At 7:08 p.m. on Friday in a cozy baseball stadium in Waldorf, Southern Maryland Blue Crabs left-hander Michael Ballard fired a strike to Sugar Land Skeeters leadoff hitter Adam Godwin. Three pitches later, Godwin singled to left. A double play and a groundout later, the half-inning was over after a mere five minutes. All of it affirmed the efforts of the Atlantic League, which delivered a simple and clear message to players and umpires this offseason: Pick up the pace.
Over the years, just like Major League Baseball, the eight-team Atlantic League had watched the average length of its games reach nearly three hours. League President Peter Kirk said the slow pace was one of the most common complaints on fan surveys. So the league, one of the country’s largest independent baseball leagues, created a plan to speed things up. By implementing new guidelines and enforcing existing rules, the league hopes to serve as a model for other leagues, perhaps even MLB.
Midway through the season, Kirk said games are roughly 10 minutes shorter and players are slowly adapting.
“The whole world is faster-paced,” said Kirk, who has been involved in minor league baseball since the 1980s. “When I was a kid, there was no such thing as a shot clock and no shootouts in hockey. The world is moving at a faster pace. And baseball, we believe, at least in the Atlantic League, needed to take that into account.”
Forty years ago, the average major league baseball game lasted about 2 hours 30 minutes. By 2002, that had ballooned to 2:52, according to MLB figures, and dipped before increasing again. Last year, the average game was 2:55. Midway through this season, games have lasted an average of 2:57.
MLB has worked and studied the issue for years. The Atlantic League found an easy solution by urging umpires to enforce rules in the existing official baseball rulebook more strictly.
That includes rule 8.04, which states that a pitcher has 12 seconds to throw a pitch when he receives a ball with the bases unoccupied. Or rule 6.02(d)(1), which states that a batter must always keep at least one foot in the batter’s box with a number of exceptions, such as an attempted play in the field or swinging at a pitch or a wild pitch.
“A lot of rules were lackadaisical,” said reliever Gary Majewski, 33, who pitched for the Nationals in 2005 and 2006, and is in his second season with the Skeeters. “And now it’s like, ‘We’re going to change it.’ But in actuality, we’re just getting it back to the original rule.”
The Atlantic League is collecting data on nearly everything that occurs on the field, even the between-innings promotions, and will share it with MLB. Atlantic League officials suggested trimming batters’ walk-up music by a few seconds. They asked teams to trim down the time when teams switch sides from close to 21 / 2 minutes to 90 seconds. Official scorers submit a short report after every game to the league office detailing the number of pitching changes, mound visits by coaches and other observations. If a game lasts longer than 2:45, umpires must file a report explaining why.
When evaluating the data, Kirk said the league factors in injuries, high-scoring games, ballpark tendencies and weather. He said early results show that perhaps the most influencing factor in the pace of games is the percentage of strikes thrown. Umpires, team officials, players, managers and coaches have been “very cooperative” to the initiative because the changes aren’t drastic, Kirk said.
“We absolutely do not want to change the game,” Kirk said. “This is not an exercise of making a different game. But we know there was a time that games were two and a half hours, and we think it would benefit the game.”
During a recent game between the Skeeters and Blue Crabs at 4,000-seat Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, players still stepped out of the batter’s box with both feet and adjusted their gloves. (“Occasionally, it’s going to happen,” Blue Crabs General Manager Patrick Day said. “These guys have habits.”) When Ballard hit a batter and allowed a single in the fifth inning, he took nearly 18 seconds in between pitches, removing his cap, wiping sweat from his forehead and pacing around the rubber. A coaching visit took 28 seconds.
Blue Crabs starting pitcher Daryl Thompson, 27, a La Plata native and former Nationals farmhand, said he feels pitchers have picked up their tempo on the mound this season. Outfielder Brian Barton, 31, who debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008, said his coaches are more aware of when he calls timeout in the batter’s box.
“It’s always good when you try to keep the intensity level high, and I think that’s one of the main things that keeps it fun,” he said. “I don’t think speeding anything up is a bad idea.”
Baseball, however, is a sport of traditionalists. Some players, such as Nationals first baseman and 10-year major league veteran Adam LaRoche, believe the sport should be left alone, and that the varying tempos of pitches is part of the chess match between a hitter and pitcher.
“I don’t know why anyone is concerned about it,” he said. “Fans are paying to come out here. I would assume when you pay to go do something, you want to get your money’s worth. If you got guys rushing off the field and ‘let’s get out of here,’ what’s the purpose of it? We have nowhere else to be. If you’re shaving 10 or 15 minutes off, that’s really not that much time. If it means guys are rushing or less pitching in between innings or mound visits, it’s all necessary. And they’ve been doing it for 100 years.”
Shaving 10 minutes off a 7 p.m. game on a weeknight is relatively little, and perhaps superficial, but Kirk said it helps.
“Just talking to fans, it has more of a psychological factor than a real factor,” he said. “Many fans who are frustrated about this, when the hitters are stepping out and adjusting the gloves and so forth, and they go to a game and that has stopped, they seem to feel it’s a better pace of the game. Even though that game may be a three-hour game. It just feels like it’s moving better.”