SABR

Antonacci and Rygelski: A proposal to improve baseball's pace

By Mark Antonacci and Jim Rygelski

From roughly the 1870s until the late 1950s, major league baseball was the most popular sport in the country and was truly the national pastime. Unfortunately, baseball has steadily declined in popularity since then. Sports with more frequent and overall action than baseball have clearly surpassed it in popularity.

The authors believe this is because baseball is perceived as a slow-moving game, whose pace lags not only behind that of other sports but the general pace of modern life. While a variety of changes have occurred within other games such as football and basketball that have added to their growing popularity by ostensibly making them faster games, surprisingly few changes have occurred in baseball in that regard since the 1920s.

In an attempt to improve the rhythm within baseball and put the ball in play more often, the authors propose a series of modifications to its present rules. These would be tested in various combinations during professional spring exhibition or fall training league games. The authors also propose that umpires start consistently enforcing current rules.

All of these recommendations are designed to allow more action to take place within baseball without changing its fundamental nature while enhancing its traditional appeal.1

We are not alone in our concern. Many writers have offered suggestions on speeding the pace of baseball. In October 2013, Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal proposed that batters not be permitted to leave the batter’s box during a time at bat lest he be given an automatic strike for doing so and that pitchers be given no more than seven seconds between pitches with no one on base or have a ball called on them for every violation. And in the November 4, 2013, Sports Illustrated, longtime baseball analyst Tom Verducci quotes sabermetrician Bill James as favoring limiting pitching changes within an inning to one per team.

The fundamental difference between baseball and all other major sports is that, in baseball, the defense controls the ball throughout the game. This occurs primarily through the actions of the pitcher.2

The only time the offense actually controls the ball is those moments when its batters strike the ball fair. The more frequent and numerous times this occurs during a game, the more interesting and exciting it will be, in general.

In further contrast, the offense in football, basketball, soccer and hockey have anywhere from five to 11 players in motion while it’s in control of the ball. This necessitates corresponding movement by the same number of defensive players, all of which provides constant action to the viewer. Inherently, baseball cannot match this constant motion and action. Worse yet, because of unnecessary delays within the game, baseball fans lack even the expectation of some kind of imminent action, which is so critical in maintaining one’s continual interest in any game. For example, it’s not at all unusual for 20-30 seconds to elapse just for a pitcher to throw a ball to the catcher while the eight other players on the field stand by and watch.

The recommendations to enforce the current rules and to test the proposed changes in experimental games are also attempts to eliminate many of baseball’s unnecessary delays and to give its fans the expectation of some imminent action even if, initially, it is only routine action.

One of the strengths of baseball is that the typical fan can actually follow it much easier than the sports noted above. It is hard to follow anywhere from 10-22 players on the field at any one time. Substitutions also occur frequently throughout football, basketball and hockey without the typical fan understanding all the reasons behind them. Offensive and defensive schemes are also quite complex with the typical fan not grasping most of their intricacies and details.

When played at a deliberate and continual speed on an elegant diamond-shaped field, baseball allows the typical fan to witness and relate to almost all the decisive moments and decisions within a game better than all the other sports above.

The enforcement of the present rules and the changes that we propose are also made in the hope that baseball will become more interesting and that fans, even the experienced, longtime variety, can even better relate to and follow all of its routine and critical moments.

*****

Proposed changes:

1. Enforce current MLB rules 6.02 (batter not stepping out of box or umpire not granting every batter’s request for time out) and 8.04 (pitcher to deliver pitch within 12 seconds when bases are empty).3

After 12 seconds without making a pitch, the home plate umpire could call an automatic ball against the offending pitcher. And, if this would eliminate a manager from calling every pitch from the dugout, so much the better.

We think home plate umpires give batters way too much leniency in not just stepping out of the batter’s box between pitches but also walking a considerable distance from it. The rules clearly allow the ump to tell the batter to stay close and allow the umpire to order the pitcher to deliver the ball to a stalling batter, calling a strike regardless of where it lands. We believe the batter, once he has stepped into the box, should be required to keep at least one foot in the batter’s box unless he has to move to avoid being hit by a pitch. Any batter who violated that rule would have a strike called against him.

Home plate umpires have also been too lenient in granting time out to a batter, particularly when a pitcher has started his windup. Media commentators who played at the major league level have noted the high risk of injury to pitchers who have to stop their motions to accommodate the late “time out” call. Likewise, the home plate umpire, by the rules, has the discretion of cracking down on a stalling pitcher.

