Hump Day Hot Takes: Baseball’s apparent time problem

Trying to solve America’s pastime’s constant time crunch

Editor’s note: Welcome back to baseball week. First up was Editor in Chief Brendan Murray, with musings on Opening Day and an all-baseball themed Monday Morning Update, with Stat Tardiff hitting in the #2 slot with his hardball stats to watch.Timmy “Hot Takes” Culverhouse is unavoidably detained this week, so we’ll be sending up some pinch hitters to assume his Baseball Week duties, starting with the return of Brendan Murray with the Hump Day Hot Takes

In a big picture sense, baseball doesn’t have the round-the-calendar, constant attention the NFL generates. Sure, the media and fans will pour plenty of attention into off-season highlights like the Winter Meetings, but on the whole, it gets quiet in the Winter.

Except when it comes to how long the games last. If you’re a baseball fan, you know that baseball games are taking longer and that the league, in the name of either fans or advertisers, isn’t too happy about it. Generally, I think it’s much ado about nothing, rumors of baseball’s demise is greatly exaggerated, and a few other clichés that basically add up to say: this isn’t that big of a deal.

But it’s clear that this is going to be an issue, and steps are going to be made to fix it, whether I and other fans who agree with me like it or not. So let’s see if we can’t diagnose some of the steps commissioners Rob Manfred has taken so far, and what future changes could help speed up the game.

1. Walking, not running, towards change

We’ll start by taking a look at the latest effort to shave a few precious seconds off the average baseball game, the automatic intentional walk.Yes, as sad as it may be, America’s pastime is joining in the automation, taking precious throws away from pitchers in favor of a faster, more “friction free process.”

But in reality, this is about as small potatoes as rules changes get. Sure, some classicists were outraged at another step towards convenience and quickness by these damn youngsters, but on the whole, it’s pretty much a nonevent. This isn’t Bad News Bears, there is no long-haired maverick to smash a ball that catches too much of his swing arc, and yeah, it’s a way to reduce the time of the game without really changing how the game works or its basic strategy. As you’ll come to see, that’s a big one for me, so I should be all in favor of this.

But at the end of the day, it is such a half measure, that describing it that was is really an insult to more effective half-measures. There are no more than a handful of intentional passes handed out in any game, and it wasn’t like it was taking much time for a pitcher to lazily throw four pitches to his catcher. And this is my problem with Manfred and the league office when it comes to time changes.

I don’t think it’s necessary, but then again, I’m not all that smart. The league pays a lot of money to figure these things out, and if it thinks a change is needed, so be it. But if we’re going to do something, let’s go all the way with it. Right now, Manfred and Co. are just paying lip service to fans and other entities who want shorter games, but not taking any risks to actually address the issue.

It’s like the great Mike Ehrmantraut says, “no half measures.”

Speaking of which….

2. Messing with extra innings isn’t the answer

Let’s move from the change the league actually followed through on this year, to the one it just talked about.

As pitchers and catchers packed their bags and showed up to Arizona and Florida for spring training, we learned the league was considering adding a runner to second base at the start of each extra half-inning. The idea was that it would be that much more easy for teams to score, meaning more excitement for fans, and hopefully, quicker finishes for extended contests.

Like the new intentional walk rule, whether you like the idea of turning up the offense during extra innings (I for one, find it so gimmicky I can’t believe it wasn’t thought up by the WWE), it fails to address the real problem here.

The issue is not that extra inning games stretch on too long. Sure, that may be the case, but it isn’t the real problem. Even in 2013, when there was a new record set for free baseball, there were less than 240 extra inning games over the course of a season. That comes out to eight games per team over the course of a season, or just shy of 5 percent of a team’s 162 games.

Fixing 5 percent of games, which are also typically the most exciting games of the season, is not fixing the problem. It’s just another half-measure, designed to make the league seem like it’s concerned about the problem, while not making any substantial change to the length of games.

Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like this is going to come to fruition. But let’s cut the half-steps and make progress if progress is what we’re looking to make.

