Column: MLB finally takes much-needed steps to speed up game
ATLANTA (AP) — The suits at Major League Baseball finally got one right, taking significant steps to speed up their dawdling game.
If only they’d moved a lot quicker.
Pitch clocks, limits on defensive shifts and larger bases were approved Friday in one of the most significant days in the history of the national pastime.
No question, these are all major adjustments to the rule book, right up there with the designated hitter, the lowering of the pitching mound, and the outlawing of the spitball.
MLB really had no choice, given that many kids have abandoned the game and the typical ballpark crowd looks like it was mostly bused in from a retirement home.
It’s probably too late to lure back those who’ve already found better ways to spend their free time than watching grown men adjust their batting gloves, fiddle with their helmets and step off the rubber between almost every pitch.
But maybe, when future generations hear about this peculiar sport while visiting grandpa and grandma, they might be more receptive if most games are being completed in less than three hours.
“I’m real traditional,” Philadelphia Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson said before a game against Washington. But, he quickly added, “I think anything that can speed up the game, put more action in the game and keep players healthy, I’m all for it.”
The most welcome, necessary changes are the pitch clock and related measures to reduce all that wasted time between pitches, which has made the game about as exciting to watch as a filibuster on C-SPAN.
The clock has sure worked in the minors, reducing the average time of a nine-inning game from 3 hours, 4 minutes last year to 2:38 this season.
We’re all for that sort of reduction in the big leagues, where the average time of a nine-inning game is 3:07.
Not surprisingly, players who have incorporated all sorts of nonsense into their routines are not happy with the idea of having to step into the batter’s box or deliver a pitch in a reasonable amount of time.
“They’re going to be out of their comfort zones and that could potentially affect some jobs,” New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “We don’t want that.”
But teammate Mark Canha is ready to give it a try.
“I can evolve with the times and be open-minded,” he said. “I think the rules are just great. It’s really good for baseball.”
Right behind speeding up the game is juicing up the offense, which is why it also makes sense to dramatically limit the radical shifts that now dominate the game.
No longer will a team be able to move its third baseman to short right field because the analytics say that’s where the ball is most likely to be hit.
Starting next season, a team must have two infielders on each side of second base. They can’t move back into the outfield grass, either.
“I think it might even change how and where you decide to place your outfielders as a result of infielders not being able to go back and forth across the diamond,” San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler pointed out. “It’s all really fascinating.”
Of course, taking a slice out of the shift doesn’t totally address the enormous influence of analytics on the way the game is played. It’s not going to change the strategies employed by basically every team to try to score runs.
Baseball has become home run-or-bust because of the numbers guys, who value factors such as launch angles and exit velocities. It really doesn’t matter how many times you strike out, as long as you’re hitting enough homers to compensate for all those whiffs.
While we’re not disputing the analytics — or saying they should be banned from the game, because there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle — MLB must figure out a way to bring more variety to the game.
Not to sound like the guy who tells you how much better things were in the olden days, but it wasn’t that long ago that the World Series matched a team known as Harvey’s Wallbangers against a team known for its blazing speed on the basepaths.
In 1982, the Milwaukee Brewers won the AL title with a fearsome lineup that hit 216 homers, 30 more than any other team in baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals captured the NL crown with a mere 67 homers — the lowest total in the game — but a staggering 200 stolen bases (which wasn’t even an MLB high; the Athletics had 232 thefts, with Rickey Henderson providing a record 130 of them).
It made for a most intriguing World Series, with the Cardinals prevailing in seven games.
No chance of that sort of matchup occurring in today’s monotonous, analytics-driven game.
The Braves and Yankees have already hit more than 200 homers, making the Wallbangers looks like a bunch of weak singles hitters. Five other teams are on pace to surpass 200 for the season, and several others could make a run at it.
Meanwhile, all but two teams have fewer than 100 stolen bases, the cumulative batting average has sunk to .243, and hitters are striking out at a 22% clip. Forty years ago, the strikeout rate was 13%.
That’s a more perplexing issue that can’t be solved by banning shifts.
“You’re trying to grow and evolve,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Hopefully these are things that could be small things that lead to a more entertaining and better product overall.”
We’re not really sure what effect larger bases will have, though MLB is hoping that going to 18-inch squares instead of the current 15-inch standard will lead to more stolen bases and exciting plays (not to mention lessening the chances of a first baseman getting stepped on by a runner).
We’re really not sure that a 4.5-inch decrease in distance on the basepaths will be enough — it’s less than a half a percentage point — for teams to risk a stolen base and potentially take a runner off base ahead of a homer.
But Kapler is hopeful.
“I think fans have been pretty consistent with their desire to see more stolen bases and some baserunning, athleticism,” he said. “This has a chance to be a more exciting brand of baseball for the fans.”
No matter what, we’re glad MLB took bold steps to address some of the most obvious problems in a game that has wallowed far too long in its traditions.
It might be a little late. Attendance is off nearly 6% from pre-pandemic level in 2019.
But it sure beats doing nothing.
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