If Major League Baseball is interested in speeding up the pace at which games are played, it should take some cues from the Atlantic League.
What the heck is an Atlantic League, you ask?
It's a professional independent league that touts itself as the "highest level of professional baseball other than the Major Leagues." It's like the minor leagues, except that the players aren't there to develop their skills. They're there to, you know, play ball.
This year, the Atlantic League wants its players to play ball more quickly. The league announced on Thursday that it will be experimenting with some new rate-of-play rules in 2013. These would be:
- Strike Zone: The Atlantic League is tired of seeing pitches above the belt called balls, and is demanding that the strike zone be called according to the rule book.
- Hitters: No leaving the batter's box during an at-bat. Batters get one warning, and then the umpires start calling strikes for each violation.
- Warm-Ups: Eight warm-up pitches only, and they're not allowed to take more than a minute.
- Pitcher Pace: No more than 12 seconds in between pitches when the bases are empty. Pitchers get one warning, and then the umpires start calling balls.
- Time in Between Half-Innings: 90 seconds or less.
The Atlantic League is also going to be evaluating whether rules regarding mound visits are needed. In addition, the league is requiring that any game that exceeds two hours and 45 minutes must be explained in reports sent to the league office by managers, umpires, the home team's general manager and the official scorer.
Long story short, these guys aren't messing around.
They also have some ideas that MLB should consider adopting.
One of those isn't the 90-seconds-between-innings idea. If Major League Baseball pitched that idea to its television partners, there would be fisticuffs. And nobody likes fisticuffs.
Elsewhere, MLB's official rules already allow only eight warm-up pitches that must be completed in one minute. As far as I can tell, it's a rule that's actually being enforced too.
Where MLB can take some cues from the Atlantic League is in enforcing other rules that are already in place, especially the strike zone one. In practice, the strike zone in MLB generally ends at the belt. By rule, it's supposed to go higher than that.
The STRIKE ZONE 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. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.
So, depending on the batter, the strike zone should extend well above the belt. Case in point, the ideal strike zone for Adam Dunn would look something like this:
*Image from this video on YouTube.
The strike zone I slapped on this image via Photoshop is a rough guess, but you can see just how many strikes there are to be thrown above the belt.
How much would more strikes quicken the pace of games? I'll be damned if I can put an exact number on it, but more strikes would mean fewer walks in the short term and, indeed, more balls in play in the long term once hitters got used to the "new" strike zone.
That could backfire, as more balls in play means the likelihood of more hits. That means more batters coming to the plate, which means more pitches being thrown and more minutes passing by.
But even if that were to be the case in a given game, the other rules the Atlantic League came up with would help things keep moving along.
Prohibiting batters from stepping out of the box between every pitch would satisfy a common complaint. According to a 2010 article from Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com, Joe Torre and Hank Aaron told MLB commissioner Bud Selig that they never stepped out of the box when they were playing. In this day and age, it happens frequently.
And the reason it happens so often is because MLB hasn't done enough to make it stop. There are rules in place prohibiting batters from stepping out of the box, but they come with the following exceptions:
(i) The batter swings at a pitch;
(ii) The batter is forced out of the batter's box by a pitch;
(iii) A member of either team requests and is granted “Time”;
(iv) A defensive player attempts a play on a runner at any base;
(v) The batter feints a bunt;
(vi) A wild pitch or passed ball occurs;
(vii) The pitcher leaves the dirt area of the pitching mound after receiving the ball; or
(viii) The catcher leaves the catcher's box to give defensive signals.
Not all of these need to go, but at least one of them can. Batters really don't need to be granted a break from the batter's box every time they swing at a pitch, and there could certainly be fewer timeouts.
MLB also already has a 12-second rule in place for pitchers, but it only applies when there are no runners on base, and you know as well as I do that it isn't really enforced even when the bases are empty.
Thanks to PITCHf/x, we actually know how long pitchers take in between pitches on average, and it's a hell of a lot longer than 12 seconds.
The league has averaged over 20 seconds in between pitches every year since 2007. Worse, pitchers are slowing down rather than speeding up. The average was 22.1 seconds in between pitches in 2012, and is 22.5 seconds so far this year. This despite the fact that the league's OBP is going down, not up.
Relievers are particularly bad, especially Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Betancourt. According to FanGraphs, they've both averaged over 30 seconds in between pitches ever since 2007.
If the average time in between pitches were to be cut down much closer to 12 seconds, you're talking a couple of minutes being saved per half-inning.
Combined with the other changes, the average game time would be cut down dramatically. Instead of roughly three hours, an average game could be less than two-and-a-half hours. An average game between the Yankees and Red Sox, meanwhile, would be cut down to roughly a fortnight.
If there's a concern here, it's that games would become too quick. Maybe that would help attract more young people to the game of baseball, but crotchety old me is of the mind that baseball isn't supposed to be played at a hyperactive pace.
For lack of a better word, baseball is supposed to be "chill."
However, there's a potential benefit here as well: If games were to be played more quickly, then there would be more time for instant replay.
Expanded replay is coming to baseball one way or another, mind you, but quicker games could potentially lead to more liberal use of replay. Instead of getting only crucial calls right, perhaps the emphasis would be on getting all calls right.
Baseball fans would then be treated to the best of both worlds: quicker games that are also fair. It would be like living in a fantasy land, except not, because it would be real life.
All thanks to the Atlantic League.
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