3. Is the DH the problem, or the solution? (Probably neither)

Okay, no more talk of baby steps the league has taken. We’ll move on to more impactful moves they could take. This would be a big one.

I’ve heard people on both sides of the DH argument say that their preferred lineup makeup helps speed games up, and that the opposing option only serves to slow the game down. DH die-hards say that the fewer substitutions lead to a quicker pace, and traditionalists in the NL say that giving hitters like David Ortiz more time to adjust themselves between every pitch and slowly plod the basepaths only serves to slow the game down.

But, unfortunately for both sides, it doesn’t seem like either extreme is the case. According to a study of the length of games in American and National League parks conducted by Carl Bialik for FiveThirtyEight.com two seasons ago found that when you eliminated for the outliers in each league, games in each park essentially lasted the same length of time, even if that seems counterintuitive to some fans.

Baseball should probably make up its mind about the great DH experiment one way or the other, and unite the two leagues under one rule. But don’t do it for the sake of time.

4. Finding a better way to change pitchers

When it comes to the lately increasing length of baseball games, the sport’s increasing specialization, especially on the pitcher’s mound and in the bullpen, is the most obvious, and probably biggest, factor.

The number of relief pitchers entering the game, and the amount of innings these pitchers throw, have both been on a steady rise since the mid-1960’s, as relievers have not only been introduced to mainstream teams, but have come to be perhaps the most important specialists in sports today. The number of pitchers that enter the game is by far the more important of these two metrics. The more pitching changes are made, the more time is taken to warm up the pitchers, stall until their ready to appear in the game, and then warm the up again once the manager takes the man on the mound out of the game.

And while many may wish we could, we can’t just limit how many pitchers managers have access to over the course of a game. There are too many variables to consider, from injuries to scheduling to even the length of a game or the score, and it would completely change how the game has been played for the length of its history.

But there is something that can be done these changes.

As someone pointed out on Reddit yesterday, and as we addressed above, it’s the things that accompany pitching changes that make them such unbearable time consumers. If the league could institute a rule that makes it so that relievers that enter mid-inning cannot warm up on the mound, or take no more than two or three pitches to adjust to the conditions of the specific mound, it would make a huge change.

If we force teams to fully warm up relievers in the bullpen and only allow for minimal time during the actual substitution, we could cut some serious commercial and other wasted time and get the game moving. Think about how fielders don’t get to field a handful of popups or grounders if a defensive swap is made, and how much smoother those transitions are.

Yes, any substitution is going to add time to a running clock. But baseball’s best answer to this time crunch may just be to reduce their impact.

5. Maybe the answer is earlier, not shorter

Even if baseball can find a way to cut commercial time between substitutions without infuriating sponsors or find other ways to up the pace without changing the fabric of the game, this problem isn’t going away.

Baseball is a slow, methodical game, with lots of situational strategy and tension constantly at work. Unless you fundamentally alter the way it’s played by instituting soccer-styled substitution limits or chopping off the 8th and 9th innings, it is going to be a more time-consuming sport. Some things are just the way the are.

So maybe the answer is just starting the games a bit earlier. I know, I sound like the old man telling everyone to get off his lawn, or the adult overly concerned with preserving the game “for the kids.” I’m aware that there are a host of reasons, mostly financial and marketing based, for why games start when they do, and that making the game shorter to appeal to advertisers runs counterintuitive to starting games outside or near the edge of primetime.

But at the end of the day, all we’re trying to do with any of these time-saving changes is get games to end earlier, and bring more eyes and fans to the sport. Particularly young ones. Moving the games earlier would both.

I don’t expect to see it happen. In fact, games will likely only start later and later, if trends continue. But if baseball is serious about making a change, this is one they should consider.

Brendan Murray is the founder of ChinMusicPod.com and is very glad that baseball is back, no matter how long the games last. Follow him on Twitter at @MurraySportTalk for more all baseball season long.

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