We acknowledge that part of the solution of slow-paced games lies in the players themselves not unduly lengthening games by frequently stepping out of the batter’s box or taking excessive time between pitches. We wish players would self-police themselves while keeping in mind the fans’ need to see action. Nevertheless, players, like people in all professions, often need rules to prod them toward different conduct.

If the viewer at home or fan at the game knew that at least some and, perhaps, a lot of action would soon take place within the next 12 seconds, he could much more easily maintain his interest throughout every at bat of the game.

2. Limit number of times per inning and/or game pitcher can throw to a base to pick runner off.

Many oldsters remember the time Roger Craig of the New York Mets threw numerous times to first base in one inning to try to keep Los Angeles Dodgers speedster Maury Wills close during Wills’ record-breaking 1962 season. While nothing close to that has appeared to happen since, nevertheless some major league pitchers lengthen the game unnecessarily by needlessly throwing the first base.

MLB beginning with the 2013 season outlawed the phantom throw to third and quick throw to first, which had rarely, if ever, caught the runner at first napping but had needlessly prolonged the game. We’re not saying the pitcher shouldn’t be allowed to try to pick runners off, only that he be limited. Fans often boo – granted, they only boo the opposing team’s pitcher – when he makes what fans perceive as too many throws to first.

Fans would appreciate a limit on throws to first. It unnecessarily slows the game and often hurts a pitcher because a runner then is able to better size up a pitcher’s motion; Lou Brock said he wanted a pitcher to throw to first so he could better anticipate when he would pitch to the plate or throw to first.

If a pitcher exceeds the allowable number of throws to a base, the runner(s) would then advance a base.

3. Limit number of warm-up pitches within an inning.

Currently, a relief pitcher is allowed eight warm-up pitches on the mound when he relieves during an inning. (This is in addition to all the pitches he would already have made in the bullpen.) This is time consuming and can interrupt the interest and excitement of the fans, as it frequently occurs when the batting team is threatening to score or during a rally. We think eight is about three to five pitches too many, unless the relief pitcher is brought from the bullpen because of an injury to the pitcher who had been on the mound. Most relief pitchers, we feel, already come into the game with the proper amount of warm-ups and managers already wait for ready signals before bringing relievers into the game. In case this limitation could lead to injuries, we recommend it be tested experimentally first in exhibition and training-league games.

4. Limit number of pitching changes within an inning.

Pitching changes within an inning are very time consuming and often occur in the midst of a game’s more interesting and tense moments. Two or three pitching changes within one game used to be rare. Now, two and even three pitching changes are not uncommon within one inning. (Jim Leyland of the Tigers used four pitchers in the ill-fated eighth inning of the second game of the 2013 ALCS). These time consuming, commercial mandating interruptions lose the viewers’ interest and are even more harmful while watching a game on television.

We aren’t against a manager changing pitchers between innings or pinch hitting for his pitcher, but we think that pitching changes during an inning need to be limited for the good of the game. We recognize that pitching changes with corresponding pinch hitters are things that fans like to anticipate and relate to. Yet, these particular ways of relating to the game will still be present under our recommendations or proposals. However, by the second or third pitching change within an inning, the enjoyment of anticipating the new pitcher or pinch hitter has dissipated along with the fans’ interest and excitement. We think that fans would understand and relate throughout the game to this new managerial dilemma whenever considering the question whether a pitcher should be replaced during an inning.

We recommend limiting pitching changes to one within each inning except in the case of injury. Baseball already has a rule limiting pitching changes: managers cannot replace a pitcher who has not faced at least one batter.

5. Experiment with giving batter a base on balls after three rather than four balls.

While reducing the basis for walks from four balls to three would be the most controversial proposal, it could be the most critical one.4

On every pitch, fans could have an increased anticipation of on-field action, which baseball clearly lacks as compared to other sports. Giving a batter first base after three balls would minimize the pitcher’s advantage in pitching around the batter, which now occurs whenever the count is even or the pitcher is ahead in the count. In other words, it now occurs for most of the pitches for every at bat. This slows the game more than any one factor and stifles its action. We would hope this rule change might result in more thrown strikes and, thus, more hitting, running, fielding and throwing.5

We realize this could be a major change to the game; however, one should remember that MLB existed for 13 years with a variety of balls needed for a walk, from nine in 1876 until the current four was set in 1889. Also, in 1887 MLB gave the batter four strikes before reverting to three strikes in 1888. The foul strike rule on the first two strikes was instituted in 1900 to prevent some batters from continuously fouling off pitches – which didn’t count for anything until 1900 – as a way of coaxing a walk or a good pitch to hit.

