Shorter base­ball games? Not yet

In the early go­ing, in fact, games are last­ing 5 min­utes longer than last year

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - DAVID LEN­NON Newsday

Be­fore we take another deep dive into the seem­ingly bot­tom­less de­bate over the length of a Ma­jor League Base­ball game, let’s get some­thing out of the way right off the top.

The four-pitch in­ten­tional walk, ter­mi­nated for the start of the 2017 sea­son, was an un­nec­es­sary scape­goat of this dis­cus­sion. Through Fri­day, there had been 55 of the new abridged freebies, sav­ing 220 pitches over­all and roughly 36 min­utes — to­tal — over two weeks. The cost has been adding some weirdly dis­ori­en­tat­ing mo­ments, along with re­mov­ing a ba­sic el­e­ment of the sport it­self. “I think that’s the worst thing that’s ever been done,” New York Yan­kees re­liever Tyler Clip­pard said.

So what was the re­sult of all that pitch trim­ming? After the first 119 games, a vir­tual toe-dip into the more than 2,000 played each sea­son, the length of a nine-in­ning game has ac­tu­ally jumped to three hours, five min­utes and 45 sec­onds, ac­cord­ing to early data pro­vided by MLB.

That’s more than a five-minute in­crease from last sea­son (3:00:42) and al­most 10 min­utes from 2015 (2:56:14). Com­pare that with the decade-low mark of 2:50:38, es­tab­lished in ’08, and MLB ap­pears to be go­ing back­ward.

To some de­gree, it’s a cost of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment. The ex­pan­sion of video re­play — de­scrib­ing the la­bo­ri­ous process as “in­stant” doesn’t re­ally fit — def­i­nitely has caused a drag and this sea­son, for what­ever rea­son, has felt es­pe­cially painful early on. The con­cept be­hind video re­play is sound: to get calls right. But the ma­chin­ery has mu­tated into a pace-suck­ing mon­ster, mak­ing us think that it could soon be time to pull back the reins.

When then-com­mis­sioner Bud Selig first set the plan in mo­tion, the idea was to pre­vent con­tro­ver­sial, game-chang­ing calls from tak­ing at­ten­tion away from the en­ter­tain­ment prod­uct on the field. It’s a noble cause, and was worth­while pur­su­ing. But, to now rou­tinely chal­lenge a bang-bang, 6-3 put-out in the first in­ning, freez­ing the game be­fore it barely gets started isn’t ben­e­fi­cial to any­one.

Bet­ter to en­dure a 3½-hour con­test than be sub­jected to the choppy gaps of in­ac­tiv­ity these types of re­plays are pro­duc­ing. Ob­vi­ously, there is an up­side, es­pe­cially with ques­tion­able home runs and plays at the plate. But is the pro­lif­er­a­tion of re­play ac­tu­ally good for the sport? Through the first 130 games, 91 plays had been re­viewed, with 42 (or 46.2 per cent) be­ing over­turned.

Ac­cord­ing to MLB, the aver­age time of a video re­view is 1:36. Maybe less time than it takes to neatly fill out a score­card, de­pend­ing on the qual­ity of your hand­writ­ing.

So what’s been the holdup over­all? The big­gest cul­prit doesn’t take many guesses: the be­tween-in­ning com­mer­cial breaks. For a closer ex­am­i­na­tion, we con­ducted our own non-sci­en­tific study in­volv­ing Thurs­day night’s game be­tween the Yan­kees and the Tampa Bay Rays. With the help of a DVR, we kept track of the game ac­tion, then fast­for­warded through the com­mer­cials, which of course are aired ev­ery half-in­ning.

The of­fi­cial time of Thurs­day’s game was two hours and 59 min­utes — fairly brisk by to­day’s stan­dards. It was low-scor­ing, with the Yan­kees win­ning, 3-2, and also en­ter­tain­ing. Luis Sev­erino struck out 11 in seven in­nings, and the Yan­kees needed only two re­liev­ers, Dellin Be­tances and Aroldis Chap­man, so it fea­tured rel­a­tively few pitch­ing changes.

