MLB Pace-of-Play Rule Changes Focus on the Wrong Factors

LONG POST AHEAD!

On Monday, MLB announced new pace-of-play rules for the 2018 season. Some baseball purists might not think this is even a problem, but Commissioner Manfred believes otherwise and seems to be concerned about losing viewership and attendance to faster-paced sports like NBA basketball. What he really should be worried about is the fact that Millennials, and even their elders, are “cutting the cord.” Who watches TV anymore? I don’t even watch Cubs games on TV, since I’m in Canada. I use the MLB.tv app. Another cause for concern is that “Generation Z” prefers YouTube to television and has more interest in e-sports than traditional pro sports  As older fans die off, MLB may find itself without an audience unless it can find a way to connect with young people.

In my opinion, MLB’s new rules also fail to fix what really slows down a ballgame. Here is a summary of the new rules:

  • Mound visits will be limited to 6 per team for a nine-inning game. In extra innings, there will be one additional visit per inning. Mound visits are defined as any trip to the mound by a manager, coach or player. Exceptions are made for visits to clean cleats during rainy conditions and to check on injuries or after announcements of offensive substitutions. The umpire will be given discretion to grant additional visits to catchers in the case of cross-ups. There is no specified punishment for exceeding the mound visit limit, so how will they enforce this rule?
  • There will be a timer counting down between innings as has been used since the 2016 season. For 2018, the umpire will signal for the final warmup pitch at the 25-second mark and the pitcher must begin the windup to throw the pitch within five seconds before the clock ticks down to zero. Pitchers are also no longer guaranteed eight warmup pitches between innings but can throw as many pitches as they want during the countdown. Timers will begin on the final out of the inning unless the pitcher is on base, on deck or at bat. In that case, the timer will begin when the pitcher leaves the dugout. Again, I don’t see anything specifying how MLB will enforce this rule.
  • There will also be a timer running for pitching changes which will begin counting down once the reliever crosses the warning track after exiting the pen.
  • Club video rooms will receive direct slow-motion camera angles to “speed up challenges and the resulting review.” The time it takes managers to decide whether to initiate a challenge isn’t what is slowing down review processes – the slowdown is coming from the review umpires not being to make a decision in an expeditious manner.
  • MLB has decided not to implement a “pitch clock”, so very deliberate workers like Pedro Baez will not be forced to speed up their delivery.

Now for my steaming-hot take: these rule changes don’t fix the things that actually cause slowdown in the pace of MLB games. I’ve watched and listened to a lot of baseball games. While mound visits definitely lengthen the time of games, they often occur when other things are happening that slow down the game. Generally, when a pitcher is dealing and there is not a lot of traffic on the bases, the game will move along quickly. A good example would be 2016 NLDS Game 3 (SF at CHC). The Cubs won this game 1-0 and the game wrapped up in 2-1/2 hours. The starters were Lester and Cueto, who are both known as fast workers, and both men pitched well.

However, games always slow down when there is traffic on the bases. The pitcher will begin to work more deliberately, and there will be pickoff throws to 1st, as well as mound visits by the catcher or pitching coach to discuss how to work the hitter. The first baseman may also make a visit to relay defensive positioning. Sometimes the manager may even visit to discuss positioning and defensive strategy or make a defensive substitution. This is all part of game strategy. When things really slow down, however, is when the starter is unable to get out of the jam and the manager has to make a call to the pen. If the reliever is also ineffective, then you will see multiple pitching changes during the inning and pitching by matchup. This is the real problem when it comes to the pace of games. Every time there is a pitching change, then there is a commercial break while the new guy comes in and takes his warmup throws. When there are multiple changes in an inning, then there are multiple delays. I follow a lot of baseball, and even I get bored and start browsing Facebook when this type of stuff is going on. One example of this type of game is 2017 NLDS Game 5 (CHC at WSH). The Cubs won this one 9-8 in regulation. It was a 4-1/2 hour, high-scoring game where a total of 14 pitchers were used and all pitching changes were made mid-inning (no reliever started with a “clean” inning). While I was definitely on the edge of my seat since it was an elimination game for the Cubs, the only reason I was able to stay into it with every pitch was because I was live-blogging it on Facebook. After live-blogging the game, I got a real appreciation for why people keep scorecards – it’s a good way to stay in the game.

IIRC, 2017 NLDS Game 5 also featured multiple lengthy video review challenges. This has been a problem plaguing games since MLB introduced replay review. Sometimes, a call is reviewed fairly quickly with a verdict to uphold or overturn the call when there is a clear view. However, when a play is close or an unprecedented rules issue comes up, then the review is often very lengthy and it may take 5-10 minutes to make a ruling. This is a problem for the players since the pitcher needs to stay loose and warm and everyone else wants to stay active and focused on the game to be at their best. What to do if the review is taking a long time? The pitcher doesn’t necessarily want to make a bunch of throws while the review is happening but still needs to keep warm. The Cubs radio analysts have frequently suggested having a limit on the time to make a review ruling whenever a game they’re calling has featured a lengthy review process. The idea would be to implement a time limit for the review umpires to make a decision. If they are unable to make a definitive ruling before the clock runs out, then the call stands. I think this is definitely a good idea and would be a lot more helpful than the new rules coming in for the 2018 season.

As regards the mid-inning pitching changes, I originally had a suggestion of requiring one RP to record at least 2 outs in the inning if the inning is started “clean” by the relief squad. Another blogger replied they were in favor of a rule requiring pitchers to face at least two batters. This is probably a better, easier-to-implement suggestion and would eliminate matchup pitching (e.g. bringing in one reliever to face a lefty, or bringing in whoever has favorable numbers against the batter due up, and then bringing in somebody else to face the other hitter(s) due up).

In conclusion, if MLB is serious about really picking up the pace of ballgames, it needs to put a time limit on review decisions and require pitchers to face at least two batters. The mound visit rule and timers are a fix for non-issues.