We acknowledge this proposal could result in too much action and lengthen games, so it should be tested extensively in experimental games. (Three balls and two strikes could be tried experimentally, as well as three balls and three strikes. Because either three ball proposal would make at-bats go quicker, in this sense they would also shorten the length of the game.) We hope, on balance, that our other proposals to speed up the game more than compensate for any lengthening this particular proposal might cause from additional action in the game. Coupled with proposal seven below, expanding the strike zone to its traditional margins, this proposal could improve the game while making it more interesting. Proposals five and seven should be tested together in experimental games.

We also acknowledge that this proposal could affect MLB’s various single-season and lifetime records and rankings. All changes in all sports, including baseball, have had this effect. We don’t think that proposals five and seven would affect these records and rankings as much as steroids and HGH have already affected them. The use of steroids and HGH has greatly skewed many of MLB’s records, rankings and its most prestigious awards.

Proposal five probably should not be tried below the collegiate level due to the control skills pitchers will be required to possess. Perhaps these control skills will only be present at major and/or minor league levels. Then again, proposal five may be just the thing that college baseball needs to liven up its game. This and other proposals might enliven the game at the collegiate level better than aluminum bats.

6. Experiment with extending pitching distance three feet to 63.5 feet.

Think about how much pitching has changed since the present distance of 60 feet, 6 inches was established in 1893. Not only is the ball wound tighter and manufactured much better than in 1893, but it is also capable of moving faster and darting more. Ninety to 95 mph fastballs are now routine and almost everyone on the current 12-man pitching staffs not only can throw hard but is much fresher when pitching to batters. Batters now have to start their swings as soon as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand.

In order to help correct imbalances between pitchers and catchers in the past, the mound was moved back from 45 to 50 feet before the present 60 feet, 6 inches was adopted. This was the same reason the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches in 1969. Moving the mound back a few feet is consistent with baseball’s past. We originally recommended a distance of about 65 feet; however, putting the pitching distance at 63 feet, 6 inches would place the mound about halfway between home and second, and midway between first and third (since the distance from home to second and from first to third is 127 feet, 3 inches.) This would make the elegant diamond shaped field line up even more geometrically.

Again, like proposal five, the extended distance should be tried in a purely experimental format at only professional or possibly collegiate levels. We wouldn’t want to see pitchers hurt while trying to throw from three feet farther back.

7. Expand strike zone to the 1950-1962 and 1969-1987 boundaries: “between the batter’s armpits and top of his knees when he assumes his natural stance” and require umpires to enforce that zone.

No one complained that the strike zone was too big in the 1950s, when strikeouts occurred much less than today. Expanding it to those dimensions might at first lead to a plethora of strikeouts, but we think batters would eventually adjust and go to the plate with the idea of hitting and not just running up the count because the pitcher has to thread a needle to get a strike with the current strike-zone dimensions and attitudes by umpires.

We think the “traditional” strike zone appears much more natural and fair to the typical fan. Since the batters’ arms are obviously attached at his shoulders, why can’t he be expected to swing at a pitch between his armpits and the top of his knees? Furthermore, fans can much better understand and relate to the traditional strike zone than the current convoluted one below:

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

Contrast that with the definition of the strike zone from the 1959 Sporting News Baseball Guide and Record Book:

The STRIKE ZONE is that space over home plate which is between the batter’s arm-pits and the top of his knees when he assumes his natural stance.

In the late 1980s Major League Baseball wanted to infuse more offense, so it shrunk the strike zone. Complementing that were two strategy moves: managers and pitching coaches started using pitch counts to determine how deep into the game starting pitchers would last while also developing specialized relievers (seventh-inning hold specialists, eighth-inning setup men, ninth-inning closers); the former led to long counts as batters took pitches in an attempt to get the starter out of the game and force the opponent to go its bullpen early while the latter saw numerous late-inning pitching changes. Pitching always catches up to hitting, and this attempt to add offense has actually resulted twenty-five years later in longer, pitching-dominated games.

