Four simple changes could help speed up, increase scoring in baseball
Barry M. Bloom | Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018
Despite recent pace-of-game advances in Major League Baseball, a stark reality remains: Four games between the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks in September took about 16 hours to play — an average of four hours each.
Overall, the average time of game this year was three hours, down about five minutes from last season, according to figures provided by MLB.
Those four September games at Chase Field were taut and exciting affairs that came down to the final inning, if not the last at bat. Two went 10 innings and another was an 8½ inning thriller in which the D-backs won without having to bat in the bottom of the ninth. Another ended in the bottom of the 10th when the D-backs tried to force in the tying run only for that base-runner to be thrown out at the plate.
“We think our product is fundamentally sound,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told a group of baseball writers this summer. “Having said that, we think it’s our obligation to carefully monitor what are significant developments to the way the game is played on the field.”
Baseball doesn’t need an overhaul, but four simple changes might speed the game and, perhaps, put more punch back in offenses:
- The pitch clock, which has been experimented with in the minor leagues.
- The electronic strike zone, which would give uniformity to the calling of pitches.
- The universal designated hitter, which would put a real bat rather than the pitcher in the NL lineup, thus limiting unneeded pitching changes, pinch-hit appearances and substitution of fielders with the attendant changes in the batting order.
- Limiting or abolishing infield shifts, which has caused batting averages to plummet and hitters to adjust their swings for an upward launch angle. The result is all or nothing: hit the ball over the infield and into the seats or strike out.
September baseball, with expanded rosters, mean as many as 40 players are on the roster and in the dugout, giving managers the opportunity to flip pitchers in and out at will, particularly in National League games.
In the Braves-Diamondbacks series, both managers took full advantage of it. In Game 1 of the series, the two sides combined to use 17 pitchers, nine by the D-backs. No wonder the game took 4:11 in 10 innings for the Braves to win, 7-6.
If you like baseball and are a long-time observer, the games were awash with twists and turns, plus multiple occasions to question the sanity of the decision makers.
If you don’t, the series was Exhibit A with what’s wrong with the sport. The games were long, somewhat-tedious at times, punctuated by extended trips to the mound and endless pitching changes, sometimes several in the same half inning. A new rule this season attempting to limit mound visits can’t have its desired effect if there are 17 pitching changes.
In the National League — one of two professional leagues in the world in which the pitcher still hits — strikeouts are outpaced base hits this season 21,001 to 20,403 In the American League, which utilizes the DH like every other league in the world save for Japan’s Central League, hits led strikeouts 20,616 to 20,206.
That decision seems simple: install the DH in the NL.
“I grew up as a player in the NL, and I love that configuration,” said Mike Scioscia, who played his entire career as a catcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL and managed his entire career, for the Los Angeles Angels in the AL before resigning at the end of the season. “But managing in the AL, I’ve really come to wrap my arms around the DH. You can get more in the AL from your sixth, seventh and eighth spots than the NL because you don’t have to worry about hitting the pitcher.
“I don’t know where baseball is going go with this, but I’ve certainly come to embrace the DH because I can see the things you can do from the offensive end.”
We polled a number of managers about the above changes. As expected, most are resistant to change even though the state of the game may necessitate it.
Universal designated hitter
The fact that most pitchers can’t hit is well-established. Most pitchers — unless he started as a position player — have not hit much in their careers, especially considering that the DH is utilized from high school to the American League.
For every Madison Bumgarner, there is an Andrew Suarez. Both pitch and hit for the San Francisco Giants in the no-DH league. Suarez, a rookie who grew up in Miami and played for the University of Miami, hasn’t hit regularly since he was in middle school.
His batting stats in his rookie season reflect that lack of expertise: He has three hits in 46 at bats (.065), 26 strikeouts, three in three plate appearances in a recent Sept. 17 start against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park, one in which he beat the Padres on the mound, 4-2.
“If you want I’ll put together a video of all his at-bats for you,” deadpanned Bruce Bochy, his manager.
Bumgarner is considered a slugger among pitchers and even that is relative. Bumgarner, who pitches left-handed but bats right, is a .183 lifetime hitter with 17 homers, 57 RBI and a .541 OPS — a figure that combines on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He has played for San Francisco for the better part of 10 seasons.
