By now, trudging toward the midway point of this baseball season, we have been well versed on the reasons games are taking longer. Pitchers throw harder. Batters swing for the fences. They miss a lot. Fewer balls are in play. Hitters are striking out at a record pace — again. Both sides take longer to prepare for each pitch.
Hello, average game time: 3 hours 8 minutes, longest ever.
Yet all of those considerations leave something that seems rather obvious unconsidered. Advanced analytics have provided us with more ways to dissect — and enjoy — the game than ever. So much is quantifiable, including that there’s more time between pitches — 23.8 seconds — than at any point in the decade since PitchF/x has been recording such data, and the indispensable website FanGraphs has been sharing it with any member of the public who cares to click. Velocity, swing rates, batting average on balls in play — we know it all.
The aspect that can’t be quantified by such numbers: the brain.
“We want [players] to stay in their three-foot world,” said Charlie Maher, the director of psychological services for the Cleveland Indians.
Staying in their three-foot world means focusing on the pitcher’s rubber or the batter’s box. But people such as Maher, who has three decades’ worth of experience working with baseball players in maximizing their mental performance, allow that such a pursuit takes time.
Athletes in general — and baseball players specifically — often talk about slowing the game down so they can better process the information — the circumstances — with which they’re presented. But what if, by slowing the game down for themselves, they’re slowing it down . . . for everyone?
Two things: There’s no way this can’t be true, and it’s fixable, at least to a degree.
Mental coaching, sports psychology — whatever label you give it — there’s no denying that it has been on the rise in baseball (not to mention other sports) over the past generation, at least. It would be silly to think that, if this has an impact on individual players or teams, it doesn’t have an impact on the sport as a whole.
Let’s walk through what Maher and others have tried to instill in players. The Indians and other teams use an acronym: MAC. The “M” is for mindfulness.
“It’s learning how to center yourself,” Maher said. “The moment is what you have. You’re in the batter’s box. You’re on the pitcher’s mound. That’s what you can deal with.”
The “A” follows, and it’s for acceptance.
“As they compete, things happen during the game,” Maher said. “The pitcher might have two outs and no men on, and two minutes later, they might have two men on. It’s learning to accept the situation but not judging yourself in that situation. Instead of saying, ‘What the hell’s going on? I shouldn’t have thrown that pitch,’ let it go.”
And, then, the “C”: commit.
“Commit to the next pitch,” Maher said. “Stay in the moment. Relax. Get the job done.”
Now, how long did it take you to read those elements? I timed myself. The result: 22.5 seconds.
Maybe you process more quickly than you read. And you could work through those pieces in what MLB suggests should be the time to deliver a pitch when no one’s on base and the batter’s in the box: 12 seconds.
But you can’t tell me that all this information comes in a streamlined package. We have read, with increasing regularity, about all the factors players are evaluating as they approach a pitch from either side — whether throwing it or trying to attack it. We have read about launch angle, and if a player is consciously trying to hit a ball in the air rather than on the ground, well, doesn’t it make sense that it takes a bit of time to remind himself how to do that?
The psychology, too: Some players clear their minds by tapping a certain spot on the rubber or redoing their batting gloves.
“It has to work for the individual player; it can’t be forced,” Maher said. But it works for some players, so they do it.
“It’s some action, some physical action — with the batting gloves or rubbing the ball up. Something.”
The clock is ticking.
Maher has another trick.
“If you don’t know what else to do and you have 10 to 12 seconds to turn yourself around, do something that’s very cheap, very economical,” Maher said. “That’s deep breathing. What that does for them, it centers them. It slows things down for them.”
For them? What about the rest of us?
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. One thousand one. One thousand two.
My goodness, it’s 10:38 p.m., and it’s just now, finally, the top of the ninth.
(True story. I am writing this Wednesday night, with the Orioles and Indians on in front of me. Routine 4-0 game entering the ninth. Yes, it was delayed, a 7:49 p.m. start. Still — oh, my, it’s 10:41 p.m.)
Baseball often is evaluated as the most individual of team sports. Golf might be the most individual of individual sports. Baseball and golf have something else in common: They share the distinction of battling pace of play with aggression because each is worried about how long it takes to play.
Golf, too, has been inundated with sports psychology and mental coaching — dating further back than baseball. It’s completely understandable. Golfers are naked to the world, with no one else responsible for their actions than themselves. It can be helpful to have a process: assess the situation, envision the shot — maybe once, maybe twice, nah, go ahead, give it one more try — and then, finally, execute.
At the beginning of this season, Jason Day (nickname: “Takes All”) — a former No. 1 in the world, a major champion — said his regret from 2016 was that he played too quickly.
“I wasn’t as deliberate as I should’ve been,” Day said.
Someone’s telling him to slow down because it’s in his personal interest. But it’s just not in the interest of the game as a whole.
(It’s 10:51 p.m. The Orioles are coming up for their final crack.)
And so it is with baseball. The answer, for all the stuff that goes on in the brain, is to crack down on that dead time. If there are squirrels running around in your dome, maybe give them less space to roam by instituting a pitch clock. The suggestion is 20 seconds. But why not 18?
“Most of them, maybe 80 percent, would learn how to deal with that,” Maher said. “They’d have to learn it. There would be one-on-one discussions, discussions within a group. ‘How are we going to deal with that?’
“But until you tell them they can’t take the time, they’re going to keep doing it. They say, ‘Why not? Nobody’s telling me I can’t do it.’ ”
Least of all their sports psychologists and mental coaches, who are advising them specifically about what is right for them as individuals. But given all that we know about the physical elements that are affecting the way the game is played, we can’t discount the mental approach — how these guys are stepping out of the box and off the rubber, being mindful, accepting and committing, and taking their time because of it.
(It’s 10:59 p.m. The Orioles are still up.)
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.