Focused Musings: On Pace of Play

I mentioned it in my commissioner piece from last Friday, but I'll say it again: I feel like I'm the only one with no real qualms about the game of baseball's pace of play. There is no clock in baseball and that's something that appeals to me for whatever reason. Perhaps it stems from most other things in my life being dependent upon a clock. Professionally, I'm a teacher and an SAT/ACT tutor. So, if I'm teaching something exam prep-related, I'm stressing the importance time management to my student: You have this much time to do these many questions, etc. And if I'm teaching in my classroom, I'm stressing the importance of time management to myself: How long to spend on this line of discussion? How long to wait for a response? How many...etc. When it comes to baseball, then, the idea of an activity devoid of a clock and devoid of time, even just for three hours, feels good.

While driving to work on Friday, I heard a radio host respond to a caller by saying the average time of a baseball game has increased by 40 minutes over the last 30 years. Putting on a dramatic radio voice, the host of course sounded dismayed by this long-running development and I'd be inclined to agree with him if I didn't feel that the fact of longer game times is due mostly to things that have happened within the game of baseball itself. In other words, games aren't necessarily longer because players and umps and managers are standing around picking daisies out there; rather, games are longer because of strategic changes that have taken place. Of course, not all of increase in game length is due to in-game things; baseball is an even bigger business than it was 30 years ago, and there are likely more commercials between innings now than there were three decades ago. This is something that can't be changed since it would take money out of pockets, and I don't think anyone wants that.

Aside from that, though, two natural, in-game things strike me as the reason for the extension of game time. First, there's the Tony LaRussa-ization of bullpen usage. In the last 30 years, teams have started using more and more relievers as pitch counts and the specialization of relievers became popular. Offensively, batters got smarter; they started taking more pitches to work themselves into better hitting counts, which had led to more offense, more runs, and, naturally, longer games. The key word there is naturally and that applies both to the (formerly) increased offense and the evolution of bullpens and relievers.

There is also the issue of instant replay. This has definitely led to a lengthening of games, but if the "expense" of that is getting more calls right, I'm fine with it. To once again harken back to my piece from Friday, this is an issue that could be fixed with tweaks to the replay system. Let's eliminate the silly challenge system and have a fifth umpire in-stadium, ready to review and evaluate any close calls that need a further look. This process can be done, quite literally, instantly and would cut down on the absurd process of manager walking out, stalling with conversation, looking back to the dugout, getting the thumbs up/thumbs down from the bench coach...I think we can all agree that this process, despite being a step in the right direction, is flawed and needs some reform.

There is one simple thing that can be done to improve pace of play that don't require gimmicky things like pitch clocks or strategically limiting things like curbing mound visits by the catcher or unrealistic things like asking pitchers not to leave the mound or batters not to leave the box during at bats. The most effective way to do it would certainly be to enforce a consistent strike zone. That different umpires have different zones strikes me as one of the most ridiculous things we see in baseball today. Neither the pitcher nor the batter should have to adjust his approach because of the guy behind the catcher that day. Let's call the strike zone from the catcher's knees to his shoulders and call it a day.

I realize that I may be on a nearly minuscule island with this opinion, but I worry that attempts to quicken the pace of baseball's play will hamper the quality of the game. Does it really make the game better if we have a pitch clock? Does it really make the game better if we limit mound visits by catchers? This isn't to say that those things would make the game any worse; I'm just not so sure that they make the game demonstrably better.