Major League Baseball is taking its first steps into a strange new world this spring, one that features clocks and batters frequently standing at attention in the box. All in the name of speeding up the game.
With "first steps" being the key phrase there, it'll be a while before we know whether baseball's journey was worth its undertaking. But with the spring season halfway over, we can at least get down with some first impressions.
If you're not aware what's happening, clearly you missed MLB's big announcement last month. The league is making pace of play its latest crusade in 2015, and two new rules are spear-heading the movement:
- Batters must keep at least one foot in the batter's box at all times, save for after swings and misses, foul balls, brushback pitches and things of that nature.
- There will now be a time limit in between innings and pitching changes—two minutes and 25 seconds for local games, 2:45 for national games—and it calls for pitchers to finish their warm-up pitches by the 30-second mark and to start their windups before the clock hits zero.
One thing that can be said about these rules is that they're certainly coming at the right time.
|Pace Between Pitches: 2007-2014|
Per an article by Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe, the average game time has increased from two hours and 40 minutes as recently as 1984 to three hours and two minutes last year. And while it's not entirely owed to batters taking their sweet time, PITCHf/x figures at FanGraphs say the average time between pitches has increased from 21.5 seconds in 2007 to 23.0 seconds in 2014.
But just because these rules are coming just when the game has reached its slow point doesn't mean everyone had to like them. And while quite a few had no problem with the new rules, others did.
Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz spoke for many hitters when he turned his Big Papi Mode to 11 and said, "After a pitch, you got to stay in the box? One foot? I call that b------t." Washington Nationals reliever Casey Janssen spoke for many pitchers when he called the new between-innings time limit "a silly rule."
In listening to comments like those, you couldn't help but wonder if the new pace of play rules would be a disaster in their maiden voyage in spring training. Now that we're halfway through spring training, we can assess whether that's the case.
Short version: Rather than "disastrous," a better word would be "awkward."
Whether you agree or disagree, to an extent you could sympathize with the players who weren't happy with the new pace of play rules. No athletes stick to routines quite like ballplayers do, and MLB is asking them to alter their routines.
Actually getting them to alter their routines never was going to be as easy as saying, "Thou shalt alter thy routine!" There were bound to be growing pains.
Sure enough, there have been.
A common sight this spring has been hitters taking a couple steps out of the batter's box after a pitch before getting a reminder/warning from the home plate umpire to keep a foot in the box. Then comes a scene that can be best described as a "batter's box jig."
You can head to Yahoo Sports for a collection of GIFs starring Ryan Howard, Alex Rodriguez and Edwin Encarnacion. But what better demonstration can there be than Daniel Murphy doing the jig twice in a single at-bat?
The sample of players experiencing growing pains doesn't contain exclusively hitters. We've also seen some pitchers clash with the between-innings time limits.
For instance, here's Diego Moreno just barely beating the 20-second time limit with his first pitch after a pitching change:
We've also seen basically the exact opposite take place. Here's a Toronto Blue Jays play-by-play man telling a tale of Mark Buehrle actually having to slow down to accommodate the clock:
Consider instances such as these, and you'll get an idea of what can happen when you ask ballplayers to change their routines.
If there's a bright side, it's that the awkwardness may be on borrowed time.
Already, it seems as if we're seeing fewer hitters doing the batter's box jig now than we were at the start of spring training. It happens here and there, but hitters seem to have gotten the gist: leave the box when you have an excuse, and stay in the box when you don't.
And while a lot of the action happens between commercial breaks, there seemed to be few instances of pitchers have issues with the clock to begin with. Best yours truly can tell, these instances have not grown in number in the weeks since.
Not everyone is convinced, mind you. Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer, for example, doesn't see the rules doing any good, writing:
The Indians have been playing Cactus League games since March 3 and they've pretty much ignored the new rules to speed up the game. That goes for their opponents and the umpires as well.
And the umpires are supposed to be the guys in charge of enforcing the new rules.
You'll hear the higher-ups singing a different tune, however.
New commissioner Rob Manfred said during a visit with the Los Angeles Dodgers TV booth that he's gotten "uniformly positive" feedback from teams about the new rules. And in speaking with players, MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark has gotten a sense of progress.
"There is an acknowledgment that as we work through spring training and even as we work through the first month of the regular season, the guys are steadily trying to acclimate themselves to this situation," Clark said, via The Detroit News. "We want to see if guys can establish some new habits in an effort to keep the game moving, without negatively affecting the play on the field."
That players are already getting acclimated is a good sign. Because MLB said there would be no fines for "flagrant violators" in April, the first month of the season could be simply about cleaning up the few remaining stragglers rather than getting the whole league on track in a hurry. That would mean a PR nightmare avoided and, ideally, faster-paced games right away.
But on that last note, we find ourselves staring at the big question:
Have the new pace of play rules actually sped things up this spring?
Well, they do keep records of game times at MLB.com. Through Tuesday, there had been over 220 games played in an average of about two hours and 51 minutes. That's 11 minutes faster than the average game during the 2014 season.
Obviously, this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Spring training games aren't taken as seriously as regular-season games, and that can mean anything from fewer mound visits to fewer mid-inning pitching changes to players deliberately moving at a faster pace so they can make their afternoon tee times. There's no guarantee that spring training game times will be predictive of regular-season game times.
But then again, they might be.
Two years ago, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs compared the average time of a 2013 spring training game to the average time of a 2012 regular-season game. He noted that the average game in 2012 hovered around 177 minutes (two hours and 57 minutes), and that spring training games...
So far, through 83 spring-training games in February 2013, the average game length has been almost exactly 177 minutes...So there’s our answer. Based on our potentially representative sample, spring-training baseball isn’t faster than regular-season baseball.
Mind you, this is a conclusion that comes with some red tape. But it goes to show that there can be a reflective relationship between spring training game times and regular-season game times, which bodes well for what Major League Baseball is trying to do.
It's not as if the league is trying to cut game times by an hour, after all. If MLB Vice President Joe Torre is to be believed, the league only wants to cut games by 10 to 15 minutes. If it gets the average game down to around two hours and 50 minutes, it will have done just that.
So, here's what we have. Though there's been some awkwardness as players have adapted to the new rules, it's hard to see an all-out rebellion taking place against MLB's pace of play initiative. Players seem to be adapting, and the brisk pace of games this spring suggests the rules are making a difference.
In all, not a bad first impression.
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