If Bochy had the DH in the NL, would he bat Bumgarner on the days he pitched or utilize a real hitter?
Bochy looked out into space with a silly grin on his face. He didn’t answer the question. He didn’t have to. He doesn’t regularly use Bumgarner to hit when the Giants play interleague games in American League parks where the DH comes into play.
Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Greinke has a .219 batting average, six homers, 25 RBI and a .570 OPS in eight seasons in the NL.
Arizona manager Torey Lovullo was asked if he’d hit Greinke on the day he pitches instead of utilize the DH. Right now, in away interleague games he doesn’t.
“You’re asking me a very tough question,” Lovullo said.
Enough said. Pitchers batted a combined .115 this season.
The Pitch Clock
In 1983, an average Major League game took 2:36 to play, according to data provided by Major League Baseball. Here is the primary reason: Starting pitchers went deep into games, completing 745 of them, eliminating all of the attendant pitching changes and visits to the mound.
That complete-game figure has decreased every year since as the time of game has gradually increased. In 2017, there were 59 complete games and the average time of game rose to 3:05. AL games averaged about four minutes longer than NL games last season. This year there were only 42 complete games, but the time of game in each league was about three hours.
There are now clocks in MLB ballparks to gauge the time in between innings, between each at bat, time for a reliever to scoot in from the bullpen, toss warmups and get ready to pitch to the next batter. Restrictions on mound visits also had a positive effect. All that shaved five minutes off the time of game this season, MLB says.
Likely coming next season is a pitch clock to limit the time any pitcher takes in between each pitch.
“I think it’s a conversation we should have,” said Dave Roberts, the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I’m just not sure that the time a pitcher takes to throw the ball is the reason for the 3-hour, plus games.”
There’s proof it has a lot to do with it. Last fall, a 15-second clock was used in the Arizona Fall League. The clock was for the time a pitcher sets to throw the pitch to the point he delivers the ball to the plate. If he misses that margin a ball is automatically called. The Fall League games averaged about 2:35.
“I think it’s a conversation we should have. I’m just not sure that the time a pitcher takes to throw the ball is the reason for the 3-hour, plus games. - Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts
This year in the minor leagues, a 15-second pitch clock with no runners on base was used at the Class AAA level. Average time of game was 2:42 in the International League and 2:52 in the Pacific Coast League, according to figures provided by minor league baseball.
Using a 15-second timer on all pitches in the Advanced-Class A Florida State League, the average time of game was 2:34. That’s a serious difference from the pace a Major League game is being played.
“If it is adopted in Major League Baseball, we will certainly support it,” said Lovullo. “My personal opinion is this isn’t a timed game or a timed situation. Pitchers every once in a while need a chance to step back and gather themselves.”
“I understand the desire to move the game along,” said Andy Green, the San Diego Padres manager. “We’ve had some long ones this year. I’d prefer to move forward without a pitch clock, and we’ll see what determinations are made at the end of the season.”
“I’ve experienced it when I was in Triple-A and I’m not a big fan of it,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker. “Do we need it? No, but I mean guys get used to it.”
Electronic Strike Zone
The strike zone as defined by Major League Baseball rule 2.00 is “that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap.”
Whether that zone can be called more efficiently electronically than by an umpire is really the question at hand.
Joe Garagiola Jr., MLB’s senior vice president of standards and on-field operations, recently told a lunch gathering of the Hemond-Delhi AZ SABR Chapter in Phoenix that home plate umpires are constantly evaluated. They call balls and strikes at a 98-percent efficiency rate according to Garagiola.
Before baseball adopted video replay challenges for on-field calls, traditionalists used that argument for keeping that technology out of the game. But if the technology is read to get calls closer to 100 percent right why not use it?
“We are much closer than we were a year ago to having the technological capability to actually call the strike zone,” Manfred told The Athletic a few months ago. “The accuracy is way up — way better than what it was a year ago. The technology continues to move… and it actually moved a little faster than I might have thought.”
“Who knows? Fifteen years ago, the umpires were vehemently opposed to instant replay. They came around and actually wanted it.” - Major League Baseball commissioner Bob Manfred
To be clear, Manfred isn’t advocating the change. It has to be approved by the owners and collectively bargained with the separate unions representing the players and umpires, the latter group possibly being ardently opposed to the change.
