One trainer trip per game that doesn't remove the pitcher.
3. One catcher visit to the mound per inning. The pitcher is ejected on the second.

If these measures don't get 9 inning games under 2:45, then all teams involved in delayed games should be fined per minute for every minute after 2:45.
And if that doesn't work, delaying teams should lose draft picks.
And if that doesn't work, delaying teams should be moved to London or Mexico City.
And if that doesn't work, Mike Hargrove's head on a pike should be part of a rotating clubhouse display.
And if that doesn't work, the Yankees and Red Sox should be never allowed to play each other again. If they meet in the playoffs it should be automatic loss for both of them.