MLB: How the League Is Testing Out Pace of Game

Major League Baseball is continuing its efforts to improve the game of baseball and make it more enjoyable for the fan. Through the Arizona Fall League, MLB has created experimental rules to test out before applying them to the major league level.

One of the main experimental rules MLB is tinkering with is what they call pace of game.  The idea is to implement play clocks during the game to speed up the time of a contest. It has been a complaint of most fans that games are too long, or they cannot keep their interest because they become boring. MLB’s hope is that these clocks will make games quicker and more enjoyable for the fans.

“In the majors, games are usually going to last around three hours, but these [AFL games] were finishing up in two and a half hours,” avid AFL fan Nicholas Badders said. “The clocks and rules make a significant difference.”

The steps MLB has already taken to improve pace of game have come with inconsistent results. The first MLB-implemented pace of game rules were introduced in 2015. There was a clock installed for warmups between innings ranging from two and half minutes to two minutes based on whether or not it was a local or national TV broadcast.

According to a FOX Sports article, MLB saw great results in 2015. Games were shortened by 12 minutes with an average game time of two hours and 56 minutes. It looked like the era of the three-hour ballgame was finally over. But the following year, the opposite happened. The game speed did not decrease again, but rather increased to three hours and 26 seconds.

However, with the new rules MLB is considering, fans could see a major difference. One of the biggest experiments is the pitch clock. The pitcher is given 20 seconds to pitch the ball once it is back in his hands. If he does not begin his motion within the time, an automatic “ball” will be called.  This rule could possibly shave the most time off games. During this time, the batter cannot step out of the box, and if he does, the pitcher can throw the ball.

According to the Arizona Fall League media guide, other rules include a no-pitch intentional walk, a pitching change clock, and a three “timeout” limit. With these rules intact, the AFL has seen a consistent decrease in times of games. From 2013 to 2014, games decreased by over 10 minutes, and have continued to do so since then.

Observations

MLB.com reporter Jim Callis covered many games in the AFL during the 2016 season. He could certainly sense a difference in the games.

“The AFL games definitely have a quicker pace of play compared to big league contests,” Callis said. “There’s less dawdling between pitches, shorter breaks between innings. It’s refreshing to watch.”

MLB has seen a major dip in television ratings in recent years, and it’s no surprise that more Americans are becoming loyal to the fast-paced games of hockey and basketball. MLB games are on average 20 minutes longer than NHL games and 40 minutes longer than NBA games.

With new rules and infractions, players must adjust to the quickened style of play. For some players, it may be easy to quickly adjust while others may have a tougher time picking it up. A Cincinnati Reds minor leaguer isn’t sweating the possible changes at the major league level.

“I don’t really think that these potential rules are going to change the game that much,” he said. “When you’re out on the field or in the batter’s box, there are so many things that are constantly flying through your head. The last thing I would think of is pace of game. It really shouldn’t be that much of a distraction.”

Difficulty for pitchers

While the minor leaguer, a fielder and batter, does not feel that there will be difficulty adjusting, pitchers might find it to be tougher. After all, they are required to now warm up more quickly, have fewer timeouts, get their signs and deliver their pitchers in a quicker manner.

The sports statistics website FanGraphs created a stat that recorded “pace.” Pace is the measurement of seconds between pitches for both batters and hitters. In the last 10 years, the slowest pace time for a pitcher was 31.9 seconds. The time belonged to Rafael Betancourt of the Cleveland Indians in 2007. That’s close to 12 seconds over the new potential rule time.

Team averages have been better, but have still edged the 20 seconds the MLB will give, if the rule eventually is brought to the major league level. The Boston Red Sox own the slowest pace over a 10-year span, allowing 23.7 seconds between pitches. The fastest pace team in that same time period is the Chicago White Sox, allowing just 20.9 seconds between pitches.

For players who have been taught to take time between pitches, this rule change could prove detrimental to their mindset and routine. University of New Orleans freshman pitcher Chris Demayo doesn’t like the prospect of these new rules.

“I personally don’t believe that 20 seconds is enough time,” Demayo said. “There are so many things that could go wrong. A missed sign could result in an automatic ball, and that’s not fair. It gives an advantage to the batter who can stay more focused between pitches. For a pitcher, you’re now going through a full routine while worrying about a clock, and the hitter gets to just stand in there and wait for the next pitch.”

Nov 5, 2016; Surprise, AZ, USA; Detailed view of an electronic pitch/pace of play clock in use during the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars game at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the batter’s favor

Another advantage the batter will have is the automatic ball consequence. If the count is 3-2 and the pitcher takes longer than 20 seconds, the batter will be rewarded with a base on balls. Can you imagine if this happened in a game like the World Series? Or if this occurred in a situation that cost a team the game?

Pitchers will have to become more mentally tough and learn to let it go if they are beaten by the clock. The AFL is the perfect place for players to get used to the new rules and adjust appropriately.

“I’ve seen a couple of times where balls have been called because pitchers took too long before delivering the ball,” Callis said. “I can remember maybe one time where a pitcher seemed rattled by it. But for the most part, pitchers and hitters seem to adjust to the clock rules pretty quickly.”

Something MLB must look into is whether or not saving minutes from a game will entice fans to watch baseball. There are a couple different ways of looking at it. If MLB is saving close to 10 minutes a game and a fan watches all 162 games, they are saving 1,620 minutes or 27 hours, a full day saved.

Will it make a difference?

But does the average fan, who doesn’t watch all 162 games, care if a game is 10 or so minutes longer? In the long run, will 10 minutes a game bring in more viewers if the results are inconsistent? The new rule change could even alienate some of its most loyal fans.

“Every aspect of our lives is regulated by a clock,” former baseball writer for the Detroit Free Press John Lowe said. “In baseball, it doesn’t matter what time it is. The most appealing part of baseball is that it is timeless, a clock can’t determine the outcome of the game in the ninth inning.”

While MLB must compete with the NBA, NHL and NFL, it is harder to argue the case for fans tuning in for an entire baseball game. Baseball has a longer season than any other professional sport – there are 162 games. While an NFL game, on average, is longer than an MLB game, an NFL team plays just once a week.

MLB’s initiative is something that fans like to see. While some will argue that the league can improve the game in other aspects such as replay or the designated hitter position, the new rules have shown promise in shortening the times of games.

“It’s all about bringing in new fans,” Badders said. “If we can’t have a World Series game every day, finding ways to get and keep new fans interested is a smart move.”