MLB’s Plan to Change Game is On the Clock
BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
24 March 2021
ORLANDO, FL – New York Mets’ utility infielder Luis Guillorme had an at-bat during a March 14 Spring Training game that, had it occurred during the regular season, would have been one for the record books.
Leading off the bottom of the fifth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Mets’ veteran faced 21 pitches from reliever Jordan Hicks. He fouled off 16 offerings – including nine straight with a 3-2 count – before drawing a walk on the 22nd pitch. It is believed to be the most pitches in one at-bat in Major League Baseball history.
The at-bat lasted 12 minutes. In that amount of time, a person could walk a mile at a brisk pace, and still have time to cool down. Read a short children’s book to a child. Take a power nap. Grill an 8- or 10-ounce filet mignon medium. Listen to Queen’s classic rock song We Are the Champions three times. Or, if you were Joey Chestnut, wolf down 75 hot dogs and buns, and take a dose of Pepcid AC or Nexium.
Because the Hicks-Guillorme duel took place during Spring Training, it will not be an official record. But those 12 minutes well could be Exhibit A in a battle between baseball purists who object to what they consider needless meddling in the game, and those on the other side who say that baseball needs to pick up its leisurely pace and join the entertainment-on-demand, non-stop-action, 21st century.
Traditionalists vs. Modernists
For many baseball traditionalists, one of the attractions of the game is its languorous pace. Part of baseball’s charm, they say, is the down time between innings, between pitches, and between plays.
Yes, there are a lot of times in a game when nothing of consequence happens: A pitcher takes his five warm-up tosses before each half inning. A batter steps out of the batter’s box to get the signs from the third-base coach. A pitcher rejects a baseball and asks the umpire for a new one. A pitching coach visits the mound to settle down his pitcher.
Which is OK, the purists say. Those moments during a game are tailor-made for having conversations with friends and surrounding fans, for keeping score, and for appreciating the nuances and strategies of the game and the simple joys of being at a ballpark.
Baseball is not meant to be a fast-paced game. Putting it on a clock, they say, would be like having told Michelangelo, “Hey, can you hurry up with painting that ceiling?”
Then there are the modernists, who argue that the game has become stagnate – that it takes too long to play and has too little action, with fielders just standing around too often and for too long.
That Guillorme at-bat? That’s basically a pitcher and catcher tossing a ball back and forth for 12 minutes, while seven other guys stand around in the field. Then, after the 22nd pitch, Guillorme drops his bat besides home plate and walks down to first. Modernists ask, “Where’s the entertainment in that?”
Today’s game has no pace, no rhythm, no movement, and less and less entertainment, they argue. Those quiet, between-pitch and between–play moments that traditionalists revere is not baseball, it’s dawdling.
The modernists cite statistics that show strikeouts, walks, and home runs -- commonly known as Three True Outcomes; (plays that require only participation by a pitcher, catcher and batter) – all are up, as are foul balls. Meanwhile, stolen base attempts, batted balls in play, bunt attempts, and hit-and-run plays – which require movement from fielders and runners – all are down.
Critics point out that 36 percent of all at-bats during a nine-inning game in 2019 resulted in one of those Three True Outcomes. On average, they note, there were only 46 balls put into play during a nine-inning game, which translates into just one play involving fielders and runners every four minutes.
Speaking of foul balls, as acclaimed baseball writer Tom Verducci reported in a 2019 article in Sports Illustrated, there were, on average, 49 foul balls hit during a nine-inning game, compared to 46 put in play. That means that fans are seeing more action than the fielders.
Meanwhile, the games have gotten longer -- from 2:56 hours in 2015 to 3:05 in 2019 -- while somehow offering less action.
Down time, they say, is dead time – a malignancy that is driving people away from the game. Complaints about boring, mind-numbing baseball have grown louder and more frequent. Fans are saying “I’m paying $50 a head for tickets. One bit of action every four minutes is not value to me.”
Fans don’t want foul balls, walks, and strikeouts, modernists argue. They want balls put in play, doubles, triples, and stolen bases – in other words, movement. And, that has the attention of Major League Baseball officials.
Baseball as a Science Lab
The league has tried different solutions in recent years to speed up the game: limits on the number of mound visits, shorter between-inning breaks, and requiring pitchers to each face a minimum of three hitters (to reduce the number of time-consuming pitching changes). Yet, none have succeeded.
This season, Major League Baseball is taking its most aggressive action ever in a quest for solutions. MLB is turning the minor leagues into a living baseball science lab with experimental rule changes “designed to increase action on the basepaths, create more balls in play, improve the pace and length of games, and reduce player injuries.”
Each of the four levels of minor leagues will adopt at least one rules change. “What we learn in the Minor Leagues this year will be essential in helping…chart the right path forward for baseball,” Theo Epstein, a former Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox executive who serves as a consultant to MLB, said in a statement.
