The only way to improve the pace of play in baseball

By Dan Holmes ♦ February 22, 2018

“Baseball’s too slow. It’s boring.”

Have you heard that one? Yeah, I have too. It’s a problem for the future game.

This offseason we heard from Major League Baseball on the issue, though it was a small rule change that won’t make much of a dent in the problem. Starting in 2018, teams will be limited to six mound visits per game. Apparently, according to the experts, this change could save about nine minutes of game time on average.

Fair enough: a small start. But it’s not the fix that baseball needs. It doesn’t go far enough and it doesn’t fundamentally address the core problem.

The problem with baseball games is not how long they are. The problem is the pace of play. Fix the latter and the first one is resolved too.

Fans go to NFL games and spend three-plus hours in their seats. No one talks about the length of NFL games except when replay slows the competition to a halt. That’s pace of play. Keep things moving, move it along, let’s see some action!

Baseball is fine when there’s baseball happening. The league simply needs to remove more of the standing around and preparing to play baseball.

There are two simple rule changes that will fix the problem.

Rule Change #1: Limit pitching changes

For a long time now pitching strategy has been evolving. Initially teams (mostly because of roster size) employed one or two pitchers who were asked to pitch the entire game. Gradually more pitchers have been added but they were still expected to go the distance. By World War II, teams carried 8-10 pitchers but relievers were still anonymous also-ran pitchers who didn’t get much action. They were essentially failed starters. As late as the mid-1950s, most teams still got complete games from their starting pitchers in well over half of their games. This left little for relievers to do. Sixty years ago, in 1958, teams used on average of 1.5 relief pitchers per game and they pitched about two innings per game.

That changed in the 1960s when teams started to identify pitchers who had unique skills that made them valuable out of the bullpen. Often these pitchers had odd deliveries or were one-pitch freaks. Still, teams relied heavily on their starters to carry the load. In 1968 the average bullpen usage had trended upward only slightly: 1.5 relievers pitching 2.2 innings per game.

In 1975, the New York Yankees had 70 complete games in 160 played. That season they got 82 percent of their innings from their starting pitchers, most of them from five arms. The Yankees were not unusual, that same season the Orioles also had 70 complete games. Even the Detroit Tigers, who were woeful and lost 102 times, got 52 complete games from their pitchers. Bullpen usage actually stayed pretty flat in the 1970s however: most MLB teams were using 1-2 relievers per game (on average) and they were pitching about 2 innings per.

Relievers were starting to become popular in the 1970s. Mike Marshall, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, and Sparky Lyle were legitimate stars, but they were used as all-purpose “stoppers” who finished off games, even if they came into the action in the fifth or sixth innings. Marshall pitched more than one inning of relief in 63 percent of his games, and that wasn’t the highest figure for that period.

The trend toward heavy bullpen usage started in the mid-1980s and has rocketed since. In 1987 the averages increased to 1.9 relief pitchers per game and nearly three innings of reliever pitching per contest. By the mid-1990s, burgeoned by the excessive patterns set by manager Tony LaRussa, those figures were at 2.5 relievers per game and more than three innings. It’s inched upward since and the gap between the two has gradually narrowed. In other words, as more relievers are being used, they are each facing fewer batters.

In 2016 the average number of relief pitchers used per game crept above 3.0 for the first time. Last season it was about the same, with relievers recording ten outs per game, the highest total ever.

Of course, if a team uses three relievers (on average) per game that means they will make three pitching changes. That’s on average. There are several games where fans will see 4-5 relievers trot in from the bullpen. Many games will include more than one change per inning. It’s these late-game, mid-inning pitching changes that grind the game to a halt.

How can we reclaim the game and improve the pace of play? We limit the number of pitching changes. I propose that teams are limited to the number of overall pitching changes per game and the number of mid-inning changes.

Here’s how a pitching change limit might work:

  1. Teams are limited to four pitching changes per game (barring injury). This allows for the use of five pitchers.
  2. Teams may not remove a relief pitcher in the middle of the inning unless he allows a baserunner or a run in that inning.
  3. Teams may only use three pitchers per inning (unless they qualify under part 2 of this rule).

What will happen if teams have to limit their reliever usage? We’ll see fewer mid-inning pitching changes and the pace of play will improve. The strategy of using pitcher-after-pitcher to gain a platoon advantage late in games is (a) not supported by statistical evidence as being that much of a benefit, and (b) in violation of the balance between offense and defense. Teams are carrying eight relievers now for the purpose of using one specialist (often a hard-throwing lefty or strikeout artist) to face one batter in the last 2-3 innings of the game. Once they burn that pitcher they bring in a setup man, possibly use a “pre-setup” man (a seventh inning guy), and a closer. Meanwhile, the fans are falling asleep and the action has stopped.

