Thursday, February 23, 2017
Let’s Negotiate Sensibly About Baseball’s Game Pace
The great political philosopher Edmund Burke once observed that a society without the means of change was a society without the means of its own preservation. Baseball is much like that if you look deep enough. Burke also observed that when it wasn't necessary for society to change, it was necessary for society not to change. And if you thought societies had a tough time finding the line between the two, just look at baseball.
Once upon a time, the game wasn't broken but commissioner Rob Manfred's predecessor/employer decided to try to fix it, anyway. That was then, this is now, and Manfred — buttressed by a clause in the new collective bargaining agreement — is determined to fix one thing, the pace of the game. He's going to send Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark (himself a former player, the first such to head the union) his letter of intent, this week, to impose a few new pace-of-games rules starting a year from the letter's date.
Essentially, Manfred is telling the players: Let's negotiate new pace-of-game rules, or I'll put them in place for you. Manfred and Clark disagree on who's been willing to talk what; they also disagree on which of the changes that might come might actually work without injuring the game's play itself. What does Manfred have in mind? Is he right?
Last week, I suggested eliminating the eight warmups at the mound for incoming relief pitchers — since their bullpen warmups just about equal three innings' worth of pitches, give or take a few — unless they come in to spell a pitcher who was forced from a game due to injury. That one isn't even a topic, though it ought to be, since I figure that would probably speed a game up by about four minutes if you allow more than a single reliever coming into the average game. But let's look at some other suggested changes Manfred is pondering:
* The pitch clock. Right now, the minor leagues work with one. The suggestion for the Show seems to be a 20-second pitch clock. It's not an unreasonable suggestion, until you ponder that some pitchers work quickly by nature and others, more deliberatively. It might not be a half bad idea to think of a compromise: A 30-second clock might be untenable, a 20-second clock might be too swift, but perhaps a 25-second clock would be a reasonable middle ground. You'd still quicken a game's pace, and you wouldn't necessarily take a pitcher out of his natural comfort zone.
* The smaller strike zone. If I read Manfred properly, he's suggesting a smaller zone with the bottom of the zone lifted. Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy isn't impressed. He told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci it might lead to more offense and still longer games. Verducci rejoined that umpires are calling more low strikes, and more pitchers now throw a little harder and a lot lower, while overall batting averages on lower pitches is lower than that on higher pitches.
You might thus see more balls put into play with a slightly higher-bottom strike zone. But you also run the risk that the game becomes too heavily weighted toward the hitters. During the 1990s — never mind the advent in earnest of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances — the game balance tilted overwhelmingly to offense, and two of the key reasons were a) the advent of new ballparks with more hitter-friendly dimensions; and, b) a strike zone small enough that some pitchers joked it was like trying to hit a postage stamp from 60 feet. (Of course, at least five pitchers became Hall of Famers figuring out how to out-smart that postage stamp: Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz. Go figure.)
The strike zone needs a review. No question. Especially considering the continuing issue of umpires with their own strike zones. Once upon a time, when he was still in the commissioner's office, current Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said aloud, during the 1999 confrontation that led to the collapse of the old umpires' union, "I got worried when I found out that players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching." Perhaps if Manfred were to address the issue of individual umpire strike zones in hand with any change in the zone itself, he might find a little more traction on which to approach the union to discuss a zone change. Because one thing doesn't seem to have changed: there are probably still enough players as concerned about the plate ump they're about to work with as they are about the pitcher they're about to face.
* Limiting mound visits. Managers have that limit already, and have for what seems decades: you can visit the mound once per pitcher, but if you visit a second time for the same pitcher, you have to lift him. But it does often seem as though there are times enough when catchers visit the mound at least once during every opposition plate appearance. Catchers like Lucroy and the Royals' Salvador Perez don't respond affirmatively when you suggest a mound visit limit for catchers.
Maybe it's not that bad an idea. Just how many visits the restriction should be can be negotiated sensibly, and Manfred should listen acutely to the men who play the game. One thing the Lucroys and the Perezes might ponder is that the aim is to cut the dead time, not to affect game tactics and strategies.
* Shortening the commercial breaks. I mentioned it last week, and while it doesn't seem Manfred has, Verducci noted the NFL is considering that among its own coming pace-of-game changes. (I almost had to laugh at that one: it can take you a lot longer to watch a football game because of those commercials than it can to watch a baseball game, even the longest non-extra innings ball game.) The common good of the game isn't always the same thing as making money for it, and if there's one thing on which fans watching baseball at home can probably agree, it's the sheer lunacy of commercial breaks for every pitching change. It takes relief pitchers far less time to get from the pen to the mound and through their warmup tosses than it does to get through the commercials for every call to the pen. Which gets us next door to...
* Relief pitching assignments. Verducci mentioned a possible change to be requiring relievers to face a minimum of two, even three hitters. This just might have an impact on game strategies; you don't need me to remind you about the situational relief specialists who come in to face one hitter and get rid of him before handing off to the next reliever. (The hitters awaiting the call to the batter's box probably aren't all that thrilled to have to wait out the commercials, either.) You'd quicken a game, yes, but you might be taking a tactical weapon out of a manager's hand. I suspect that if you get rid of the commercial breaks during bullpen changes you'd do better in quickening a game: it isn't often spoken, but you might watch closely if you're at the ballpark — watch the reliever who lingers a bit on the mound before starting against his first hitter, and see if he isn't lingering not to compose himself but to wait out the commercial then on the air.
(Do I really have to say that you can see no few hitters getting a little bit antsy waiting out a commercial when it happens, too?)
But Clark, too, has a point, which he made clear to FOX Sports's Ken Rosenthal. "Our game is full of conversations that may never be spoken and decisions that are often made in the blink of an eye," says Clark, a former first baseman. "At times, those conversations, those decisions, we see or we see the result of. Often times, we don't. Sometimes they happen on the field. Sometimes they happen in the dugout. Often times they happen on the mound or in the batters box. But in a game, in a chess match, they happen. And being able to see them, talk about them and explain them is what the folks in our game do very well. It is that willingness to continue to engage, educate and equip that is part of the reason that I believe we can excite our fans and fans-to-be once the dust settles."
Clark isn't exactly wrong about trying to teach and re-teach fans. Manfred isn't exactly wrong in pressing for the most viable the pace-of-game adjustments. And if there's one thing any side on the pace-of-game issue agrees, it's this: baseball has never been more popular, not when (read carefully) over 75 million fannies were in the seats all last season. But even if Manfred was given a hammer in the current CBA, it doesn't mean in hand that it's a hammer he absolutely must swing.
I suspect he swung it in a bid to jolt the players' association into getting busy with thinking about pace-of-game changes. Clark's remarks offer Manfred several points to ponder. The commissioner and the union ought to ponder them together. The fans may be alarmed now and then about the length of a baseball game, but they're not sitting in front of their television sets or going to the ball parks to see the commissioner, the owners, or the advertisers, either.