But as Manfred said: “Who knows? Fifteen years ago, the umpires were vehemently opposed to instant replay. They came around and actually wanted it.”
Garagiola said the graphic boxes used on televised games don’t accurately depict the strike zone. But when the advanced technology does, it will give every hitter a standard zone to rely upon on every single pitch rather than the adjustment the batter must make to vagaries of each umpire’s personal zone.
“I always want to get calls right,” Lovullo said. “I always want to have strikes be called strikes. But I love the interaction with umpires, the barking, the talking, the relationship you have with the home plate umpire every night. I would hate for that to go away.”
The on-field arguments with umpires have virtually disappeared with the usage of instant replay. In fact, the rules explicitly state a manager will automatically be ejected if he disputes a call once it’s adjudicated by replay. The last area of dispute on the field basically involves the calling of balls and strikes.
“I think it’s a good discussion,” Roberts said. “Sometimes you’ve got to be careful what you ask for. If you implement it the hitters, in particular, may be taken aback by the results. But it’s all about consistency. Not taking anything away from an umpire, he’ll always have value. But we all want consistency, so I’d definitely be open to it.”
The controversy involving infield shifts has permeated baseball conversations in recent years. In the shift, managers move infielders from one side of the diamond to the other on a pitch-by-pitch basis to thwart a batter’s tendency of hitting the ball consistently to certain places.
The defensive strategy has led to an increased emphasis on the launch angle of a batter’s swing in an attempt to hit the ball over the shift rather than into it. Because of this change in approach at the plate, fewer groundballs and balls overall are put into play, leading to more strikeouts and homers, which were down marginally overall by 520 this season.
It is something MLB is taking a close look at.
“The organic changes you’re seeing are being driven by smart people who want to win more baseball games,” Manfred said. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s why you’re seeing these changes. The question for us is at what point do we want to step in and manage that organic change.”
How about now?
Baseball is the only major sport that doesn’t dictate the position of players by rule. As Manfred said, that positioning has taken place organically over more than a century and certainly has sped up in the last 10 years with the use of electronic analytics.
But now it has gotten out of hand. A simple change would be to restrict movement of infielders. They can play where they want as long two of them are on the left side of second base and the other two are stationed on the right side.
It doesn’t have to be a complete ban, either. If baseball wanted, the shift could still be used as a tactic an established number of times per game. That way a team isn’t taking the bat out of the hands of players such as Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals every time he comes to the plate. Harper is a strict left-handed pull hitter, who can’t seem to adjust to hitting away from shift.
Joey Votto, also a left-handed hitter from the Cincinnati Reds, is the antithesis. When teams stack the right side of the infield with three fielders, Votto has no problem punching a grounder through the empty hole at shortstop for an easy base hit.
Harper batted .249, Votto .284.
It’s starting to change anyway. The use of shifts in the Major Leagues went down 5 percent last season from 2016, Fangraphs noted, and teams like the Nationals don’t use them at all in certain games this season because their top starters don’t like pitching to them.
“When you have great pitchers like [Stephen] Strasburg and [Max] Scherzer there’s really no reason to shift,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “They pitch to contact anyway and get a lot of ground balls. You do what they’re comfortable with.”
The Nationals won the NL East title under manager Dusty Baker in 2017 with a 97-65 record. This year they finished 82-80, eight games behind the first-place Braves. Scherzer thrived with an 18-7 record, 2.53 ERA and 300 strikeouts in 33 starts. Strasburg made only 22 starts because of arm and shoulder problems, but still had 10 wins, a 3.74 ERA and 156 strikeouts.
But most managers want to maintain the shift and place the onus for beating it on the hitters.
“I’m in favor of the shifts,” said Roberts of the Dodgers, who won their sixth consecutive NL West title.. “I think the impetus should be on the hitters to manipulate the bat. I think that’s more of it rather the restricting where a defender can be strategically placed. I think the bat to ball is something we’ve lost in the last decade.”
Barry M. Bloom has been a baseball writer since 1976, and a National Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 1992. His sometimes award-winning national reports and columns appeared on MLB.com for the past 16 years, until recently. He’s now a contributing columnist for Forbes.com.