Today we have a few words about baseball...but surprisingly it isn't about the joys of pitchers and catchers reporting for Spring Training.
For several years, Major League Baseball has been trying to figure out how to deal with a problem the sport has -- that games are taking a significantly longer time than in the past. Once upon a time, baseball games could be completed in between 2 to 2-1/2 hours. Today, however, it's common for games to take between 3 to 4 hours.
One solution with MLB just announced, after testing it in the minor leagues briefly, is to eliminate the intentional walk. Instead of the pitcher having to throw four pitches outside on purpose, now the manager will be able to inform the umpire, and the batter will get his walk.
This is insane.
The Wall Street Journal did a study, and reported that on average this new rule change will save 14 seconds per game.
Furthermore, though it happens rarely, an intentional walk always allows the possibility of the pitcher throwing wildly to a target he's unused to, and the ball getting away, allowing any runners on base to advance. This doesn't happen much -- rarely is an apt word -- but it does happen, and it's why fans do watch intentional walks when they do. Can an intentional walk be boring to watch? Absolutely. For 14 seconds. Most people can deal with that.
More to the point, though, is that there are two reasons which I've long believed are why baseball games take so much longer these days and are the real culprits -- and both of which are things that MLB is unlikely to ever change.
The first is that several decades back, the sport added an extra minute between innings for commercial time. That means two extra minutes each inning. So, right there, you have 17 more minutes every game. (No extra minute is needed for the bottom of the ninth inning if the home team is winning.)
The second is that the game itself has changed. In decades past, pitchers very often threw complete games. No relief pitcher was even needed. And on those games when a team did have to use a reliever, it was generally only one. Maybe sometimes two, but that wasn't regular. The other team might do the same -- or need no relievers. But one was perhaps it, or zero.
Today, though, relief pitching is a specialty. It's become essential that most teams even have a left-handed reliever who's such a specialist that he just may be brought in to only pitch to a single left-handed batter and then he was done for the game. It's not a rare thing for a team to use three relief pitchers in just one inning. Then maybe bring in another reliever later, and then in the eighth inning have a set-up man. And finally use their closer in the ninth inning. Just this week, in fact, Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage -- who pitched as recently as 1994, only 20 years ago -- chided today's top closers for only going one inning, when he would often pitch two or three innings during an appearance.
So, how does this work out with time?
A manager is allowed to make two visits to the mound before a pitcher must be removed. They don't always do that, but it often happens because two visits gives their relief pitcher in the bullpen more time to warm up. From the slow saunter to the mound, and then time talking with the pitcher, that's probably a minute -- two minutes for the two visits. Then the relief pitcher who's just come in takes another minute walking to the mount, and a couple minutes warming up. That's three more minutes.
So, it might be five minutes for every pitching change. And a team might use three relievers each game on average. (It could fewer, to be sure -- but it could be as many as six or seven.) That's 15 minutes. But don't forget, the other team will be doing the same thing. So, at a minimum, we're now talking a half-hour every game. (In fairness, in decades past, a team might have used one relief pitcher, maybe more. So, all this time today isn't necessarily extra over years before. But in equal fairness, as I said, it's not uncommon for teams to use five or six relievers in a game. It could be an extra hour of time for pitching changes. So, using "three" as a new base here and an extra half hour is very conservative as an average.)
Add that to the new commercial time, and you have 47 extra minutes slowing the game today that existed before.
That's the core foundational reason why baseball games today take so much longer. Not because you're using up 14 seconds to make an intentional walk.
Take away those 47 new minutes from a 3-hour game today, and you have games taking only 2 hours and 13 minutes. Which is about exactly what baseball games were in the past, when there wasn't "a problem."
Changing the intentional walk rule is idiotic. If baseball wants to truly address why games take so much longer today, these two issues are where they have to look. But it would mean losing revenue, and changing substantive rules about pitching changes. Neither of those are likely to happen. But -- again -- if baseball really does want to address the issue, that's where they have to start.
Major League Baseball just swung and missed.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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