CHARLOTTE, NC. For diehard fans, one of the endearing things about Major League Baseball is that its rules remained basically the same for more than a century. True, safety features improved. These included requiring batters to wear helmets with a flap covering the side of the head facing the pitcher. Yet the actual rules of play remained pretty much just as they had been for decades. For the purist, there was something comforting in the knowledge that the game he grew up watching as a child remains largely the same now as it was then. But fans today looking for more action wonder if Major League Baseball is floundering in a speed trap.
Major League Baseball today: Entering a speed trap?
True, over professional baseball’s plus-100 year span, Major League Baseball (MLB) lowered the pitching mound and added the designated hitter in one league. But until recently, those stood out as the most significant alterations in the sport.
With the advent of free agency, however, salaries and costs skyrocketed. One result: Teams regard it more important than ever before to protect players from serious injury. In return, this lessens the chance of suffering career-ending injuries that could destroy an owner’s investment. Not to mention a player’s career.
Today, with those additional factors in play, the rules are evolving. Again.
Social media, ads and rules, rules, rules
Add in the mix a brave new world of instantaneous global communications. Throw in social media and five or six second sound-bites in television newscasts. And all of a sudden, baseball finds itself feeling like a snail in a race that includes a hare and a tortoise.
Baseball today swims in a world of specialization. Player hierarchies include closers, set-up pitchers, middle relievers, long relievers and starters. Coaches routinely limit the latter to some mysterious magic number of 100 pitches. Then they call in a reliever.
We also watch major shifts on the infield. We’re talking about rules against sliding to break up double plays or bowling over a catcher on a play at the plate. Oh, and no more “phantom” touches at second base. But despite these adjustments meant to speed things up, games still take an average of about three hours to play.
Given all its major adjustments, the sport evolved into today’s three-way contest of wallops, whiffs and walks.
To say that baseball’s powers-that-be are concerned about this is an understatement. That’s because, after more than a century of continuity, today’s mantras are today’s Big Three.
- Speed up the game
- Change the rules
- Fix baseball
One minor league, the Atlantic League, even became a working “laboratory” for baseball innovations.
In essence the Atlantic League’s players are guinea pigs for testing ideas designed to update baseball for the 21st century. Most rule changes hide under the guise of streamlining the game. But some ideas exist purely as science fiction.
So far the list includes ideas like these
- Having a time clock between pitches
- Using larger bases
- Minimizing mound visits
- Stealing first base
- Making relievers face a minimum number of batters
- Starting extra innings games with a runner on base
- Pitchers must step off the rubber to attempt a pickoff
- Batters are allowed one foul bunt with two strikes
- No infield shifting
- Making checked swings more “batter friendly”
- Using computer technology for balls and strikes
“Speed up” ideas in practice. Success, or failure?
Some of these “speed up” ideas have been tried in several leagues, such as limiting a pitcher to 20 seconds between pitches. But thus far, even with the clock, games contine to last three hours on average. One reason is due to the arbitrary manner in which the clock stops and starts. Another involves a pitcher’s efficiency. A pitcher who throws strikes will almost always tally lower pitch counts and, therefore, cause faster games.
But thus far, no amount of tinkering by the baseball gods will likely change that or speed up the game.
Some brighter ideas?
How about this? Making the bases larger may give slower runners a slightly better chance to be called safe on a close play or give a base runner more opportunity to beat a throw on a steal. But overall it should not alter the dynamics significantly. In other words, why bother?
Stealing first base would likely spice up a game now and then. As currently outlined, a batter could run at any time in the count when a ball gets past the catcher. More fun to watch perhaps, but it won’t make games any quicker.
Infield shifts are the result of technology run amok. If a ball player can command multi-million dollar contracts and/or spray a pitch all over the park as the analysts would have us believe, then surely they should be able to have enough bat control to hit, or bunt, to the opposite field away from the shift.
Here’s a better idea, ban computers and “cheat-sheets” from dugouts and make managers and players memorize hitting trends and tendencies like they did in the old days.
One experiment that is definitely on the horizon is automated ball / strike calls behind the plate. That one is a sure thing once the technology able to take over seamlessly.
But how do we make games faster?
As for making games go faster Major League Baseball has yet to find a truly viable solution. Pitchers themselves actually control the pace of a game. No clock can change that unless umpires strictly enforce the rule. Batters fouling off multiple pitches only lengthens games while driving up pitch counts. That, in turn, leads to more calls to the bull pen. The end result: longer games.
If Major League Baseball is serious about making games shorter, why not teach those millionaire athletes to return to playing baseball by embracing every facet of the sport. We’re talking about stealing bases, planning hit and run plays, and forcing squeeze plays for starters. And how about sacrifice bunts or just putting the ball in play once in while instead of striking out.
If MLB pushed players to get back to the baseball basics, fans would again enjoy more action on the field. And, with plenty of activity to watch on the field, the length of the games may not matter as much.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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