For the first time in history, an average nine-inning major league game this past season lasted more than three hours, leading outgoing Commissioner Bud Selig and league officials to search for experimental, even radical, rules to pick up the pace.
The testing ground for pace of play rules that may eventually appear, in some form, in the majors leagues were the dusty and sun-drenched spring training fields of Arizona in October and November. The guinea pigs were the prospects and minor leaguers who played in the annual six-team Arizona Fall League.
“We need to address pace of play somehow,” said Andy Haines, manager of the Miami Marlins’ Class AAA affiliate in New Orleans and the Salt River Rafters, one of the AFL teams. “But there’s no easy answers.”
For lifelong observers of baseball, the changes in Arizona were noticeable. In one stadium, the Salt River Rafters’ home field in Scottsdale, clocks in the dugouts and behind home plate marked time limits between pitches (20 seconds), innings (2 minutes 5 seconds) and pitching changes (2:30). Any violation resulted in a ball.
Batters had to keep one foot in the box at all times with some exceptions such as foul balls or an errant pitch. A pitcher no longer needed to throw four pitchouts to intentionally walk a batter; a manager simply signaled for it and the umpire sent the batter to first base. Only three “timeouts,” such as mound visits and player-coach conferences, were allowed per game.
This week in Kansas City, Mo., at the quarterly owners’ meetings, team owners were briefed by the new Pace of Play Committee on the results. But no action was taken, and the discussion could be taken up again at next month’s winter meetings in San Diego or at the next owners’ meetings in January. Ask the prospects, minor leaguers and coaches who dealt with the experimental rules during the 32-game Arizona Fall League, and they offered mixed reviews.
“Some of it is good, and some of it they probably need to leave out,” said left-handed reliever Matt Grace, who, along with the other Nationals prospects, played for the Mesa Solar Sox. “Guys are open to some things. A lot of the things I just don’t see them changing, at least in the short term.”
By design, baseball has no clock. That’s the charm of the sport: Every game unfolds in a unique way. But the growing length of games is a frequent complaint among some fans.
“I don’t like the idea of a clock in baseball,” said catcher Spencer Kieboom, a Nationals prospect who played at Class A Hagerstown this year. “But at the same time, from a defensive standpoint, it’s not bad because you’re constantly going.”
In 1981, nine-inning games averaged 2 hours 33 minutes, according to figures provided by MLB. The length has slowly ticked up since, flat-lining in the 2000s, but then jumping to 2:56 in 2012, 2:59 in 2013 and now 3:02. The average postseason game this year was 3:26, tied with the 2007 as the second highest average. Playoff games in 2009 averaged 3:30.
The rule changes AFL players and coaches were most open to were the automatic intentional walk and the in-between-innings time limit, both of which players said helped keep the flow of the game more constant. “But I don’t know how that feeds into TV commercials and fans going to get concessions and stuff,” said Salt River Rafters starter Archie Bradley, an Arizona Diamondbacks prospect.
The pitching change time limit was also welcomed. Because the first pitch had to be thrown before 2 minutes 30 seconds were up, relievers were forced to run to the mound instead of briskly walking so they could throw warmup pitches. Haines joked the old-school bullpen carts may have to make a comeback if that rule is enacted in the major leagues.
“It’s a little bit painful sometimes, watching as a fan, some of those relievers taking the mound,” he added. “They walk around three times. They throw the ball out for no reason. It’s a very doable rule.”
But there is a caveat to consider: What if the catcher or pitcher was the last out of the inning, on deck or on the base paths when the inning ended? It takes time to run into the dugout, throw on all the catcher’s gear and get into position behind the plate, and a pitcher would need to throw warmup pitches, too. Haines said it was “near impossible” for catchers in those situations to get back in time during AFL games. Getting a drink of water was hard, too.
Players seemed okay with the 20-second rule in between pitches because the timer stopped when a pitcher came to a set position. Pitchers could still throw to first base to hold a runner or try a pick-off without worrying about the clock. Or if a pitcher was struggling and needed time to regroup, he could step off the rubber and the 20-second clock started again. It may be too difficult to pull off in the majors because “you start taking chances with the games being dictated on technicalities,” Haines said.
After an early adjustment period, players got used to the keep-one-foot-in-the-batter’s-box rule. Pitchers liked it, too. There are existing MLB rules that mandate 12 seconds in between pitches with the bases empty and batters keeping one foot in the box with some exceptions, but they are rarely enforced.
Catcher Pedro Severino, also a Solar Sox player and Nationals prospect, used to step completely out of the batter’s box in between pitches, walk near the grass and adjust his batting gloves. But during the AFL, he kept one foot in except after foul balls, errant pitches and passed balls. The umpires reminded him constantly.
“I don’t like not getting out of the batter’s box,” Severino said. “You feel a little uncomfortable at first but you get used to it. In the big leagues, the batters do take forever. They want to look good, take their time and that’s why games aren’t 2 hours 30 minutes; it’s at least three hours.”
Players were almost unanimously opposed to the three “timeouts” per game rule. If a catcher, pitcher, infielders and coach need to talk strategy during a critical part of the game, they felt a rule shouldn’t limit them. In an important playoff game, that may happen more than three times. “I don’t think that’s going to fly,” Grace said.
For now, it’s unclear what will happen with the experimental rules tested in Arizona. But bored and sleepy fans can find solace in the fact baseball officials are searching for an answer.
“There’s strategy in the game that you want to keep, but you also want to keep the game moving,” Haines said. “I get it. I respect MLB’s initiative, and they’re pretty aggressive in trying to find out.”