*****

This paper has been confined to changes that could be made to the game of baseball itself. We recognize that its need for more action and rhythm are more apparent on televised games. We don’t enjoy the expanded commercial time of approximately two and a half minutes between every half inning now built into televised MLB games. The length and frequency of commercials on television are beyond our proposals. This problem is present in all televised sports and in all of television and other media. Since nearly all MLB games are now televised, we recognize that television is an enormous and growing source of revenue for MLB.6

In all of these proposals, we hope that fans would better relate to and follow a baseball game that would now contain more frequent and overall action. We hope that fans would also have an expectation of imminent action between pitches and during all at bats. We don’t offer these proposals as the only things that can be done, but as a starting point for discussion on ways to improve the rhythm and pace of the game; and to stop baseball’s decline in popularity while enhancing its appeal to all audiences.

Our proposals could be all wrong. What might seem good in theory may not work in practice, and what might seem questionable in theory may work well in practice. So, these and all other proposals should be extensively tested individually and in various combinations.

In addition to testing these changes at spring exhibition or fall training league games, they could possibly be tested in some winter league or certain minor league games where such experimental proposals are announced to the fans ahead of time. They could also be tested in this fashion at the collegiate level and even in MLB games in September between two teams that have been mathematically eliminated from post-season play.

MARK ANTONACCI is a SABR member who practices law in Eureka, Missouri. He authored "The Resurrection of the Shroud" (New York: M. Evans & Co., 2000) and is writing another book on the Shroud of Turin that will be published in 2014.

JIM RYGELSKI of St. Louis is a longtime SABR member of co-author of two books on baseball history, "The I-55 Series: Cubs vs. Cardinals" (with George Castle, 1999) and "10 Rings: Stories of the St. Louis Cardinals' World Championships" (with Robert L. Tiemann, 2011.)

 

Photo credits

Courtesy of Mathis-Jones Communications, LLC

  • 1. This article has been expanded from a presentation by the authors at the November 19, 2012, Bob Broeg SABR Chapter meeting in St. Louis. The authors have a combined century of watching baseball games.
  • 2. The only possible exception to this is cricket; however, since the ball is bounced to the batsman in the game of cricket, the batting team essentially controls the ball, at least, much more so than does the defending team.
  • 3. Batting rules:
    6.02
    (a) The batter shall take his position in the batter’s box promptly when it is his time at bat.
    (b) The batter shall not leave his position in the batter’s box after the pitcher comes to Set Position, or starts his windup.
    PENALTY: If the pitcher pitches, the umpire shall call “Ball” or “Strike,” as the case may be.
    Rule 6.02(b) Comment: The batter leaves the batter’s box at the risk of having a strike delivered and called, unless he requests the umpire to call “Time.” The batter is not at liberty to step in and out of the batter’s box at will. Once a batter has taken his position in the batter’s box, he shall not be permitted to step out of the batter’s box in order to use the resin or the pine tar rag, unless there is a delay in the game action or, in the judgment of the umpires, weather conditions warrant an exception. Umpires will not call “Time” at the request of the batter or any member of his team once the pitcher has started his windup or has come to a set position even though the batter claims “dust in his eyes,” “steamed glasses,” “didn’t get the sign” or for any other cause. Umpires may grant a hitter’s request for “Time” once he is in the batter’s box, but the umpire should eliminate hitters walking out of the batter’s box without reason. If umpires are not lenient batters will understand that they are in the batter’s box and they must remain there until the ball is pitched. See Rule 6.02(d).
    The following two paragraphs are additional material for Rule 6.02(b) Comment, for Major League play only: If pitcher delays once the batter is in his box and the umpire feels that the delay is not justified he may allow the batter to step out of the box momentarily. If after the pitcher starts his windup or comes to a “set position” with a runner on, he does not go through with his pitch because the batter has stepped out of the box, it shall not be called a balk. 

    Pitching rules:
    8.04
    When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call ”Ball.”

    Rule 8.02 to 8.04
    The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.

  • 4. This proposal and the idea to test all proposals in experimental games were given to us by Mike Antonacci.
  • 5. We realize this would result in fewer low scoring pitchers’ duels, but they might be more appreciated when they do occur.
  • 6. Not all decisions, however, such as the length and number of commercials, or playing World Series games in unseasonable weather at night in late October or early November, should be based on the maximum profit that can be acquired in the short term. Any decisions that are good for the game of baseball in the long term, we hope will also be perceived as good for MLB.

This page was last updated December 17, 2013 at 12:58 pm MST.

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