Triple-A level: Larger bases. The size of the first-, second-, and third-base bags will increase by three inches, to 18-inch squares. That puts the bags three inches closer to the baserunners (the distance between first and second actually will be 4.5 inches less, because all three inches of the increase at first base will be in fair territory).
MLB says the larger bases will help reduce player collisions and injuries, plus will have a “modest impact” on the success of batters reaching safely on ground balls and bunt attempts, and on runners stealing bases. That 4.5-inch difference between first and second may not sound like much, but in a play where a fraction of an inch can mean the difference between “safe” and “out”, it can be significant. One wonders how great base stealers like Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson would have fared with that advantage.
‘Both Feet on the Dirt, Please’
Double-A level: Defensive shifts. In what likely will be the most closely watched of the experiments, this rule will require the defensive team to have a minimum of four players on the infield, each of whom must have both feet “completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt” at the start of each pitch. Violations will result in an automatic “ball” call on the play – unless the batter gets a hit, in which case his team has the option of taking that hit. Depending on things go, MLB may expand it in the second half of the season to require that the defense have two fielders on each side of second base.
This rule is expected to help raise batting averages on batted balls put in play by cutting down on the increasingly extreme shifts being employed by teams, which occasionally feature “softball-type,” five-outfielder alignments. In other words, no more instances of a left-handed batter being robbed of a base hit after smoking a line drive into short right field, only to have it caught by the third baseman.
High Class-A level: The “Step-Off Rule.” Under this rule, pitchers on this level of the minors must “disengage the pitching rubber prior to throwing to any base.” It is intended to combat the quick step-off, snap-throw-to-first-base move that left-handers have employed effectively for decades – and have brought cries of “balk” from opponents – to hold or pick off runners on first. Violations will result in an automatic balk call, with the runner advancing a base.
This rule also is intended to encourage more stolen base attempts, which have become something of a lost art. There were fewer attempts at swiping bases in 2019 than in any season since 1964, primarily because many managers today view the advancement of just one base as not being worth the risk of losing the baserunner. As Jayson Stark of The Athletic wrote recently, when a similar rule was adopted in the independent Atlantic League in 2019, stolen-base attempts jumped 70 percent, and the success rate was 80 percent.
Low Class-A level: There will be three new rules to be implemented for this level of the minors: limits on pickoff throws, a “robot” home plate umpire, and a pitch clock.
The limit on pickoff throws will be enforced in all low Class-A leagues. It restricts the pitcher to two “pickoff throws” or “step offs” per batter when there is a runner on base. The pitcher may attempt a third pickoff throw per plate appearance, but if the runner gets back to the base safely, the pitcher is charged with a balk and the runner advances one base.
Additionally, the Southeast League (formerly known as the Florida State League) will try out an electronic strike zone, known as an “Automated Ball-Strike System” (ABS) to help the home plate umpire call pitches. Most commonly known as the “robot umpire,” ABS has been used in the Independent Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League. It has received mixed reviews, with complaints primarily regarding calls on breaking pitches in the bottom part of the strike zone.
In the West League (formerly the California League), a “pitch clock” will limit the time between innings, between delivery of pitches, and pitching changes.
“We are listening to our fans,” Mike Hill, who serves as MLB senior vice president of on-field operations, told the Associated Press. “This effort is an important step towards bringing to life rule changes aimed at creating more action and improving the pace of play.”
Hoping to Reverse a Trend
Why does all this matter? Because attendance across MLB is declining and TV ratings are tanking.
In six of the past seven seasons (not counting 2020, when no fans were allowed to attend because of the coronavirus pandemic), attendance has dropped. In 2019, MLB drew 68.5 million fans -- one million fewer than the season before, and its worst attendance in 16 years.
When attendance drops, baseball takes notice. According to MLB, an estimated 40 percent of teams’ revenue comes from the gate (ticket sales, parking, concessions, souvenirs, etc.), which means less money for clubs. Without fans last year, MLB claims it lost $3 billion.
Likewise, TV ratings also are down, particularly for baseball’s biggest moneymaker: the World Series. For example, the 2020 Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays drew the fewest viewers in league history. The average of 9.8 million viewers over the six games was a considerable drop from the 14 million viewers that the 2019 Fall Classic averaged (which itself was the least watched in five seasons).
Declining attendance, lower TV ratings, longer games, and less action – it’s a cocktail that does not go down easily with baseball owners.
Baseball’s On the Clock
If there is one thing that the game’s traditionalists and modernists agree upon is the symmetry of action – the movement of the fielders, the batter and the baserunners – that makes a baseball play a thing of beauty: the “small ball” plays like a hit-and-run, stolen base attempt, and a drag bunt for a base hit, or a double or triple, that help showcase the elite athleticism and talents of the best players in the world.
What they disagree on is what the game looks like. The traditionalists say Major League Baseball has survived just fine for more than 150 years, and will continue to do so. The modernists say it needs to pick up the pace and join the 21st century.
Major League Baseball’s attempts to put the game on the clock are, well, on the clock.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.