The object of baseball games is to play baseball. Shuffling spare players in and out slows the game and eliminates action. It’s not good for the enjoyment of the game, it’s not even good practice for the team employing the strategy.

Within one year of making this change fans won’t even notice a change to the strategy of the game, because teams will be employing relief pitchers in patterns like they did up until the early 1980s. But the pace of games will improve dramatically. We might also see teams return to using bench players, like pinch-hitters or pinch-runners, which makes the product on the field more interesting. Eight relief pitchers used sparingly but in a way that slows the game, that’s not entertaining.

Rule Change #2: Enforce pace of play

There are a number of things that athletes do to hide weaknesses. One of them is to stall. In basketball, weaker teams realized that if they could reduce the number of possessions they could keep the score low and possibly allow themselves to compete with a better opponent. But that’s simply skirting around the purpose of the game of basketball, which is to run up and down the court and match your offense against their defense. No one wants to see one team simply hold a basketball. In response, the NBA instituted a shot clock and a five-second rule, and so on. Problem solved, and teams returned to playing basketball. There are many other examples in other sports and rules needed to be implemented to get things straight.

Baseball has largely ignored the shenanigans that have led to the crawl in their pace of play over the last 35-40 years. But there are steps they can take.

For example, baserunning is an exciting offensive weapon. The threat of a stolen base can be a thrilling aspect of the game. For more than 100 years when a baserunner got on base, the defensive team took some measure to combat the threat of his taking the next bag. The defense moved their middle infielders closer to the next base. They started to “hold” a runner on the bag, and the catcher moved up on his haunches to be ready to throw if needed. Pitchers developed the slide step, sacrificing some velocity on their pitches to be able to deliver the ball to the plate quicker. And the pitcher also crafted moves to first base, tossing the ball when needed, or faking a throw. The pitchout was also invented. As a result, many rules were implemented to govern the tricks the defense used to keep a runner from stealing. The balk rule is the best example, and it’s been altered many times. But defenses never used stall tactics or repetitive “inaction” to combat stealing until the last three decades or so.

Starting some time in the 1980s, a few enterprising pitching coaches (in a reaction to the stolen base increases brought in by base runners like Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines and others) started teaching their pitchers to throw to first base over and over…and over…and over. The object wasn’t to develop a good move, the object was to wear down a runner. The object was to slow everything down. The object was to stall.

Well, that’s not baseball. That’s not action. It’s the exact opposite. And it’s not something the defense should be rewarded for. There’s no skill involved in simply lobbing a baseball to first base. For decades the object of throws to first base were to try to pick off the runner. That’s a good defensive tactic and one that requires skill.

The league should limit pitchers to two unsuccessful throws to first base per inning. Think about the ways that would improve the game. Not only would the pace of play improve, but base stealing would be more exciting and it wouldn’t grind the game to a halt. The defense would have to strategize on when it was valuable to use their pickoff throws. And when they did use a pickoff move, it would need to be an honest attempt to pick off a runner. They couldn’t afford lazy tosses to first base. If the pitcher tries a third pick off and was unsuccessful, the runner is awarded the next base. That gamble would cause the defensive team to curtail stalling tactics. At the same time it would give the offense a tool that could impact the game. Baseball has become an all-or-nothing contest where 1/3 of all plays result in no action on the field (strikeout, walk, home run). The game could use some more speed, some more excitement. But honestly, while the rate of stolen bases may inch up a little bit under this rule, it wouldn’t destroy any integrity of the game. The better teams would still win more games, the better pitchers would still be successful. But players with speed would gain back some currency. And fans would see more action.

Other pace of play changes are simple: umpires should move the games along. For decades when games were played under natural lighting, games were played at a brisk pace because nightfall meant “game over.” Umpires can still move the game along by instructing batters to get into the batters’ box and telling pitchers to get on the rubber. In short, “Play Ball!”

Some pace of play rules are being tried in the minor leagues. I don’t think we need a pitch clock in the majors, but those tools are helping train young players to play the game at a better pace. It wouldn’t take very long for the game to adopt these habits if the league and the umpires pushed things along. The players union should be on board with these things: if the games are long and boring and filled with little action, fans won’t come, and that means less money.

Baseball doesn’t need to radically change the game on the field and they don’t need to introduce technology to fix the problem of long, boring games. They can do it through two fairly simple rules changes.

Tell me what you think in the comments section below.


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