And, of those nearly three hours, how much base­ball did you ac­tu­ally see dur­ing the YES broad­cast?

A lit­tle more than two hours. By our stop­watch cal­cu­la­tions, it was 2:09, mean­ing roughly one-third of the en­tire broad­cast was spent air­ing com­mer­cials. That’s the re­al­ity of pro­fes­sional sports — it’s a busi­ness en­ter­prise, de­signed to pro­duce rev­enue, so show­ing ads is as much a part of any game as balls and strikes. Dur­ing Thurs­day’s broad­cast, there were 18 com­mer­cial breaks — so six per hour — which in­cluded two that oc­curred for a pair of Rays’ mound vis­its and pitch­ing changes.

Shav­ing even sec­onds from that time is prob­a­bly fan­tasy, but maybe it’s not as out­landish as pre­vi­ously thought. Na­tional Football League com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell sug­gested last month that cutting down the length and fre­quency of TV com­mer­cials was some­thing that would be talked about in their own pace-of-game dis­cus­sions. You can bet the NFL will come up with other rev­enue streams to make up for those fi­nan­cial sac­ri­fices — if they in­deed come to pass — but it doesn’t sound like MLB is pre­pared to take such dras­tic steps.

Not be­fore try­ing other meth­ods first. Things get com­pli­cated, how­ever, when those ideas af­fect how the game is played. Any sig­nif­i­cant changes — such as a pitch clock — ini­tially must be ne­go­ti­ated be­tween MLB and the play­ers as­so­ci­a­tion, but the only one agreed on for this sea­son was the no-pitch in­ten­tional walk, which has proven merely cos­metic. For 2018, com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred could im­ple­ment changes on his own, after giv­ing the union a heads-up one year in ad­vance, as col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment pro­vi­sions have al­lowed the com­mis­sioner to do. In the past, MLB has avoided such uni­lat­eral moves, pre­fer­ring to work diplo­mat­i­cally with the union.

A 20-se­cond pitch clock has been de­ployed in the mi­nor leagues, so base­ball is past the beta-test­ing phase. But could other al­ready-ex­ist­ing mea­sures work if prop­erly en­forced? One ex­am­ple is hit­ters keep­ing at least one foot in the bat­ter’s box, as Rule 6.02 (d) dic­tates, but MLB has wa­vered on policing.

Chase Headley said Thurs­day the com­mis­sioner’s of­fice still sends out let­ters to play­ers who break the rule, but had not heard of any­one be­ing fined lately for the of­fence. Some flaunt the rule more egre­giously. The Rays’ Evan Lon­go­ria, a 10-year vet­eran, rarely moves as much as a toe out­side the box, firmly plant­ing both feet through­out the at-bat. Yet oth­ers feel the oc­ca­sional pauses are nec­es­sary.

“I might step out to col­lect my thoughts, maybe after a bad pitch or some­thing,” Headley said. “Frankly, I don’t think it has a lot to do with hold­ing up the game.”

That mind­set could be gen­er­a­tional, as MLB has been more proac­tive in re­cent years about keep­ing play­ers in the bat­ter’s box by pound­ing that con­cept in the mi­nors. Aaron Judge, 23, has been groomed by that pro­to­col dur­ing his rise in the Yan­kees’ or­ga­ni­za­tion, and he said the um­pires down there dili­gently re­minded him when step­ping to the plate. He pretty much stays put in the ma­jors.

“They were try­ing to brain­wash us,” Judge said, smil­ing. “So I never knew any dif­fer­ent.”

Are games too long? De­pends who you ask. But this year they are longer, so the de­bate won’t be go­ing away any time soon.

“Base­ball has been around for more than 100 years,” Clip­pard said. “It’s a three-hour game. Some­times it’s 2:15. Things hap­pen. You can try to change all the rules, but it’s never go­ing to be per­fect. And there’s noth­ing wrong with that.”


Stephen Stras­burg of the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als pitches against the Philadel­phia Phillies on Fri­day. Games, so far in 2017, are av­er­ag­ing five min­utes more than last sea­son.

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