MLB rule changes are dangerous territory. While it’s true the game could be sped up, the real threat of doing damage to the sport exists.
Studies have shown that the length of games has increased by somewhere around thirty minutes in the last few decades, but there’s a lot that goes into that. The Wall Street Journal conducted a “study” in 2013 to determine how many minutes of actual action took place during a baseball game, and in their estimation, only 17 minutes and 58 seconds of a game is comprised of “action.” What the WSJ woefully fails to register is the fact that baseball is not a game based on constant action. Baseball isn’t tennis.
The study misses the point entirely. Nobody goes to a symphony to see only the final fanfare — the very end when the cymbals are crashed and conductor bows. Nobody goes to an opera just to see the fat lady sing.
So much of what goes on in baseball is mental. Part of what makes the game is exciting is the build up that leads to the action. You can’t have one without the other. It is the delicate balance of inaction and action that makes baseball so exciting.
One of the proposed rule changes is that batters must keep one foot in the batters box at all times (exceptions include a foul ball or a foul tip, a pitch forcing the batter out of the batter’s box, a request for time out being granted, a wild pitch or a passed ball and several others). This rule makes enough sense. No one can say they enjoy the incessant fidgeting of batters tweaking their arm guards and batting gloves, or pacing around the dirt. Stay in the batters box, and face the next pitch. There is no arbitrary time applied to the rule, and ostensibly, it would speed up the game.
Another proposed change is to force pitchers (with bases empty) to deliver the ball 12 seconds after receiving it on the mound. The rule would add clocks to both dugouts, behind home plate and in the outfield. This is a direct offense to the game itself. Imagine a clock behind home plate, distracting the pitchers and forcing them to make decisions they might not otherwise make. Imagine a crowd of 40,000 fans simultaneously counting down the the time until the pitcher should make his next pitch. Clocks on the field would do nothing but create unneeded distractions and general chaos for pitchers. Adding time to an historically un-timed game makes as much sense as cooking a Wagyu steak well-done.
One of the great things about baseball is that it is not timed.
The WSJ report measured other factors such as, time between batters, time between pitches, and time between innings. The last area is where improvements could be made. Forcing pitchers to throw the ball within a certain amount of time does nothing for the game — it cheapens the strategy and opens a whole can of “what-ifs.” Time between innings is a different story, and it has everything to do with commercials. According to the study, close to 43 minutes is spent between innings, and this is a time of complete inaction. There is actually nothing going on during this time, except for, of course, commercials.
The fact that none of the proposed rule changes address the issue of commercial breaks is slightly appalling. Between the top and bottom of innings there are commercials. Between innings there are commercials (longer for nationally televised games). While it’s true that these commercials are a large part MLB’s financial backbone, something could, and should be done. MLB should look here to make changes. Simply avoiding the issue altogether is not acceptable.
Cut commercial breaks out between every other inning, and add more commercial time before and after the broadcast. Raise the advertising cost accordingly, don’t simply force players to re-learn how to play the game. While unsightly, it might even be better to increase the amount of on-field advertisement to compensate for the reduced commercial breaks.
Whatever measures are taken, they should not fundamentally change the game of baseball. The proposed changes are currently being tested in Arizona Fall League, and if common sense and tradition win out, there will be no clocks behind home plate anytime soon.
If the goal is to shorten the game, then focus on the points of the game that have no actual bearing on player performance and overall strategy. Re-work the commercial breaks, get defenses on the field quicker, and let baseball be baseball. And if we actually believe changing the way commercials are used is out of the question, then perhaps we should reevaluate the way we look at the game, and what it means to us.